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Tempo tempers Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's 'Ode to Joy'

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 12:14 a.m.

The “Ode to Joy” of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, heard Friday night at Heinz Hall, is a perfect composition to conclude the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Music for the Spirit Festival.

Beethoven had yearned to set Friedrich Schiller's humanitarian poem on brotherhood, love and God for more than 25 years before he decided to make it the finale of what proved to be his last symphony, employing vocal soloists and chorus.

Manfred Honeck prefaced the performance with a demonstration designed to show his pacing of the symphony is correct. The interpretation he offered was similar to the one he presented in 2010, following the composer's metronome markings that survive.

However, his demonstration depended on picking extremely slower alternatives, and was inaccurate at points as well. Beethoven did not indicate the march in the middle of the last movement should be 168 beats per minute. That's the conjecture of musicologists that the surviving notation contains an error and the music should be performed twice as fast as indicated.

He could check it for himself by trying to walk at that pace for even half a mile.

In most respects Friday night's performance was a more assured and persuasive account of Honeck's interpretation. The slow movement was pretty and light. But it was ironic to present so fast a performance of Beethoven's Ninth at the conclusion of this festival, because the tempos do not emphasize spirituality, they diminish it.

The concert opened with the premiere of “The Gift” by Christopher Theofanidis to a text by Amy Beth Kirsten, his partner in life. It was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and dedicated to its board chairman, Dick Simmons, whose family made a $29 million gift to the orchestra in 2006. Honeck made the essential point in his spoken introduction that Simmons' gifts to the orchestra go beyond the record-setting donation.

Scored for solo tenor, chorus and orchestra, the 20-minute piece tells a folk tale about a humble farmer who accumulates more wealth than he wants. Moments of levity in the text helped what was mainly a prosaic composition, which did feature a bit of word-painting but little musical poetry.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. April 27 and 2:30 p.m. April 28 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Admission is $20 to $93. Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

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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