Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony lower the curtain on “Spring for Music” with spiritual program
The four-year run of Carnegie Hall’s “Spring for Music” festival ended quietly Saturday night with three bell strokes.
Since 2011, the program has brought 23 different regional orchestras from the United States and Canada to the hall. To be selected for a coveted spot in the festival, ensembles proposed wildly original programs often with an emphasis on 20th- and 21st-century music with $25 ticket prices keeping seats affordable. Unfortunately, the program failed to attract enough financial support to continue for a fifth season.
So it was up to Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to bring closure to the festival with a deeply spiritual program, including a reimagined funeral service for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Honeck, Pittsburgh’s music director since 2008, has been quite vocal about his Roman Catholic faith, and that shone through in his earnest handling of devoutly religious works. He set a reverential tone from the start, as the stage lights dimmed and he began with Bruckner’s Ave Maria. The conductor noted that it’s unusual to open a concert with an a cappella work, however his selection worked to his advantage, subduing an enthusiastic audience with nuanced singing from the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.
From there the orchestra segued without pause into the final scene of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, followed by the New York premiere of James MacMillan’s orchestral tone poem, Woman of the Apocalypse. Honeck explained that he grouped these works together as a suite of pieces pertaining to the Virgin Mary. Indeed, the lyrics of the first two works are largely prayers to Mary; and in the third, the actual Woman of the Apocalypse, who appears in the Book of Revelation, is often read as Mary.
Employing spare but effective lighting and stage directions, Pittsburgh and the Mendelssohn Choir wove together a gripping cinematic scene with a compelling narrative arc. From the penitent sounds of the Ave Maria, they jarringly launched into the march to the guillotine by the Carmelite nuns, martyred for their religious beliefs. As each of the 16 nuns faced her execution in the score, one of the singers slumped to her side until only Elizabeth DeShong, powerfully singing the role of Blanche de la Force from behind the orchestra, remained.
As DeShong slumped at Blanche’s act of martyrdom, the orchestra propelled itself into MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse. Cast in five continuous sections spanning 30 minutes. the work describes a fight that occurs in the Book of Revelation between the Woman (good) and a dragon (evil), Taking visual cues from artists such as Albrecht Dürer and William Blake, MacMillan sketches a quite literal account of the scene. When the Woman makes her ascent to the heavens she’s accompanied with woodwinds hovering above the violin section, and her arrival is greeted with fanfares.
Honeck deftly shaped the musical allegory, drawing especially vigorous playing from Pittsburgh’s brass section. One particular blast at the end of the second section, “The Great Battle,” proved so thunderous that the young lady in the row in front of me threw her hands over her ears.
After intermission, Honeck resumed the program, once again dimming the stage lights and opening with an a cappella work. This marked the beginning of “Mozart’s Death in Words and Music,” a meditation on the composer’s death that Honeck pieced together from Mozart’s Requiem and other religious compositions, Austrian funeral traditions, selected readings, and Gregorian chant.
The juxtapositions between texts and music showcased Honeck’s acute sense for the dramatic, and some of these pairings were inspired. A letter Mozart wrote to his father describing his peace with death gives context to the music that he would eventually write in the Requiem. Another spectacularly theatrical moment came as an excerpt from Revelations about the day of wrath led straight into an impassioned account of the Requiem’s “Dies irae.”
Sunhae Im, a clear voiced soprano with a light vibrato, sang the “Laudate Dominum” from Vesperae solennes de confessore affectingly. Tenor Benjamin Bruns, bass Liang Li, along with Im and DeShong were fine soloists in selections from the Requiem. Actor F. Murray Abraham provided touching readings of all the texts.
Honeck drew an incredible dynamic range from both the orchestra and choir, sometimes sacrificing precision for sheer power. However, many of the most moving moments were the quiet ones, such as when the concert closed with the tolling of three last bells on a darkened stage. While their chimes resonated in the hall, Honeck’s hands and the audience’s reaction remained suspended for what seemed to be several minutes. When the lights came up, applause seemed superfluous.