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'Dream has come true' for PSO's assistant conductor

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
New PSO assistant conductor Fawzi Haimor with his wife Houda and 17-month-old daughter Aleena in their Upper St. Clair home Monday, November 26, 2012. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
The Pittsburgh Symphony staff conductor Fawzi Haimor leads the orchestra during a performance at Heinz Hall on Thursday evening, November 15, 2012. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Fawzi Haimor playing violin in his school orchestra in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 13, 1989. Submitted
Fawzi Haimor with his parents as a boy in Saudi Arabia. Submitted
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The Pittsburgh Symphony staff conductor Fawzi Haimor leads the orchestra during a performance at Heinz Hall on Thursday evening, November 15, 2012. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
New PSO assistant conductor Fawzi Haimor in his Upper St. Clair home Monday, November 26, 2012. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
New PSO assistant conductor Fawzi Haimor in his Upper St. Clair home Monday, November 26, 2012. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

In 2005, while a pre-med and music student in college, Fawzi Haimor heard the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the first time. Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra that night in a concert at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, Calif. The program included Igor Stravinsky's “Pulcinella” Suite and Jan Sibelius' Symphony No. 5.

“After that concert, I walked out of the hall mesmerized, blown away by the level of Pittsburgh Symphony,” says Haimor. “I told my friend that I would like to work with this orchestra.”

“Yeah man, that's not going to happen,” was the reply.

Now assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with his first set of Pops concerts under his belt, Haimor says, “It was an honest dream to have. But how many people can say such a dream has come true?”

To win the job, Haimor, 29, went through the symphony's four-part audition process, which took place at Heinz Hall just before Thanksgiving 2011. He chose to conduct part of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, led a required movement from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” showed accompaniment skills by leading the orchestra with concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley playing a virtuoso piece, and conducted an arrangement of “West Side Story” after only three hours to learn the score.

“To have an opportunity to work with this organization, to be part of the family, to learn from the orchestra and Honeck, is really something. So many people would like to be in my shoes, and I don't take it for granted,” he says. “As a conductor, you learn so much faster if the orchestra is good, and we have one of the best.”

His responsibilities include some educational, outreach and Pops concerts, along with pre-concert talks and working on the concert recordings which will be broadcast on the radio. He and resident conductor Lawrence Loh alternate as cover conductors for guest conductors, but both are on duty when Manfred Honeck is on the podium.

Moving to Pittsburgh was serendipitous in another way. His wife, Houda, had been studying interior design online at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and will finish her degree in 2013. They live in Upper St. Clair with their 18-month old daughter, Aleena.

“I hardly look at it as being married to a conductor because, at home, our life is so centered around our family,” she says. “We talk about when we're going to take Aleena to the playground next. Of course, when I see him on stage, I'm really proud of him.”

Haimor was born in Chicago but raised for most of his first 11 years in Saudi Arabia, where his economist father, Said Haimor, worked for the United Nations. The future conductor attended an international school based on American education in Riyadh, which made for an easy transition when he returned each summer to the States.

As a boy, Haimor was fascinated by science and music.

“I couldn't live without one or the other,” he says. “Science was the only thing other than violin I ever saw myself doing. My birthday wishes, when blowing out the candles, were to become a doctor.”

Haimor began violin lessons at 4 thanks to his mother, Evelyn, who taught nursing in Saudi Arabia and now is a registered nurse and teacher at the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., which is affiliated with Stanford University. She had been talking with another mother in Saudi Arabia and both decided their children should be informed about music.

“Fawzi showed interest in the violin, and we kept going and going. We didn't want anything to curtail what he wanted,” she says.

Music increasingly influenced his life. He was principal second violin in his high-school orchestra and was invited by his teacher to conduct a piece he had written. As an undergraduate at UC Davis, he found studying science and music were complementary.

“When you get tired of studying organic chemistry, and the reactions take forever to memorize, practicing violin and going to rehearsal uses other parts of the brain and makes it stronger. It worked well for me. I loved them both,” he says. “They have a direct relationship with each other. The official title of my other undergraduate degree is in neurobiology, physiology and behavior.”

After Haimor completed college, he told his father he really wanted to be a conductor. Although the plan had been for him to be a doctor, his parents were completely supportive.

“For his mom, this was something normal,” his dad recalls. “I said, if this is what you really want, I'm behind you all the way, as long as you think it's best for you. You don't want to wake up one day saying, ‘I should be doing something else.' ... We are absolutely certain that he made the right career choice, and we are very proud of him.”

Said Haimor then started educating himself about classical music, using his son's books on the history of music and source materials. He was amazed at how much he enjoyed it all.

Fawzi Haimor completed two masters' degrees in conducting, the second at the famed Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, where David Effron was one of his teachers.

“Fawzi has a terrific positive personality and attitude, one of the great qualifications one needs to be an assistant conductor,” Effron says. “He's very musical. When he came to us, he didn't have a lot of experience, but he grew a tremendous amount during the time he was here. He has a terrific work ethic. He is in the perfect position to begin a career that will stretch for many, many years.”

As a boy, Haimor never thought about how unusual it was to be a Muslim playing classical music. But when he played in the United States, he says, “I never did come across any other Muslims, maybe one or two, but not often. But the thing is, that's something I'd like to change.”

Naturally, he admires conductor Daniel Barenboim's work leading West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is made up of Arabs and Israelis. Barenboim founded it in 1999 with Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said to promote understanding and contribute to a resolution of Arab-Israeli conflict.

When Haimor conducted the Aman Orchestra in Jordan in February 2010, he found musicians from the United States, Europe and the Middle East working comfortably together.

“This is where music is the language of peace,” he says. “We were playing together. No conflict. I saw two women, stand partners, one wearing a hijab, the Muslim head scarf, the other not. They're very good friends. We were there to do the same thing, to make music. It's guaranteed this is the language of heaven.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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