Music to Feed the Spirit
Kanny, Mark, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Much of classical music has spiritual dimensions, whether or not a given piece is religious in orientation. Yet, after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome in 2004, explicitly spiritual programming has become a regular feature of symphony seasons.
Two programs a year have been labeled as "music for the spirit," a tradition Manfred Honeck eagerly embraced when he became music director in 2008.
This week, two years after planning began, the Pittsburgh Symphony will present a Music for the Spirit Festival from April 20 to 28 at Heinz Hall, Downtown, and at venues stretching east from the Strip District to Oakland and Point Breeze.
The festival includes more than a dozen events of various kinds - - mostly concerts, but also including book club discussions and a talk by Nando Parrado, part of the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speakers Series, about his miraculous 72-day survival in the Andes Mountains after a plane crash.
Festival events begin with Singing City, a concert featuring a 2,500-voice choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony, led by Honeck. Subsequent offerings include a recital by the world-class organist Paul Jacobs, an ambitious choral and orchestral concert by high- school and university students, a Jewish mystical opera and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with the "Ode to Joy."
"I am not certain there are many places that would have undertaken something as inviting and historic," says Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who will offer the festival's inaugural address. Six other speakers will express multiple faith traditions.
"I say 'historic' because this grows out of a long-standing awareness that music has this wonderful power to bring us beyond the immediacy of the moment," says Wuerl, former bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese and now archbishop of Washington, D.C. "Music has the power to touch the spirit. Some of the most beautifully spiritually in-tune music has its root in religious faith, coming out of all the various faith traditions."
Honeck began planning the festival during a rare week off in Pittsburgh two years ago.
"I never have a week off," Honeck says. "I used it to do a lot of thinking about different things. I wanted to celebrate with the city, with the people of the city. As music for the spirit is in the nature of my interests, I thought this is something we could do something to connect more."
Honeck spent a whole day brainstorming with his assistant, Mary Persin, former violist of the Biava Quartet. They ended up with 20 pages of possibilities.
"All of these concerts are not just concerts, not that concerts really are just concerts," Persin says. "They will be similar to Manfred's presentation of Mozart's Requiem and Handel's 'Messiah,' works framed to make them more relevant with audiences."
Preparations for the Singing City concert began a year ago when dozens of regional choral directors came to Heinz Hall to hear about the plans and sign up their choruses. After the groups rehearsed separately, Robert Page and Christine Hestwood are preparing the aggregate ensemble.
"I absolutely love doing this," Page says. "In a way, it takes me back to when I was in high school in Abilene, Texas, leading the congregation, 300 or 400 people, in hymn singing in summer tent revival meetings. So, it comes naturally."
Page, 85, is retiring from the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University at the end of the current academic term. He's a legendary figure, the former music director of the Mendelssohn Choir, who had long associations with three of America's top orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony.
"I've been impressed with the way the maestro takes the orchestra into the community," Page says. …