The Bouquet Goes To: Jim Cunningham

by Lorien Hart

He is the voice of Classical Pittsburgh: the voice that brightens our weekday mornings, rounds out our week with Sunday evening’s Pittsburgh Symphony Radio, and welcomes us into every Heinz Hall event.  He is Jim Cunningham.  

When I began to brainstorm this article, I did what most of us would do….I Googled! Among other things, I read that Jim is from Warren, PA, that he was a regular radio broadcaster through high school and college, that he has played many roles in his extended tenure at WQED-FM, and that he has travelled with the PSO on twenty international tours.  But what that Google search couldn’t tell me were the stories that all of the Musicians have about Jim.  

I grew up the daughter of a music librarian who functioned as the hub of my home town’s musical world; all roads led back to my mother.   Jim is that hub here in Pittsburgh.  No matter which spoke of the musical wheel you might be on, Jim connects us all.  My own stories about Jim range from backstage interviews at the intermission of PSO concerts, to early morning WQED-FM performances in Oakland, to chance meetings on tour that turn into on-air conversations. Jim’s infectious joie de vivre and his genuine interest in the people behind the music make any interaction with Jim cause for celebration.  

We all know that Jim is a champion of classical music, but some may not know that he has an equal affinity for The Beatles.  PSO Principal Contrabassoon James Rodgers shares this story: 

“On a crisp, sunny day, Jim invited me to visit the famed Beatlesplatz in Hamburg. Here were located the famous clubs where the Beatles had performed in their early years, and a unique platz had been established in their honor. After a brief cab ride to the platz, we spent some time soaking up the storied past of the Fab Four. Since we had time, and it was such a nice day, we decided to walk from there to the Elbphilharmonie for that evening’s concert. Soaking up the sights and sounds of the Reeperbahn and engaging in warm conversation, it was just wonderful. Along the way, we paused at precicely 6 PM on the Elbpromenade to call WQED and provide our listeners back home a noon-time tour report, a regular feature of Jim’s time on tour with us. Completing our trek to the hall, it was a quintessentially Jim Cunningham experience, full of purpose, learning, fun and camaraderie.”

Jim’s schedule when we are on tour requires many a midnight interview.  This story comes from Bill Caballero, a master story-teller in his own right: 

During May 2016 the PSO was touring Europe and privileged to be one of two American orchestras invited for a three concert residence in Vienna. One of our concerts was Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. (I personally have to admit there’s nothing better than performing Tchaikovsky with Manfred.)

After this concert many musicians rushed back to the hotel bar to eat, relax, and talk about the evening’s success. To save time, rather than take my instrument back to my hotel room, I decided to keep it with me. While I was enjoying my late dinner at the bar Jim approached and asked if I would give a live WQED radio interview from his hotel room. I agreed, finished my dinner, and left to meet Jim. The interview went well and afterwards I decided to go back to the bar, which unfortunately was now very crowded. This was my cue to turn in for the night.  

The next day the orchestra had a morning rehearsal, but I wasn’t sure of the scheduled time. I began looking for my horn case where I kept my tour book, and suddenly realized I THINK I LEFT MY HORN AT THE BAR!! I ran to the downstairs bar to talk with the desk clerks, doormen, security, and colleagues, to see if by any chance my horn was turned in. I even asked Jim Cunningham if he noticed my horn case in his room, but to no avail. My horn was gone. I spoke with the hotel manager who suggested we look at the hotel’s security videos, and agreed we would view them after my morning rehearsal. 

Luckily, the PSO allows me to tour with an extra horn in case of instrument failure. But the loss of my primary instrument of 29 years was an indescribable feeling. Word spread of my loss during the morning breakfast and though the concern expressed and help offered from my colleagues was greatly appreciated, I felt embarrassed. After breakfast I decided it was time to walk to the Musikverein for the morning rehearsal to re-familiarize myself with my backup horn. About 10 minutes before the rehearsal began, Kelvin Hill (our personnel manager at the time) said my horn had been found and was being taxied to the hall! I asked “where was it”? And he replied  “it was in Jim Cunningham’s hotel room where you left it during the radio interview.”  What a relief my instrument was found! 

When the PSO is on tour Jim and WQED FM serve the massive role of keeping the community of Pittsburgh and the world in-the-know on what this amazing orchestra accomplishes. But in order for Jim to travel with us, he has to bring a very large amount of audio recording equipment in special “black cases”. This equipment is to record rehearsals, record interviews of musicians, soloists, and Manfred, and of course broadcasting live interviews from his hotel room. I now see how my “black horn case“ blended with Jim’s numerous black audio equipment cases. I guess it’s time to buy that Pittsburgh “black and gold” horn case!”

We all have our own Jim stories, both from home and abroad.  It is the sum total of all of our stories that make Jim Cunningham such an integral part of the PSO family.  In the words of the ever-eloquent Lorna McGhee,  “He is the glue that holds classical music in Pittsburgh together. He is always positive, supportive and enthusiastic. What a great champion of classical music, and what a great human being!” 

So we raise our glasses to you, Jim, and present you with this humble token of our sincere affection.  Here’s to many more years of stories. 🥂