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Music

Pittsburgh Symphony's smart programming will have special appeal

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, 1:36 a.m.
Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in classical subscription concerts on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, and in a Dec. 1 performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in classical subscription concerts on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, and in a Dec. 1 performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Smart programming will give the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s three weekend concerts special appeal. That’s because they will play two separate programs.

One features the long overdue Heinz Hall premiere of a classical masterpiece. The other honors the Christmastime tradition of performing Handel’s “Messiah.”

Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at classical subscription concerts Nov. 30 and Dec. 2 in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 (“Paris”), Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand with Bernard Chamayou as soloist,and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Mass in C (“In Time of War”) with vocal soloists and the Mendelssohn Choir.

Honeck also will conduct the orchestra, vocal soloists and the Mendelssohn Choir in a single performance of Georg Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 1 in Heinz Hall.

A Honeck tradition

The music director knows that “Messiah” was actually written for Easter, but loves “Messiah” for Christmas. He’s performed it so many times in Pittsburgh that it’s one of the traditions of the Honeck years at the symphony.

The premiere for the symphony is Haydn’s Mass “In Time of War,” written in 1796.

It is the first of six great Masses Haydn wrote after he had composed the last of his 104 symphonies. It was written during the pre-imperial Napoleonic wars, when the French armies had advanced through northern Italy and came up in southern Austria as far as Graz.

Honeck notes that when Haydn was writing the Mass, he did not know negotiations were under way.

“Haydn decided, ‘We need to pray to God for peace,’ ” says the conductor.

The Mass “In Time of War” features an unusually prominent role for timpani, sometimes independently from trumpets. In fact, in German-speaking countries it’s known at the “Paukenmesse,” “pauken” meaning timpani or kettle drums.

In the prayer for peace near the end of the Mass, “Dona nobis pacem,” the timpani have solos which anticipate and inspired what Ludwig van Beethoven did in the “Missa solemnis,” his neglected masterpiece.

Memorable calling card

The concert will open with one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s many impressive symphonies, which he wrote on a visit to Paris looking for work when he was 22. It is a memorable calling card, full of energy and bold contrasts.

Mozart described the premiere in a letter to his father, writing that the quietly energetic start to the finale had the audience hushing each other for quiet; and when the music erupted in a loud passage, the audience cheered.

The program will be completed by Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. It is by turns introverted and extroverted, even explicitly jazzy. The piano solo writing is cleverly composed to produce full textures.

The concerto links the other pieces on the program because it is written by a Parisian composer, while the impact of war which led to the concerto is answered by the Haydn Mass.

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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