Pittsburgh Symphony festival a celebration of faiths
By Mark Kanny
Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Much of classical music has spiritual dimensions, whether or not a given piece is religious in orientation. Yet, after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome in 2004, explicitly spiritual programming has become a regular feature of symphony seasons.
Two programs a year have been labeled as “music for the spirit,” a tradition Manfred Honeck eagerly embraced when he became music director in 2008.
This week, two years after planning began, the Pittsburgh Symphony will present a Music for the Spirit Festival from April 20 to 28 at Heinz Hall, Downtown, and at venues stretching east from the Strip District to Oakland and Point Breeze.
The festival includes more than a dozen events of various kinds — mostly concerts, but also including book club discussions and a talk by Nando Parrado, part of the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speakers Series, about his miraculous 72-day survival in the Andes Mountains after a plane crash.
Festival events begin with Singing City, a concert featuring a 2,500-voice choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony, led by Honeck. Subsequent offerings include a recital by the world-class organist Paul Jacobs, an ambitious choral and orchestral concert by high-school and university students, a Jewish mystical opera and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with the “Ode to Joy.”
“I am not certain there are many places that would have undertaken something as inviting and historic,” says Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who will offer the festival's inaugural address. Six other speakers will express multiple faith traditions.
“I say ‘historic' because this grows out of a long-standing awareness that music has this wonderful power to bring us beyond the immediacy of the moment,” says Wuerl, former bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese and now archbishop of Washington, D.C. “Music has the power to touch the spirit. Some of the most beautifully spiritually in-tune music has its root in religious faith, coming out of all the various faith traditions.”
Honeck began planning the festival during a rare week off in Pittsburgh two years ago.
“I never have a week off,” Honeck says. “I used it to do a lot of thinking about different things. I wanted to celebrate with the city, with the people of the city. As music for the spirit is in the nature of my interests, I thought this is something we could do something to connect more.”
Honeck spent a whole day brainstorming with his assistant, Mary Persin, former violist of the Biava Quartet. They ended up with 20 pages of possibilities.
“All of these concerts are not just concerts, not that concerts really are just concerts,” Persin says. “They will be similar to Manfred's presentation of Mozart's Requiem and Handel's ‘Messiah,' works framed to make them more relevant with audiences.”
Preparations for the Singing City concert began a year ago when dozens of regional choral directors came to Heinz Hall to hear about the plans and sign up their choruses. After the groups rehearsed separately, Robert Page and Christine Hestwood are preparing the aggregate ensemble.
“I absolutely love doing this,” Page says. “In a way, it takes me back to when I was in high school in Abilene, Texas, leading the congregation, 300 or 400 people, in hymn singing in summer tent revival meetings. So, it comes naturally.”
Page, 85, is retiring from the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University at the end of the current academic term. He's a legendary figure, the former music director of the Mendelssohn Choir, who had long associations with three of America's top orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“I've been impressed with the way the maestro takes the orchestra into the community,” Page says. “Including choruses touches an area of society that a trained instrumentalist does not. ... There is a solidity of projecting text which touches the heart very much.”
The Singing City program includes excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, Gustav Mahler's “Resurrection Symphony” and Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Requiem,” as well as purely instrumental and nonreligious music by Aaron Copland and Beethoven.
The festival commissioned Jonny Priano to write “Sing as One” to embody the Singing City theme. Priano, 28, teaches music in the Wilmington Area School District in Lawrence County. The composer is a past member of the All-Star College Choir, which was created for Marvin Hamlisch's Pops concerts and prepared by Page.
Priano heard his a-capella piece for the first time on April 10, when Page rehearsed it at Heinz Hall. “I told my students the next day that it was like watching Michael Jordan throwing around your basketball,” he says. “It was exactly what I hoped it would be.”
The Celebrating the Next Generation concert on April 23 was one of Honeck's highest priorities in planning the festival. He remembers how important it was to him to play in youth orchestra and loves the enthusiasm and energy of young people.
Four conductors — Honeck, Page, Daniel Meyer and Jeffrey Turner — will lead a mixed program at Heinz Hall that includes Zoltan Kodaly's “Te Deum,” the last movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 played by a 146-musician orchestra and the Hallelujah from Franz Schmidt's “The Book of the Seven Seals.”
“I am thrilled we'll perform Kodaly's ‘Te Deum,' a great work that I believe has never been presented in Pittsburgh,” says Turner, head of orchestral studies at Duquesne and the symphony's principal bass.
“It's really a wonderful thing that Duquesne students will have a chance to play in such a great acoustical environment, and I'm grateful, not only to have the chance to perform at Heinz Hall, but to play a piece which so well fits Duquesne's institutional mission,” he says.
The festival's operatic component, April 25 and 28, is “The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds,” composed by Ofer Ben-Amots. Its protagonist is a young woman, Leah, near death, whose former lover possesses her as a dybbuk — a deceased soul who takes possession of a living body.
The opera will be presented by the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In addition to the singers and a solo clarinet, performers will include Texture Ballet, the Pappert Women's Chorale, Children's Festival Chorus, piano trio and percussion. The production is directed by Aron Zelkowicz.
“This is more than a culmination. It goes several steps beyond anything we've done before, a fully theatrical multimedia production,” says Zelkowicz, the Jewish music festival's founding artistic director.
“In order to direct an opera, you really need to know it inside out,” he says. “I haven't gotten tired of listening to it. I really adore the music.”
The festival will conclude with symphony subscription concerts, April 26 to 28, featuring Christopher Theofanidis' “Rainbow Body” and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Wuerl says that the festival would not have been possible without the leadership of Honeck and symphony board chairman Dick Simmons. Wuerl worked closely with Simmons on the symphony's concert at the Vatican.
“Pittsburgh is blessed to have Manfred Honeck,” Wuerl says. “What a depth of musical ability and genius he brings to the Pittsburgh Symphony. And then to focus it on this great tradition (of spiritual music) has just raised it to a whole new level.”
Mark Kanny is a classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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