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'Requiem' an extraordinary Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tribute to Mozart

Review

Hours before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died 218 years ago this weekend, he sang parts of a Requiem Mass he was composing with three singers from the court opera in Vienna, who came to visit.

Mozart burst into tears after singing the eight bars of the "Lacrimosa" that he had written — the last notes he would write. Mozart's pupil Fanz Xaver Sussmayr completed the score, using sketch sheets given to him by the composer's widow.

Friday night the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented Mozart's "Requiem" in a concert called "A Funeral Mass for Mozart," an extraordinary concept by music director Manfred Honeck. The "Requiem" was preceded by Gregorian chant, earlier music by Mozart and readings by actor John Lithgow from letters Mozart wrote to his father about death; also, poems by a Holocaust survivor and by a Pittsburgh teen and scriptural passages.

The powerful contextualizing of Mozart's composition was more than matched by the performance of his music that Honeck led. His range was true while the phrasing was filled with love and devotion.

The Mendelssohn Choir was especially dramatic while the vocal quartet served Mozart very well. Bass John Relyea had the big voice needed for "Tuba Mirum," while soprano Chen Reiss was angelic in purity yet tenderly human.

After the Requiem score was complete, Honeck, the orchestra and choir repeated those first eight measures of the "Lacrimosa" and then for consolation Mozart's motet "Ave Verum Corpus." Then only three quiet strokes on a bell. Altogether, an awesome experience.

The concert opened with Ludwig van Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture" in which Honeck and the musicians were intensely dramatic, with great low strings, and sublimely beautiful.

The remainder of the first half was given to Part III of the "Te Deum" by Walter Braunfels.

Written shortly after the end of World War I, the music is a fervent expression of Catholic faith by a recent convert. Its musical style is a warm bath of German late-Romantic, with the clear influences of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler (who converted to Catholicism), and their predecessor Richard Wagner, who worshipped himself. The performance was wonderfully nuanced.

Yet given the extraordinary nature of the concert's second half, it might have been better to dispense with the Beethoven and Braunfels and instead have offered one of Mozart's completed masterpieces. The "Jupiter Symphony," with its extraordinary finale, would have reminded us of the composer in the full vitality of life.

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