Even if you count the Oakland Zoo, the Petersen Events Center has never hosted spirited voices like it did Saturday evening. The venue known for Pitt basketball games and pop shows was transformed into a gigantic concert hall when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and about 2,000 singers joined together for a special concert.
Dubbed "Singing City," the event brought together singers from choirs around the region to perform works by Sibelius, Mahler, Verdi and more. The night opened the orchestra's week-long Music for the Spirit Festival, which music director Manfred Honeck says will explore the power of music to bring people together and to express spirituality across religions.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former bishop of Pittsburgh, echoed that in a keynote address. He spoke of the "power of music to touch the spirit and to touch the soul" and recounted how this festival grew out of the PSO's 2004 performance at the Vatican celebrating Pope John Paul II's work for interfaith understanding. But he encapsulated the thoughts of most in the audience when he turned toward the raft of singers who filled the seating sections behind the orchestra and said, "Just look at the size of that choir!"
But the ear needed no such guidance. From the sweet simplicity of the choral work that opened the concert, "Sing As One," composed by Pittsburgh native Jonny Priano, and the gentle joy of the hymn "This is My Song," set to the music of Sibelius' "Finlandia," it was clear the PSO was not playing lip service to the concept of thousands of singers combining for a concert. The aggregate choir was darn good!
I could hardly believe how accurate and cohesive the chorus was. It's not that the individual choirs, many performing in their own colorful robes, weren't accomplished singers. But I have heard many large "gatherings" of singers in arenas and stadiums and the sound never arrives this precise and purposefully. And this with Mr. Honeck's podium sitting about midcourt.
The result was visceral at times. So many voices focused so well struck the gut as much as the ear. The potent gusts of the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's "Requiem" pushed me back in the seat while the building power of the choral finale of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 seemed to lift me (soprano Katy Shackleton Williams and mezzo-soprano Jasmine Muhammad shined in the solo roles.)
But, like the opening of the Mahler, the music was just as often intensely quiet, especially that sung and performed between readings by religious leaders from Pittsburgh: the Rev. Eugene Blackwell (House of Manna); the Rev. Jisen Coghlan (City Dharma), Rabbi James Gibson (Temple Sinai), the Rev. Donald Green (Christian Associates) and Imam Atef Mahgoub (Islamic Center of Pittsburgh). The Children's Festival Choir's bright-toned "Pie Jesu" by Andrew Lloyd Webber fit that description as did PSO concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley's soloing in John Williams' theme from "Schindler's List."
The orchestra, split apart at times with brass players hundreds of feet away from the rest, handled the cavernous space well (the acoustics weren't bad, although many musicians told me it was hard to hear each other on stage). But this night belonged to the singers, a sheer spectacle that resounded with spirited artistry.