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PSO musicians enjoy Vienna during time off

Pittsburgh Symphony violist Penny Brill and cellist Adam Liu perform at St. Anna Children’s Hospital in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony

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Hospital show

Pittsburgh Symphony music-making extended beyond Vienna's most famous concert hall Friday when violist Penny Brill and cellist Adam Liu performed at St. Anna Children's Hospital. The hospital, which was founded in 1837, treats children up to 18, and specializes in blood disorders and cancer.

Brill has been bringing music to hospitals in Western Pennsylvania and on tours for a dozen years. Planning for this hospital concert stretched over six months.

In looking for songs to play that the children would know, she consulted music director Manfred Honeck, who is Austrian and keeps an apartment in Vienna. He called his children for their suggestions. She also went searching for music in Vienna in the children's section of a book store and at a music store.

“When we went into the cafeteria, the people in the front row were Turkish, but the most common languages were English and German,” Brill said. “An assistant to the head doctor translated for us, so it was pretty easy to communicate. A lot of kids came in with face masks and I.V. lines. We were also web-casting within the hospital so kids in isolation could see it in their rooms.”

Brill's experience playing for children in hospitals has given her tools to reach out to the children. At one point, she told the children she needed help with the top note of a song, which was plucked by a patient.

– Mark Kanny

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After a tiring week of concerts in Vienna, some of which were broadcast on Austrian radio and also recorded for commercial release, Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony had Sunday off to recharge their batteries. They began the final leg of their European tour with a concert Monday night in Paris.

Performances Thursday featuring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's “Requiem” and Friday and Saturday of Gustav Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony received enthusiastic and prolonged applause from the audiences at Vienna's famed Musikverein.

Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley led the orchestra off stage after 15 minutes of applause following Mozart's “Requiem.” “They wouldn't stop clapping,” he said.

There also were lengthy ovations and multiple curtain calls after the Mahler performances.

There was even one woman who waved a Steelers Terrible Towel after a concert, Honeck said.

It was a particularly busy week for the conductor, who, in addition to leading four concerts, rehearsed the Vienna Singverein in the choral parts of the Mozart and Mahler.

He said the musicians were on the edge of their seats for the performances.

“The orchestra had a wonderful sound on the Friday concert, completely adapting to the hall. I think all the soloists were wonderful. Cindy (deAlmeida's oboe) solo in ‘Urlicht' was amazing. We know (principal trumpet) George Vosburgh has the ability to play all the dynamics. This was one of those concerts where he showed a lot of rounded colors in the chorales.”

Both Friday's and Saturday's performances of the Mahler symphony were recorded for release in Honeck's cycle of Mahler symphonies with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Mahler reserves the chorus for the end of his symphony, when it makes the music's meaning explicit and contributes to powerful sonorities.

The Vienna Singverein was great, according to Bendix-Balgley.

The Pittsburgh Symphony's concertmaster used to visit Vienna when he lived in Germany, and rented an apartment near the Musikverein during the orchestra's residency at the hall.

“It was great to be back in this city,” he said. “It really is wonderful. We were obviously working quite hard, but we had time to explore the city and go to the cafes and eat well, too.”

Bendix-Balgley also took the opportunity to attend concerts on his days off. He heard Cecilia Bartoli singing baroque music, and Vienna Philharmonic concertmaster Rainer Honeck (the conductor's brother) solo in Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto.

Thursday night, Honeck hosted a party for the musicians in the park adjacent to the hotel in which they were staying, a park where Johann Strauss Jr. used to give concerts.

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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