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Concert series aims to memorialize 'Music for the Spirit'

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Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006

Two years after Sir Gilbert Levine and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave the first concert by an American orchestra at the Vatican in Rome, they start a new series of local concerts this week devoted to "Music for the Spirit."

Levine, vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and the symphony will perform Franz Joseph Haydn's "The Creation" for an invitation-only audience Wednesday evening at St. Paul Cathedral. At their first public concert of the series in June, they will perform Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony at Heinz Hall. The date of the concert and when tickets will be available have yet to be announced.

The "Music for the Spirit" series began because Levine, who lives in New York City and has been conducting concerts at the Vatican since 1987, says he had "never seen a city come alive for a Vatican concert ... as Pittsburgh did. It awakened an awareness in parts of the faith community who were really touched by the nature of that 'Concert of Reconciliation' and its meaning to their lives as Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities."

Levine went to symphony leaders and Bishop Donald W. Wuerl to suggest capturing and prolonging the spirit of the Jan. 17, 2004, Rome concert and says they all loved the idea. After much discussion, Haydn's "The Creation" was selected to inaugurate "Music for the Spirit." Symphony leaders say they hope the series will include performances at houses of worship of many faiths in Pittsburgh in future seasons, as well as at Heinz Hall.

"Music touches something that is deep in the human spirit. It has a way of bringing out feelings and sensitivities that can't always be articulated in words," Wuerl says. "That's why the Psalms are so important. They are a form of musical speech. They fall into that genre of great classical poetry that was meant to be recited by a bard, in a way almost sung, and accompanied by a harp." He says that the Greek epic poems "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are examples of other great poems that were meant to be memorized and recited, not read.

Much of Western art has been concerned with spiritual events and the experience of faith, in painting and sculpture no less than in music. Some of the most remarkable music was written as celebrations of Mass, Wuerl says, "as liturgical music to contemplate the act of worship."

"The Creation" is "one of the supreme oratorio achievements of all classical music," says Levine, "but it represents the epitome of Haydn's authoritative spiritual powers."

Wednesday evening's concert will be a re-creation of one Levine led at the Vatican for the 80th birthday of Pope John Paul II, consisting of the first two parts of Haydn's score. "It has a wonderful Biblical underpinning," the conductor says, "telling the story of Creation up to the point where the three Abrahamic faith traditions part company."

"The Creation" was a sensational success when premiered in Vienna in 1800. It draws inspiration from George Frideric Handel, whose music Haydn heard in both Vienna and London, and his friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had died nine years earlier. It also looks forward to the "Missa solemnis" by his student Ludwig van Beethoven. "There is a drama in 'The Creation,' a tone painting in the orchestra and a remarkable sense of forward movement to this story that presages Beethoven," Levine says.

Pope Benedict XVI gave the pre-concert talk this summer when Levine performed the "Missa solemnis" in Cologne Cathedral in Germany for European television. The Pope "spoke at great length of music, and liturgical music in the spiritual development of mankind particularly centered on the 'Missa solemnis,'" the conductor says. "The Beethoven is not in essence liturgical, because it's too long, but it is the quintessence of music and spirit together."

Levine says that three days after the concert, he received a call from the Vatican conveying the Pope's request for a DVD of the Cologne concert. Shortly thereafter, Pope Benedict awarded Levine the silver star of the Order of St. Gregory, which recognizes special service to the church. Levine already had been a Knight Commander of the order.

Pope Benedict is truly devoted to music and plays it himself, Levine says. "Cardinal (Joachim) Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, told me that every time he's in the new pope's apartment there's a different Beethoven piano sonata opened to be played. He begins or ends his day by playing Beethoven."

"Music bridges the finite and the transcendent," Wuerl says. "It is one of the places where heaven and earth touch. That's why St. Paul Cathedral, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, seems so appropriate to be the place to launch this series of concerts on music and spirit.

"When you enter any house of God, you want to be caught up in the mystery of God, and music is one of the ways we are caught up in the mystery."

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