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Beethoven's Ninth fitting end to spirited festival

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Manfred Honeck

Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with its “Ode to Joy” finale, is one of many possible perfect conclusions to a festival of music for the spirit. It is a big work with a huge expressive range, by turns soulful and exhilarating.

Beethoven's Ninth also is a work for everyone. It intentionally embraces all humanity, rather than being an expression of any particular religious denomination. He wrote it not long after the other big choral masterpiece of his final years, the Missa solemnis, a setting of Catholic liturgy.

Manfred Honeck will conduct vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the final event of the Music for the Spirit Festival at concerts April 26 to 28 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The soloists are Angela Meade, soprano; Kelly O'Connor, mezzo-soprano; Anthony Griffey, tenor, and Alexander Vinogradov, bass.

The concert will open with “The Gift,” a 20-minute piece for tenor, chorus and orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis, who was the symphony's composer of the year for the 2006-07 season. It is dedicated to board chairman Dick Simmons, whose family's $29 million gift to the symphony in 2006 is the largest in its history.

The text was created from a folk tale of Indian and Pakistani origin, according to the composer. It is the story of a frugal and industrious farmer, Wali Dad, who becomes rich, though wealth was not his goal. To dispose of more wealth than he can use, he decides to make a gift to the “noblest lady in the world,” a young queen. She sends a gift in return, which the farmer doesn't want. He sends her gift to the “noblest man in the world,” a young king, who sends back a gift. After several more rounds of gift-giving, the nobles decide to meet with Wali Dad. His final gift is to serve as a matchmaker.

Prior to the performance of Beethoven's Ninth, Honeck and the orchestra will demonstrate some of the specific questions confronting any performance of the piece.

“What is tradition? What is really Beethoven's way?” asked Honeck. “An interpretation is only right in the moment.”

The composer left metronome markings for the piece, but numerous though there are, they also are problematic in various ways. Long ignored by most conductors, they are being embraced by many contemporary conductors. Following the metronome markings produces a very fast performance.

Just as Honeck is sensitive to different kinds of Viennese waltz styles, he also researches marches and the different tempos appropriate to each kind, which was striking in his interpretation of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

One of the controversial aspects of Honeck's 2010 Beethoven Ninth was his tempo for the march that begins softly in the middle of the last movement and leads into a tenor solo, joined later by chorus.

“Most conductors took a German march tempo, but, actually, it is a French march in an extremely quick tempo,” Honeck says. “It makes sense later on with the entrance of the tenor. It is very joyful, the end of the war. We now have peace and see the heroes coming back.”

One of Honeck's new ideas is to begin the march off stage, a choice influenced by Gustav Mahler's symphonies.

“The marching band is coming back from the battlefield,” the conductor says. “They should come from far away,” as though marching into hall.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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