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Symphony, choir unite for Brahms, Beethoven

| Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

Fate has taken over this week's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concerts, being led by guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and featuring the Mendelssohn Choir prepared, for the first time, by its music director Betsy Burleigh.

The program was slated to contrast three choral works by Brahms on texts about exorable forces in life with the German romantic composer's considerably sunnier Second Symphony. But when Brahms' symphony was shifted to later in the season, Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony became the obvious substitution.

"It's the best combination," Fruhbeck de Burgos says. "We are talking about destiny. What could be better than to combine Brahms' 'Schicksalslied' (Song of Fate) with the 'Schickalssymphonie' (Fate Symphony)?"

Beethoven is said to have described the opening of the Fifth Symphony as "fate knocks at the door."

But it was the three choral works "Nanie," "Gesang der Parzen" and "Schicksalslied" that were the origin of the program, a combination that Fruhbeck de Burgos requested and that Burleigh loves.

"Brahms wrote fabulous choral music," she says, noting the composer's experience as a choral conductor as contributing to his mastery in this kind of music.

Burleigh also emphasizes Brahms' immense learning, and vast personal collection of early music scores.

"He was very familiar with vocal techniques in music by (Heinrich) Schutz other early baroque composers. He really immersed himself in it. We can hear its influence in his contrapuntal writing that adds so much to his beautiful melodies by the way they weave among themselves," she says.

Yet, Brahms is also extremely difficult, she acknowledges, and is a revealing repertoire for her debut.

"His long lines are musically demanding while his chromatic language is always challenging in terms of intonation," she says.

The Mendelssohn Choir, which will number just over 100 for its Brahms' performances, held re-auditions for returning members in the spring and auditions for new members in August and September. Burleigh says the group is a little light on tenors and stronger on sopranos -- as is the case with most choruses.

The choir will have held five rehearsals on its own, a piano rehearsal with Fruhbeck de Burgos and two rehearsals with conductor and orchestra before the concerts begin.

Burleigh starts rehearsals with light physical actions -- such as stretching for the ceiling and shoulder rolls -- alternating with vocal warm-ups. Both activities help put the tensions of the workday behind the singers and prepare for artistic singing.

She also believes in a cappella singing, without instrumental accompaniment, at rehearsals for "a hundred reasons. It's a chance to listen in a different way. And it forces them to develop independent pitch and rhythm. A cappella singing is a wonderful training device, and there are a number of places in these pieces where the orchestra drops out and the chorus is on its own."

Thus, fate decrees that the change in the symphony's program will not be to the disadvantage of the choir.

Additional Information:

'Beethoven 5'

What: Brahms' music and Beethoven's most famous symphony

Performed by: Mendelssohn Choir; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $17-$72

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900 or

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