Preview: 2,500 singers join Pittsburgh Symphony for Spirit Festival
April 14, 2013 4:00 AM
Thousands of singers rehearsed last week in Heinz Hall for Saturday's "Singing City" concert, which kicks off Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Music for the Spirit Festival.
By Andrew Druckenbrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What started as a celebration of one man's voice for good has become an utterance of thousands of singers. In January 2004, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed at the Vatican for the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's papacy. It was to honor his commitment to interfaith understanding and attempts to build dialogue across the world's major religions.
A few years later, the PSO hired Manfred Honeck, a music director who decided the concept should not be a one-off for the orchestra and to apply it to the Pittsburgh region.
Pittsburgh Symphony Music for the Spirit Festival events
• 2 p.m. next Sunday: "Spiritual Songs From Around the World" at Pittsburgh Opera building, Strip District, with Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists.
• 7:30 p.m. next Sunday: "Lucis -- Music of Light," organ recital by Paul Jacobs at Heinz Chapel, Oakland. $40.
• 8 p.m. April 22: Pittsburgh Speakers Series, Nando Parrado, at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Call for limited tickets 412-392-4900.
• 7:30 p.m. April 23: "Celebrating the Next Generation," various conductors leading musicians from Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall. Free.
• 7:30 p.m. April 25 and 28: Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, "The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds" at New Hazlett Theater, North Side. $25-$30.
• 8 p.m. April 26-27 and 2:30 p.m. April 28: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with PSO, Mendelssohn Choir and soloists led by Manfred Honeck at Heinz Hall. $20-$98.
"We thought we could expand it in this city that has a very spiritual aura," says Mr. Honeck. "Music brings people together. You hear that quote many times, but let's do it."
Recast as the Music for the Spirit Festival (www.pittsburghsymphony.org/spirit), this PSO series of concerts focuses on the universal message of music. This weekend, the project will get more vocal support -- about 2,500 voices -- when the orchestra joins singers from a number of local choirs at the Petersen Events Center for a concert to kick off a week of focus on the spiritual power of music.
"These are people from our community who would not otherwise get the chance to sing with the Pittsburgh Symphony," says Mary Persen, a coordinator of the event. "The youngest singer is 14 and oldest is 86."
"It is a time to focus on what it is in music that brings us all together," says Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was the Catholic bishop in Pittsburgh at the time of the Vatican tour. "It is the ability of music to touch the human spirit, and lift the human spirit."
"I believe in every piece there is a spiritual moment and they can touch people and help them understand humanity even more," says Mr. Honeck. "I thought it is so important for those who want to, whether you are Buddhist or Jewish or Christian or Muslim, emotionally we are celebrating the same somehow."
Mr. Honeck conceived of the idea for the "Singing City" event at the Petersen on a retreat in Ligonier. "I wanted it to be more than the Mendelssohn Choir. I wanted many people to be part of the event." He got his wish -- and a bit more: "Typically we have 50 tenors and now we have 500 tenors!"
Logistics will definitely be an issue for the concert.
"Twenty-five hundred people is outrageous!" says Mr. Honeck, who joked about using an airport's ground crew flashlights instead of a baton. "It will take a lot of concentration. The people will have to look at me to keep everything together. They must play and sing in time, not to mention the acoustics of the big space. The last singer will be 100 meters away instead of 10 or 20."
The program includes excerpts from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Verdi's Requiem, Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and the chorale finale of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection." It also will present the premiere of a choral work by Pittsburgh native Jonny Priano.
Other events in the Spirit Festival include a pipe organ recital by famed organist Paul Jacobs and the opera "The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds" presented by the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival.
The week concludes with that most famous of classical music spiritual works, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Choral." Its last movement is the "Ode to Joy." That program also features the world premiere of Theofanidis' "The Gift," commissioned by the PSO in honor of longtime board chairman Richard P. Simmons.
"Let us sing and play together," says Mr. Honeck. "We are in a world that needs more and more coming together for our understanding of everyone."