Moments as magnificent as experiencing a symphony are not possible without people as magnificent as Millie Ryan. Ryan, current vice president of fund development and orchestra appreciation co-chair for the Pittsburgh Symphony Association (PSA), a volunteer organization committed to the support of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, has been a driving force for the Pittsburgh Symphony since she and her attorney husband, Gary, moved to Pittsburgh 15 years ago.
Her instantaneous connection with the orchestra seemed like fate. After she and Gary relocated from New Orleans to Pittsburgh, Ryan, then recently retired, felt alone and adrift in a new, yet culturally enriching city. Gary, who had attended the Duquesne University School of Music in the 60s, encouraged her to walk down the street from their apartment to Heinz Hall to fill up her empty days and to introduce herself to like-minded people before their house hunting began.
Ryan contacted the Pittsburgh Symphony and discovered the Music 101 Lunchtime Lecture Series sponsored by the PSA. She remembers being greeted by “crowds of people who were enthusiastic…connected and very excited to be there.” “The hubbub,” she felt, “was just contagious.”
That day, Ryan met some of the energetic Pittsburgh Symphony Association leadership and several musicians, all of whom greeted her with open arms, warmly welcoming her into their community. It became quickly evident to her that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would become an important part of her cultural life in a new city.
The PSA, now in its 77th year, is an organization of professional volunteers, many of them female, community leaders and philanthropists, who support and promote the orchestra through “fundraising, community outreach, educational programs, audience development initiatives and special events.” As Ryan puts it simply, Pittsburgh Symphony Association does “whatever is needed, within reason, to benefit the PSO.”
During her time with the PSA, Ryan has served many positions, including president, and has co-created several projects, including “Symphony Salon,” to aid the orchestra. Staff members and musicians alike often approach the organization with specific fundraising requests. Ryan recalls when the staff and musicians approached the PSA during her presidency with a special request to purchase a new celesta. The volunteer group turned to their Fine Instrument Fund, a restricted fund especially for unique instruments and fulfilled that wish. When additional fundraising is required, the group pulls together their efforts to aid the symphony. A musician once approached the PSA regarding purchasing a second instrument for travel purposes. The group, under Ryan’s leadership, held a series of cocktail parties to provide the remainder of the needed funds for the $30,000+ instrument.
The PSA also volunteers its time and resources to serve the Pittsburgh Symphony in other meaningful ways, They’ve aided with subscription mailings, volunteered at the sensory friendly concerts, written thank you notes to donors, assisted with classroom educational programs…the list goes on.
One of Ryan’s most significant contributions to the PSA and the orchestra was her creation and organization of the annual holiday home tour, which recently wrapped its third successful year. Ryan brought the idea from Washington, D.C. and New Orleans and tweaked the concept to incorporate live music in each of the houses to add ambiance and festivity to the tour. Once she got the “okay” from the symphony management in 2014, Ryan gathered a team of passionate, prominent members of the Pittsburgh community to serve on a committee. As the scope of the event expanded so did the committee and, by the time of the first tour, the committee was 15 members strong. This past season, there was an overwhelming outpouring of support from the Pittsburgh community including generous and passionate homeowners, 150 docent volunteers and 200 musicians – all working to sustain the symphony.
It is not surprising that an event organized by the PSA, whose mission is to “keep the music alive” received great press this past holiday season for being one of the few events where orchestra staff and musicians came together during the musicians’ work stoppage. Ryan says this collaboration was completely natural:
“We were proud of the fact that we had an event that everybody respected and everybody put their efforts behind… I came to realize that everyone was on the same page in terms of wanting to protect and support the symphony family and wanting to have an event in honor of our world-class orchestra… We were all celebrating. Nobody wanted to see anything but the very best outcome for the symphony.”
Prior to the 2016 event, called “Symphony Splendor,” musicians contacted the PSA to play at the houses, the staff asked to volunteer (as always) and even relatives of the staff volunteered. Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer Jodi Weisfield’s father rode trolleys from house to house and helped wherever he could and her mother volunteered as a docent in one of the homes. Ryan was proud that, “Everybody just rolled up their sleeves and pitched in with joy.” The joint effort was reflective of Ryan and the PSA’s dedication to the orchestra: “Anytime there’s a need, we quickly gather our forces to respond to it.”
This relentless dedication to the arts comes naturally to Ryan. “I’m passionate about the arts, in general,” she says. “Music has been part of the fabric of my life forever.” Through her younger life, Ryan played classical piano, directed and composed for a cappella groups, and sang in operettas and musicals. In her adult years, she found a career first in higher education administration and later in arts education at the grade school level, teaching music and drama and directing school productions. Her spare time has always, in large part, been spent volunteering for the arts. She served on boards like The Kennedy Center Community Advisory Board in Washington, D.C. and used her resources to co-found a performing arts society in the New Orleans area. Today, she is on paid staff at The Frick Art and Historical Center as a museum educator.
It is an understatement to say that Ryan is passionate about the arts. She dedicates her time and resources to organizations like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for a simple yet profound reason: “We can’t live without the arts. The arts form the colorful landscape around any city… they create a dynamic culture.” She continues, “It is so important to support the arts because the arts have a way of communicating to people — [communicating] aspirations and dreams and hopes and fears — they [feed] peoples’ hearts and minds.”
She sees the arts as a way to transcend generations due to their “broad spectrum of thought and feeling.” She believes the arts are transformational, bringing people together through the past, present and future.
Perhaps most significantly, Ryan has found that “the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is a large family of many constituents all dedicated to not only enhancing the orchestra but sustaining the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.” Ryan has found this family in the staff, in the women in the PSA, in the late Marvin Hamlisch (with whom Ryan formed a casual friendship), and in the many musicians with whom she and Gary enjoy personal relationships.
She says, “Bringing people together in a family kind-of-way is the crux of an organization.” This, along with the commitment of family members like Ryan, is exactly what makes the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as Ryan says, “Best in class.”