Pittsburgh Symphony closes innovative Spring for Music Festival

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NEW YORK – The black and yellow handkerchiefs that audience members received at Carnegie Hall bore an unmistakable resemblance to The Terrible Towel.

The so-called “hankies” were souvenirs for patrons of the acclaimed yet short-lived Spring for Music festival, which concluded with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s concert Saturday. The week-long festival, first held in 2011, presented 23 North American orchestras in creative and innovative programs at the illustrious hall. This may have been the last one.

Spring for Music had several goals, said Thomas Morris, its artistic director: to feature an array of orchestras, to unleash those ensembles’ “creative juices in programming” and to be accessible. Tickets were $25 for all seats, and 53 percent of the audience was new to Carnegie Hall. Orchestras were encouraged to bring local patrons and even had a financial stake in doing so, since their fee was guaranteed against the box office.

To dress down the festival, musicians were not allowed to wear tails and tuxedos, and they entered together, European-style.

“There’s a degree of democracy in the hall,” Mr. Morris said.

Making the cut

Forty-four of the 63 orchestras eligible for the festival (based on League of American Orchestras designations) applied to Spring for Music. Each proposal included two possible programs, a statement of artistic purpose and a history of recent concerts. The more innovative the program, the more likely the orchestra would be selected for the festival. Orchestras from New York, Seattle, Rochester, N.Y., Winnipeg (Canada) and Cincinnati also performed last week. 

Every orchestra received the same fee and relinquished radio and streaming rights. WQED-FM live-broadcasted the PSO’s concert from Carnegie Hall for the first time, said the station’s artistic director, Jim Cunningham.

Spring for Music was critically acclaimed but ran out of funds. Each iteration required three years of advanced planning, so it was difficult to extend the festival beyond 2014. Initially conceived as a four-year project, the festival would have needed to cultivate a broader donor base, partner with an existing organization or become its own institution to survive beyond this year, Mr. Morris said.

“Alas, it just didn’t happen,” he said, although he didn’t rule out the possibility it would return in 2017 or 2018.

Mr. Morris said ticket sales have gone up since the festival started, reaching roughly 80 percent of the hall’s capacity this year – an “astonishing” figure, given that the festival lacks a subscription base. Sales were boosted by the orchestras themselves, with 500 to 800 hometown fans typically coming for concerts. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra set the record last year, with 1,537 of the auditorium’s 2,804 seats filled by locals.

Innovating music

Innovative programming doesn’t necessarily require contemporary music, in Mr. Morris’ view, and context can shed light on the workhorses. The PSO’s program included new music and new takes on old. The second half featured music director Manfred Honeck’s “Mozart’s Death in Words and Music” – an arrangement of the “Requiem” which includes selections of that piece accompanied by Gregorian chants, other Mozart works and readings offered by actor F. Murray Abraham.

“It’s a thoughtful, interesting program that is not standard,” Mr. Morris said.

The presentation itself reflected an unusual approach. The concert opened with the Bruckner motet “Ave Maria,” sung by members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.

“Of course, it’s unusual to start a concert with an a cappella piece. I know that. But that’s why we’re here,” Mr. Honeck said.

“The world gets to hear the symphony, but it’s great that they now get to hear us, as well,” said Betsy Burleigh, the choir’s music director.

“Ave Maria” led without pause into the final scene from Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites.” In the opera, based during the French Revolution, a group of nuns opt to become martyrs rather than abandon their religious beliefs. As the orchestra replicated the slicing guillotine, the singers, clad in blood-red scarves, dropped their heads one by one. This piece was also followed attacca by James MacMillan’s dark, heavy tone poem “Woman of the Apocalypse,” making its New York premiere.

The program contrasted with what Mr. Morris describes as the typical three-piece orchestral program -- a new work or overture, a concerto and a symphony.

“I think it’s gotten far too monochromatic,” he said. “People who just want to hear their Brahms symphonies, this [festival] isn’t for them. But I wish they would come try it.”

“The selection on international tours is very small. It is almost the same,” Mr. Honeck said.

Still, he wondered, “Does it mean the time is over to bring Brahms’ First Symphony back as a huge piece? I think one of the signs of modern times is people are not so patient anymore.… The music is too great for that.”

The spiritual content of the PSO’s program recalled the orchestra’s Music for the Spirit series.

“I feel that Pittsburgh is a spiritual town,” said Mr. Honeck, noting the orchestra’s 2004 performance at the Vatican. That’s not a religious label, he said, but rather a marker of the way music can touch the soul “more than the world [normally] can.”

“Mozart’s Death in Words and Music” closed Spring for Music on a moving note, on a stage dimmed for dramatic effect. It carried the gravitas worthy of a festival’s end – but maybe, too, a flicker of hope that it will rise again.

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