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Verdi's 'Requiem' cuts as deep as life, death

Since there's nothing more dramatic than life and death, it should be no surprise that the most musically dramatic Requiem is by operatic master Giuseppe Verdi.

"The conductor Hans von Bulow said more than a century ago that (Verdi's Requiem) is 'church music in the clothes of an opera.' Since then, people call this is Verdi's best opera," says Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony music director.

When Honeck took the Swedish Radio Orchestra on tour in 2001 and performed the Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center, the concert was named best classical event of the year by the Washington Post.

Honeck will lead four vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the Verdi Requiem in performances Friday to Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

The Verdi will be preceded by three brief pieces of sacred baroque music performed by Chatham Baroque. Verdi was keenly aware of musical traditions and even recommended music students work on old music in preference to the new music of his time. For liturgical music in particular, there are traditions of word painting that continue across the centuries.

"The thing I love about Verdi is that he is not bound to tradition, but breaks it, too," Honeck says. "The most obvious example is the way the music for the opening of the Dies Irae returns in the final section of the Requiem, the Libera Me." The Dies Irae is the longest section of Verdi's piece, lasting more than half an hour to express the Day of Wrath with the utmost vividness. The Libera Me text is a prayer for deliverance from eternal death.

Honeck spoke about the traditions of religious music at a special Pittsburgh Symphony fundraising event Nov. 22 at the Senator John Heinz History Center, following a viewing of the "Vatican Splendors" art exhibit. He started with Gregorian Chant and moved forward in time. His recorded musical examples included part of Verdi's Dies Irae with former Pittsburgh Symphony music director Fritz Reiner conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Honeck didn't know "Vatican Splendors" would be coming to Pittsburgh when he planned this weekend's concert. After viewing the exhibit, he said, "I was very surprised there was a bit of connection to the Verdi Requiem, especially a Michelangelo mural to Verdi's Dies Irae."

When Honeck started studying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem, which he conducted at Heinz Hall a year ago, he felt he understood the words and the liturgy right away. But with Verdi's he says "I thought that's another way of expressing things. Verdi composed from the word and the meaning of words can change over time. I looked for a translation from Verdi's time of all the Latin words. I called a friend in Rome and got a wonderful letter from the Vatican, which included an explanation in German (Honeck's native tongue) of the Dies Irae sequence from 1882, eight years after the premiere of the Requiem. Then I understood very quickly what Verdi expressed with every word.

"Verdi set even small words in a dramatic way. Reading the words in the program, many people will not really understand. I had Latin and even I didn't understand some things," Honeck says. "When you hear the music, you know."

Additional Information:

'Verdi Requiem'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor; and the Mendelssohn Choir

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $20 to $93

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900 or website

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