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Music

Pittsburgh Symphony features works with 'wonderful spiritual connection'

| Tuesday, May 30, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
James MacMillan
Philip Gatward
James MacMillan

A piece of music Scottish composer James McMillan wrote in 2009 gets a spiritual — and practical — role in concerts this weekend.

Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, has teamed up the McMillan piece based on a 17th-century psalm with Gustav Mahler's massive Symphony No. 2 from 1895.

He says the works have a “wonderful spiritual connection,” but the shorter McMillan piece also provides a way to divide the concert after a “momentous” first movement.

Honeck will lead the symphony in the two pieces at concerts June 2 to 4 at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh.

Besides the orchestra, the performances also will feature the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, performing in both the symphony and the choral piece. Soprano Ying Fang and mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger will be soloists in the Mahler work.

The two works share mystical roots, Honeck says. “Miserere,” the McMillan work, is a presentation of a psalm that deals with man's inadequacy before God.

Similarly, Mahler's symphony, subtitled the “Resurrection,” questions the meaning of life and what happens to man beyond it.

“They are both taking the same musical journey in different ways,” Honeck says.

But the music director also found an important, practical role in the two. The symphony is long and big in size — about 90 minutes with a chorus and soloists. When Mahler wrote it, he suggested a pause after the hefty first movement, Honeck says.

So the conductor combined “Miserere,” which is about 13 minutes long, with that 20-minute first movement as the first half of the concert.

It is a good spot for a break and will give the audience a chance to relax after the intense Mahler opening, he says.

McMillan is the orchestra's composer of the year. This work, making its local premiere, is reflective of his religious nature, Honeck says, as well as of his broad creativity.

“ ‘Miserere' is written in a traditional choral sense with rich harmonics, much different from the forward-looking, modern style of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” which the orchestra performed in February.

Those two works, both based on religious texts, also vary greatly in their overall nature. “Miserere” is a cappella and “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” is a percussion concerto with full orchestra.

“This gives us a great opportunity to see James McMillan's work, from the monastery-like ‘Miserere' to the almost Stravinsky-like ‘Veni Veni,'” Honeck says.

The music director says the McMillan piece created a good opportunity for him to perform the Mahler symphony again. He led it with the orchestra in 2012.

That symphony, which premiered in 1895, took Mahler about six years to write and uses off-stage instruments as well as the chorus and soloists.

Honeck mentions the second-movement's use of a folk poem borrowed from Mahler's “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth's Magic Horn”), which the symphony will perform in June.

This time, though, it will be sung by mezzo Romberger but in June by baritone Matthias Goerne.

“So it is a chance to see the work done by two different voices,” Honeck says.

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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