Actor Abraham with Pittsburgh Symphony for Mozart show
In the movie “Amadeus,” F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his vividly astute portrayal of Mozart's arch-rival Antonio Salieri — torn between admiration for Mozart's transporting music and resentment that he was not comparably blessed by God.
This week, it's the actor's turn to speak in Mozart's voice when he takes part in Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck's special performing version of Mozart's Requiem. The conductor adds spoken word from one of Mozart's letter's to his father, the Bible, and a contemporary poem, as well as extra music by Mozart and others, to provide a context that increases the consolation of the experience.
“What the maestro has selected is really important right now. Especially right now. There's so much beyond cynicism that's just hanging in the air, a fear ever since 9/11,” Abraham says.
The program is contemporary Austrian composer Herbert Willi's “ABBA-MA” (Echo of Peace), Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto featuring concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and Mozart's Requiem.
Abraham is a native Pittsburgher who was born in the Hill District. Although his family moved to Texas before he was 4, they returned every summer to spend time with their many relatives who still lived here.
When he began preparing to play Salieri, he studied Mozart's music.
“Where would Salieri be without Mozart?” he asks. “I wasn't too hip to him and some of his music when I started working. I re-listened to certain passages many, many times. It didn't matter how many times. They always surprised me. This is really magic. This is really great.”
In the film, Salieri sneaks a look at some Mozart manuscripts. As he reads part of the slow movement from Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp, we hear the music on the soundtrack and see how Salieri is transported far beyond the room in which he happens to be standing.
“I couldn't (write music like) that as my character,” Abraham says. “It ate at me, but never lessened my admiration for the man. (Mozart) was a thinker, a smart man. One of the problems with the movie was its misunderstanding of him, that he was simply a conduit who went into a trance when he wrote this stuff. He was diligent. He studied.”
Abraham maintains a very busy schedule, working in many media.
“I'm lucky. I'm in love with the work. I've been doing it for 50 years and still have this extraordinary passion.”
In late September, Abraham completed his first episode in the Showtime television series “Homeland.” He plays Dar Adul, the CIA head of black ops.
Abraham says television work “is high-pressure, very, very telescoped. I'm working with good people who know what they're doing. That makes a lot of difference.”
Abraham's favorite medium remains the stage and its live audience.
“It's more than just a connection with the audience. It's a reliance on them,” he says. “Their energy contributes to the performance. Some actors don't need them. I do. It's a visceral community that is almost vanishing in our society.”
Music as philosophy
Bendix-Balgley is looking forward to performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the symphony, hoping to play it like he's never played it before.
“Personally, the second movement is one of the most gorgeous and moving pieces of writing that exists anywhere in the classical repertoire,” the violinist says. “For me, it transcends beautiful music and ends up being more of a philosophical statement.”
Yet, the music's simplicity poses its own challenges for the performer to get to the heart of what Beethoven is saying.
“With great music like this, you don't want to do so much that you're taking away from what's in what Beethoven's written. There's so much you can bring out in the sound colors. It's a piece you love working on,” he says.
Bendix-Balgley has previously performed Fritz Kreisler's cadenza for Beethoven's concerto, but wrote his own cadenza this summer.
“I had some free time planned and decided to play around and see what I came up with, which meant interspersed with practicing I was trying things out (for the cadenzas), putting little pieces together. It was an enjoyable process,” he says. “Now I'm pretty busy learning how to play the cadenza I wrote.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.