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Pianist, 5 university choirs go big for PSO

| Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Emanuel Ax
Pittsburgh Symphony
Emanuel Ax

Orchestras today strive to find new ways to mix it up in programming, from mini-festivals to seasonlong themes.

Pittsburgh Symphony recently followed innovative semi-staged performances of the “St. John Passion” with a classic all-Sibelius program. Its next concert will offer the novel combination of a big romantic piano concerto, followed by big choral performances. The choir will be unusually large, 144 voices, singing powerful and soulful repertoire.

Manfred Honeck will lead the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at concerts featuring pianist Emanuel Ax and the All University Choir at concerts April 1 to 3 in Heinz Hall, Downtown.

There are many paths for a successful career at the piano, most famously the storming virtuoso. Ax began his career by winning first prize at the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, Israel. But his career is more notable and cherishable for his beautiful piano sound, which serves a natural musicality informed by deep study and understanding.

He will play Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 when he returns to Heinz Hall. When he played it here in 2000, he said Brahms' piano writing was sadistic. He still feels that way but says some things have become less difficult over time.

Yet he prepared it again, and put it on his repertoire list for this season from which orchestras can choose, because of his love and respect for this piece and its composer.

These days, he's thinking of similarities between this Brahms concerto and Ludwig van Beethoven's “Emperor” Concerto.

“Brahms worshipped Beethoven as we all know,” Ax says. “But I think he made the inspiration from Beethoven very much his own. It's not copying. It's not stealing. It's just some internalized for me.”

He says the opening cadenza in the Brahms is much harder than the one that starts the “Emperor” Concerto and thinks the solo instrument's entrance in the slow movement was also inspired by Beethoven. He notes the writing for low strings leading to the first movement recapitulation, marked in the Brahms work by the return of the opening horn solo, is very similar in both pieces.

Planning for the concert's second half began in September 2014, followed by a meeting at Heinz Hall with university choral conductors to talk about the project. Ultimately, five university choirs rehearsed the concert repertoire separately and came together for daylong rehearsals March 12 and 19, according to conductor Christine Hestwood.

Blending the five choirs into one began with ensuring no two singers from the same choir sat together in the All University Choir.

Although Hestwood did warm-ups and began the first combined rehearsal, most of the preparation was done by legendary choral conductor Robert Page.

“Rehearsals were absolutely thrilling,” Page says. “I tell you the kids came so beautifully prepared. These five conductors are wonderful. I cannot say enough good about them.”

The participating choirs are from Chatham University, Stacey Brett Connor, conductor; Duquesne University, Caron Daley, conductor; Grove City College, Katherine Mueller, conductor; the St. Vincent Camerata, Steven Concordia, conductor; and Washington and Jefferson College, Susan Medley, conductor.

The repertoire includes the opening chorus from Carl Orff's “Carmina Burana,” Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Giuseppe Verdi's Te Deum.

Page, 88, stepped down as music director of the Mendelssohn Choir in 2005 and from his teaching duties at Carnegie Mellon in 2013.

“This is the third time Manfred has asked Chris and me to do a special project for him,” Page says. “I think this one is the last professional gig I will do because of age, energy and because I want to leave while there's still starch in my body.

“Manfred is not only an inspiring musician. He's an inspiring gentleman. I have such respect for him and his integrity. I can't say that about all the conductors I've work with,” Page says with a laugh. “There is clear honesty in his approach to the music and approach to the people making the music. And it's not a facade. He simply inspires me.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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