Sometimes the why and the how give way to the is.
Just as we will never know how Wolfgang Mozart viewed the "Requiem" that he wrote in dire sickness and debt and left unfinished when he died, we will never know exactly why it seems to defy reality. It is a work about death and salvation that at moments seems to be heavenly, or at the very least otherworldly.
Mozart's setting of the Mass for the Dead does not need any assistance in grasping at the ineffable, but the setting that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director Manfred Honeck placed it in Friday night at Heinz Hall magnified it.
Mr. Honeck's creation that he first unveiled in 2001 and brought to Heinz Hall in 2009 is unusual. Most treatments of the "Requiem" are concerned with completing the unfinished sections. And few conductors these days have the confidence -- guts really -- to do anything that might alter a masterpiece. But Mr. Honeck didn't touch a note of Mozart's score, instead compellingly arguing that context is more important. Hence his title "Mozart's Death in Words and Music."
Friday night the majestic "Requiem" was preceded by chanting by the Saint Vincent Schola Gregoriana. Then, F. Murray Abraham read a Mozart letter to his father, poetry by Nelly Sachs and biblical passages, including from the Book of Revelations. Mr. Abraham starred in the acclaimed film "Amadeus" as the very fellow (the jealous composer Salieri) who tried to kill Mozart. But he cast that association aside immediately with weighty tone and impassioned phrasing.
To some the entire affair is surely overboard, but I feel, witnessing it now for the second time, that it sets the "Requiem" in relief rather than saturates it. Entrances of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and soloists John Relyea (bass), Paul Appleby (tenor), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano) and Sari Gruber (soprano) serve more to enhance the music, even if you don't follow the path that Mr. Honeck sets before us.
The PSO will take this work to Mozart's city of Vienna in its upcoming European tour, and it will be fascinating to hear how the Viennese receive it.
The question of what is overboard came up in the other major work of the evening, Beethoven's Violin Concerto. The soloist was not a guest, but the PSO's talented concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, in his debut as a concerto soloist in Heinz Hall.
Whereas most in this situation would be content to hit the notes with artistry, he offered a thoughtful reinterpretation of the piece. It was as if he was throwing down the gauntlet to say he has arrived. His sweet but small tone and impeccable bowing brought the concerto closer to Mozart's classic period than Beethoven's Romantic. But he and Mr. Honeck pushed the envelope with many tempo shifts that upset the flow of the work. It was a case of trying too hard and doing too much. The haunting theme that enters near the end of the first movement was so slow as to nearly derail the work.
And the cadenza that Mr. Bendix-Balgley wrote for the performance was far too long -- or seemed to be -- and overwrought. He is clearly an artistic force, but this work doesn't need an artist's fingerprint on every measure. He did, however, uncover an oft-hidden beauty in the lighthearted finale.
The concert opened with a fascinating work by the Austrian contemporary composer Herbert Willi. His short "ABBA-MA" seemed like the climax of a work we didn't hear. Martial themes give way to eerie reverberations ... befitting the subtitle "Echoes of Peace."
Program repeats 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.