F. Murray Abraham pairs with Mozart for PSO

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It's been nearly 30 years since Salieri killed Mozart, and now he's back for more.

Not exactly. For one, there's no evidence to that myth, and Salieri is not an undead zombie roaming concert halls. But it's a bizarre thought that could understandably cross the minds of patrons at Heinz Hall this weekend. None other than F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for portraying the jealous composer Salieri in the hit film from 1984, "Amadeus," will be narrating a special performance of Mozart's famous "Requiem," created by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's leader, Manfred Honeck.

Pitsburgh Symphony Orchestra

With: Manfred Honeck, conductor; F. Murray Abraham, speaker; Noah Bendix-Balgley, violin; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, soloists.

Program: Mozart's "Requiem," Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Willi's "ABBA-MA.".

Where: Heinz Hall.

When: 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: Start at $20; www.pittsburghsymphony.org; 412-392-4900.

It's a strange homecoming for Mr. Abraham, who was born and lived in Uptown before moving to El Paso, Texas, when he was 4. "My memories are really of returning to visit our huge family," he says. "My mother, who was Italian, was one of 14 children, and my father, who was Syrian, was one of six, so we have literally hundreds of cousins."

Intriguingly, music, art and acting were not part of his life as a youth. "We were working class -- mill workers and coal workers," he says. "My father was a mechanic who taught himself to fix cars. Literature and acting came later in high school, and mysteriously."

That's not as cryptic as it sounds when you discover that Mr. Abraham got caught up with the wrong folk in high school and was a bit of a "hoodlum," in his words. That gang background might have helped him in his appearance in "Scarface," but it was far better for him that he had more productive run-ins with art and classical music. "The first classical music I glommed onto was Jascha Heifetz on LP performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concert. It changed my life."

Mr. Abraham is modest about his sensational performance as Salieri. "If you have any talent as an actor, you can't miss with it," he says. "The man who created the role in London [on the stage] won [his] highest award with it, the guy who did it in New York won the highest award for it, I did it in the movie and I won the highest award with it." While he is thankful that the Oscar set him up for life -- even if he never did attain a major career after it -- getting close to Mozart's music during the filming of "Amadeus" is something he appreciates to this day -- without a single pang of deadly jealousy.

Actually, in Milos Forman's film and Peter Shaffer's play, Salieri only hastened Mozart's death, by pushing the sick composer to finish the "Requiem." That's not historically true, and neither is the claim that Salieri poisoned him. Nothing remotely resembling murder ended Mozart's life at age 35 in 1791, although scholars are divided on exactly what did (rheumatic fever, strep throat, even vitamin deficiency are among the speculation).

With the 1790s orbiting the 1980s, fiction and fact swirling around irony, you might think the concerts would be a post-modernist's dream night at the symphony. It will be nothing but authentic for Mr. Abraham.

"This is marvelous music," he says from his residence in New York City. "You can hear it so many times; there are such amazing passages." He was first approached to do the narration in 2008 (he had to withdraw, leading to John Lithgow taking over the speaker role), and was immediately struck by the power of Mr. Honeck's expanding upon the "Requiem" through the reading of some of Mozart's letters to his father, as well as poems, biblical passages, chant and more.

"It is not simply another presentation of the 'Requiem,' which would have been OK with me," he says. "But you are talking about being a revelatory experience. Reading his letters to his father means so much to this piece. This awakens people to his humanity. Mozart was a man, a human being who had a need to communicate in addition to having this extraordinary genius.

"The poetry I will read in the performance that was selected by Maestro speaks eloquently to the problem of repairing war wounds of the worst kind in our history. He has chosen Mozart's elevated views of the place that death plays in our lives, and the beautiful poetry of Nelly Sachs. The idea that you can examine death through this work and the readings from the second world war is extraordinary. When it is approached in this way the 'Requiem' becomes such a positive piece."

That's straight from the source ... or near enough.

These concerts also feature PSO concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley soloing in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, his concerto debut with the orchestra.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings.


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