Review: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Thrills Another Packed House with Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ In Words & Music

Schubert, World Premiere Commission, Orchestra, Soloists, and Choirs All Highlights of Colossal Presentation


Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of this weekend’s concerts featuring Mozart’s Requiem, styled and presented as Requiem: Mozart’s Death in Words and Music, the “words” coming in spoken dramatic readings by Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actor, F. Murray Abraham. In addition to the large orchestra and choirs, guest soloists Jeanine De Bique, soprano; Catriona Morison, mezzo-soprano; Ben Bliss, tenor, and Tareq Nazmi, bass, were on hand to augment the large crowd on the stage, vigorously applauded by the large crowd in the auditorium.

There are two more chances at repetitions of the concert – tonight, Saturday, at 8 p.m., and tomorrow, Sunday, at 2:30 p.m. It would be wise to visit the orchestra’s website soon if you plan to take in one of the remaining performances. As of this writing, tonight’s concert is at 80% capacity: tomorrow’s at 90%.

Soprano Jeanine De Bique was the guests for Mozart’s Requiem. (Images by Julie Goetz)

The program began with a marvelous reading of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759, Unfinished. The number eight is significant in that at least eight speculations as to why the composer stopped after the first two movements have been proven false. Regardless of the number of theories put forth, the simple fact of the matter is that no one knows why. There is no written record by the composer or any of his contemporaries that might explain the reason definitively, so no one will ever know why, barring the discovery of some long-lost letter or the like. Another truth of the matter is that countless composers have finished symphonies that can’t match the beauty of Schubert’s Allegro moderato and Andante con moto in his unfinished 8th. Honeck and the orchestra brought out the beauties of the first movement’s B minor sonata form and the second’s E major contrasting themes magnificently and gave an excellent display of why the symphony will continue to find its way to concert stages.

Second on the program, and closing the first half, was James MacMillan’s Her tears fell with the dew at even, the world première of a short piece commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The Scottish composer tells us in the program notes that, “The title of this one-movement orchestral piece is a poetic snapshot from Mariana, the first great poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” He also speaks, regarding the music, of “isolated, short but dense chords,” “highly ornamented modal melody,” “exaggeratedly extrovert material which is marked ‘blaring, like a primeval fanfare,’” and more. After a single hearing, we’ll take his word regarding the twelve minutes of contemporary music, which the audience applauded heartily before making it the topic of animated discussions in the lobbies during the intermission.

Watching the stage fill with performers for the Mozart work that made for the second part of the program was an awesome sight. Instrumentalists, soloists, over a hundred members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, the Tenors and Basses of the Westminster Choir – they came and came until from some vantage points it was difficult to tell where the crowd on the stage and the crowd in the audience began and ended. Of the magnificent Requiem, again we are presented with a work unfinished by the composer, but the reason for this was Mozart’s death. His widow requested another composer complete the piece, but Honeck wisely confines his performance to the music composed by Mozart himself, opens and closes the work with three bell tolls, adds Gregorian chants and additional Mozart pieces (such as the Masonic Funeral Musik, K. 477) to make for 65 wonderful minutes of orchestral playing and choral singing, which is being recorded during the performances for a future CD issue.

The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, under Ryan Keeling, Interim Music Director, and Betsy Burleigh, Music Director Emerita, contributed largely to the success of the performance. As we’ve previously noted, for such a large group to keep in time and tune is no small feat, and the volume of sound they created was quite spectacular – probably a bit too spectacular for those in the front rows of the audience. Equally impressive were the chants intoned by The Tenors and Basses of the Westminster Choir, under conductor James Jordan. At spaced intervals, dramatic readings from a letter of Mozart’s to his father, poems by Nelly Sachs and the Book of Revelations rang out from actor F. Murray Abraham.

F. Murray Abraham, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was born in Pittsburgh before his family moved to El Paso, Texas.

The solo vocalists all possess fine voices and were delightful in the brief solo work they sang, but mainly they are part of the massive ensembles. But we heard enough of Ms. De Bique to know that she has a brilliant soprano voice; that Mr. Bliss sings with a pure and sweet tenor; that Ms. Morison has a warm, plush mezzo-soprano voice, and that Mr. Nazmi has a sonorous bass voice of remarkable carrying power. All of the soloists were heard at their best – even though they stood behind the orchestra, just below the huge chorus.

It was another fine night for Honeck and the PSO, and two performances remain for this highly recommended event.

Tickets and details: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

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