Not many 17-year-olds can say they have toured Europe with the National Youth Symphony Orchestra; not many 17-year-olds frequently play in the lobby or on the stage of Heinz Hall; and not many 17-year-olds look to musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for career mentorship. Jim Cunningham IV, rising senior at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA), has done all of these while managing a busy high school schedule and playing viola for the Penn Quartet and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Cunningham’s love for music began with parents who surrounded him with classical music by taking him to Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts. His parents are both active members of the Pittsburgh music scene; Jim Cunningham III can be heard as the host of the WQED-FM Morning Show and Laurie Cunningham is the manager of the Youth Chamber Connection. Reflecting on attending Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, Jim Cunningham IV says, “I’ve been to concerts all my life and that’s always … been a big influence on my musical life. From a young age I was always interested in classical music because of coming to concerts [at Heinz Hall].” His immediate attraction to classical music was recognized by his parents early. When Cunningham was two he could identify Mozart playing on the radio. By age four Cunningham was enrolled in his first violin class.
At 14, Cunningham switched to viola after advice from Lawrence Loh, former resident conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony and Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. Cunningham was hooked and his musical career took off. He joined the Three Rivers Young People Orchestra and subsequently the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, which works closely with the Pittsburgh Symphony. During this time Cunningham received the opportunity to participate yearly in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s EQT Student Side-By-Side Program, which gives young musicians the opportunity to rehearse and perform with the orchestra. He identifies it as his first real interaction with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, an experience that acted as a catalyst for the orchestra’s important role in his journey as a young musician.
He has found in the Pittsburgh Symphony a second home and a place for a unique type of mentorship. Heinz Hall is very much a part of Cunningham’s life. With the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, he rehearses in the hall’s rehearsal rooms and performs on stage. With the Penn Quartet, Cunningham is often given the opportunity to perform in the Heinz Hall lobby before Pittsburgh Symphony shows (a favorite for Cunningham). In addition to the Youth Orchestra and the Penn Quartet, he attends ensemble rehearsals once a week coached by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. These rehearsals are part of the Youth Chamber Connection, which also has found a rehearsal home in Heinz Hall.
All of these rehearsals give Cunningham the opportunity to work closely with orchestra members, like Meng Wang who leads the viola sectional rehearsals or Francesco Lecce-Chong, assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. Both one-on-one and in a group setting, the musicians’ commitment to the students give Cunningham and the other members of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony a chance to interact with and receive advice from professional musicians. Cunningham says that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is “a place where you can learn and a place where you can grow as a musician. It’s a place where you can learn more about the culture of music.” He jokes, “The hall itself has gold leaf everywhere.”
On the musicians’ commitment to young people, Cunningham says, “[They] have completely changed my musical life. I wouldn’t be the same without the teaching [and the mentorship] I have found here.” The mentorship Cunningham speaks of stretches from the EQT Student Side-By-Side Program, to his personal coach Marylène Gingras-Roy, a viola player with the orchestra, to master classes and performances by musicians at CAPA. As a student, he has witnessed firsthand the benefits of the orchestra’s Education Department and Community Outreach saying, “It’s a really great mentality here … being around these people has inspired me and taught me a lot.”
He identifies Andrew Wickesberg as a personal favorite of his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra mentors. Cunningham is inspired by Wickesberg because he is not only an “amazing violist” but also human. “He is super funny, and … a normal guy who goes to Starbucks all the time and he is in this amazing orchestra.” He often reaches out to Wickesberg for private lessons. “I think getting lessons from different people is really important. That’s great because [there are] so many amazing musicians here and I can meet up with any one of them and have a great time.”
As Cunningham enters his senior year with his eye on The Juilliard School, New England Conservatory and Peabody Institute at John Hopkins, he is excited to pursue viola performance further but will always see the Pittsburgh Symphony as an important part of his life. He says, “Being in a very culturally rich city, and one that’s filled with the arts and music … we get a lot of fantastic musicians from this orchestra [who] have helped me along the way.”
When asked what his dream job is, Cunningham looks around beautiful Heinz Hall and says “The PSO. I really … would love to be in this orchestra someday.”