Optimism and Artistry in Uncertain Times

A profile of Greensburg native Mary Persin, the Vice President of Artistic Planning at the PSO

by Max Blair

As a young music student growing up in Portland, I attended the Oregon Symphony’s concerts every weekend. I remember anxiously waiting every spring for the new season to be announced; at that time every piece was new to me, so I would devour the upcoming year’s brochure and explore through recordings and scores pieces that I’d never heard before. What I didn’t know as a young musician was how much work goes into designing, planning, and executing a symphony orchestra’s season. That there was a person responsible for programming all these great works, exposing the audience to new compositions, and showcasing great soloists was completely lost on me. As a member of the PSO, I’ve learned about how much work goes into this process, who pulls the levers behind the scenes to make it happen, and the extraordinary woman in charge of making each season meaningful and rewarding. Her name is Mary Persin and she is the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Vice President of Artistic Planning. 

Many readers will remember when Mary, during the applause after a lively Sunday matinee performance of Mahler 1, came on stage to announce that the PSO had just won two Grammy awards for our recording of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It was an amazing moment for all of us and, as a relatively new member of the orchestra, it was my first impression of the woman who has shaped our classical seasons for the past few years.

Violinist Chris Wu and Mary Persin in Wiesbaden, 2017
Chris Wu and Mary Persin 8/28/17
PSO European Tour Rehearsal in Wiesbaden © Todd Rosenberg 2017

Mary is a Pittsburgh area native, having grown up in Greensburg. She began playing violin, following in her older sister’s footsteps, at the age of three and studied with Pittsburgh Symphony member Hong-Guang Jia. After being accepted to study at the Chautauqua Institute one summer on the condition that she fill one of the empty viola seats, Mary got her first exposure to the instrument that would become her main focus. Lessons were arranged with PSO member Stephanie Tretick who fondly recalls not only Mary’s talent for the viola, but also her sharp and inquisitive mind. Speaking about their lessons together, Stephanie said, “Our subject matter was rarely limited to viola; where our investigations led was always a surprise to us both, I think. Physics of sound, harmony, notation, linguistics, literature, counterpoint, instrument care, all these and more were fair game as we worked.”

As a young violist, Mary held the principal chair in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and, after winning PYSO’s concerto competition, was awarded the opportunity to solo with the PSO. Cellist Mikhail Istomin remembers Mary’s debut clearly, “Mary’s performance of Hoffmaster’s viola concerto showed a lot of maturity and courage. We are very lucky to have her working in PSO’s artistic administration!”

As she became more and more advanced, Mary started commuting to Cleveland to study with legendary violist, Robert Vernon. After graduating as valedictorian from Hempfield Area High School and turning down a full scholarship offer to study pre-med at Case Western University, she began working with Mr. Vernon full time as a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. As a 17-year-old she and a few CIM classmates founded the Biava Quartet (named after conductor Luis Biava, a mentor to the young musicians), which became the main thrust of her performance career. 

The quartet formed while some members were freshmen at CIM and others, including Mary, were still in high school. Unusual for a chamber ensemble, they stayed together (after two early replacements) for the entire life of the group before disbanding more than ten years later. Together they won many prizes, served as the quartet in residence at both Yale and Juilliard, and performed and toured to great acclaim throughout the world. 

As life with the quartet began to wind down, fate seemed to be drawing Mary back home to the Steel City. She met her future husband, Daniel Meyer, at the Aspen Music Festival; Meyer would go on to become one of the resident conductors of the PSO and music director of the Erie Philharmonic and Westmoreland Symphony. While visiting him on one PSO mini-tour to Philadelphia, Mary joined Daniel and Maestro Manfred Honeck for lunch after a rehearsal. Perhaps it was the eternal bond of violists (Maestro was a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic before picking up the baton), or maybe that she had been the ostensible manager of a globally successful string quartet, but in any case, Manfred was impressed by Mary and soon asked her to lead the PSO’s Music for the Spirit initiative, a program that partnered the orchestra with local faith communities to reach audiences in new ways. She continued to work in the PSO administration and was promoted to her current position in January 2017.

Mary’s responsibilities in her current post are numerous and of vital importance to the orchestra. She works with Maestro Honeck and the musicians’ Artistic Advisory Committee to shape each season in a way that will satisfy and challenge both our audiences and our musicians. This involves thoughtful planning, the scouting of new and interesting soloists, and sometimes, as would have been the case this season with Mahler’s enormous Eighth Symphony, dealing with the logistics of putting together pieces with unique demands on the musicians or the performance space. 

“Mary’s qualities as an artistic administrator are deeply rooted in her passion for the music itself, and her understanding of how it is made,” PSO violist Tatjana Chamis said. “Her eyes glow as she revels in speaking of inspired performances and artists.” Mary is directly responsible for the addition of the new PSO 360 series, which is loved by audiences and PSO musicians alike, and has led the charge for Grammy nominations (and wins!), which enhance the orchestra’s reputation around the world. Reflecting on Mary’s contributions to the PSO, principal oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida said, “I can honestly say that, with Mary Persin as our Artistic Vice President, I have never felt more hopeful for the future of our orchestra.”

Mary Persin with Alec Baldwin and the PSO Artistic Team, 2016
Mary Persin (center) with Alec Baldwin (center left) and the PSO Artistic Team, 2016

Sadly, among the many things that have been lost during the Covid-19 pandemic, were Mary’s brilliantly thought-out second half of the 2019-20 season and the entirety of the 125th anniversary season, as it was originally planned, which was to take place starting this fall. As orchestras reeled from the sudden cancellation of performances far into the future, Mary drew on her innate creativity to find new ways to further PSO’s mission of “Great music in every life.” First came the Extraordinary Measures campaign, in which individual musicians of the orchestra would record performance and educational videos from their homes to be published on social media. These videos were deeply appreciated by a community starved for music and each new offering was viewed thousands of times.

As it became clear that we would be away from our audience for an extended period of time, new plans had to be made for how to engage with our patrons in meaningful ways. The 125th anniversary season has been reimagined into a virtual experience called “Front Row”. Mary has been the driving force behind the programming for these digital episodes, each of which explores overarching themes through a large variety of compositions for various small ensembles. It has been truly nourishing for us as musicians to be playing together again and bringing what we love to our audiences. Speaking about the first episode, titled Our Love for Pittsburgh, Mary says, “It is… with deep love, generosity, and the desire to give and reconnect with our beloved community that our musicians took the stage and this episode came to life.” It is with that same spirit that Mary continuously pours her heart into her very important work.

From her time as a young music student in Pittsburgh, to her exciting life as a member of a dynamic and well respected string quartet, and now as the PSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, Mary has led a truly incredible life in music. “Like the subject matter of our lessons, her life has been and continues to be a delightful smorgasbord of marvelous experiences,” muses Mary’s former teacher and now colleague Stephanie Tretick. The Musicians of the PSO are so thankful to have Mary on our team and are comforted by the knowledge that she is on the job as we continue to march through the unknown together.