Honeck dares greatly to interpret Mozart's 'Requiem'

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Beginning with Mozart's pupils and leading to scholars and conductors, many have tried to complete his final work, the monumental Requiem. They've parsed his choral writing and looked to compositional practices of the time. But not one has matched the sheer eruption of genius of the score, and perhaps that's because they went about it the wrong way: trying to finish the work with notes.

Last night at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck brought his different approach. Like an architect who turns conventional wisdom on its head, Honeck sought to "complete" the spirit of the Requiem, by surrounding the fragment with music and texts on the subject of death.

The program of Honeck's "Requiem: Mozart and Death in Music and Words" slightly resembled the outline of a funeral mass with bells, chant and biblical readings, but Honeck was going for an "impression" of death's meaning both to Mozart (in tender letter to his father) and to us (in poems about the Holocaust by Nelly Sachs and local student Matt May). Actor John Lithgow, whose recent role as a serial killer in the TV thriller "Dexter" added another layer of death symbolism, narrated with flawless enunciation, and trombone player James Nova played the Tuba mirum solo from the balcony to represent the voice of God.

But let's stop right there. When is the last time you heard a conductor have the conviction and the chutzpah to mess around with the likes of Mozart? I am thrilled to have Honeck attempting such endeavors, because more so than ever, American audiences are culturally removed from classical music and its setting. I know that Honeck wanted to pass on a message about death in our society, but I think a program like this is just the sort of enrichment that can break through to today's audiences. I hope he attempts more.

On a purely musical level Honeck's creation was compelling. The chant was sung off-stage by the St. Vincent Schola Gregoriana. Mozart's "Masonic Funeral Music" and "Laudate Dominum" prepared the Requiem well. Breaking it up for a reading from Revelation just before the "Dies Irae" was inspired, as was repeating the Lacrimosa and ending with Mozart's "Ave verum corpus" to honor the Catholic Mozart's belief in eternal life and his belief that he was writing the Requiem for his own imminent demise.

It all served to accentuate the potency of the Requiem, and the Mendelssohn Choir, prepared by director Betsy Burleigh, sang with urgency. The PSO responded to Honeck's keen dramatic treatment of the score, including his view of the Introitus as someone weeping rather than a death march (clarinetist Michael Rusinek and bassoonist Nancy Goeres blended superbly). The soloists were led by soprano Chen Reiss' bell-like intoning, with mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese, tenor Alek Shrader and bass John Relyea,

Textually, I had some issues. While Western society downplays our relationship with death like it did in Mozart's time, medieval times or earlier, I hardly think we are out of touch with it. Death is the ultimate personal affair, and everyone faces it differently, then or now.

But the poignant element of Honeck's treatment comes in its heterogeneousness -- it creates a space for reflection. In this regard, and musically, it was a resounding success.

The concert opened with a sinewy Beethoven's Overture to "Coriolan," with hearty play by the horns and a plaintive ending by the cellos. Less successful was Walter Braunfels' "Te Deum" in part because it is a bit staid and in part because only one movement was offered.

Timothy Lees, concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony, sat in for Andres Cardenes.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. tonight and 2:30 p.m. tomorrow.

Andrew Druckenbrod blogs at Classical Musings on post-gazette.com/music. Reach him at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com .


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