Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh Finest this Season

If I had to draw only one conclusion from this Friday’s performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony, it is that our illustrious maestro Manfred Honeck remains utterly encapsulated by a near-mystic sensitivity to drama.  To compliment the evening’s main attraction, Ravel’s Bolero, the Symphony engaged lighting designer Andrew Ostrowski to design a fitting atmosphere to compliment the work.  I must say, I am a bit resistant to the unnecessary embellishment of musical works with staging, lighting and special effects (more on that later), with which Honeck seems to have an incurable obsession.  That, and the French beret-capped ushers in the lobby were a bit silly despite the Pittsburgh Symphony’s ongoing Paris Festival.  With other initiatives, such as Honeck’s unique “Music for the Spirit” series, which is performed within major houses of worship around Pittsburgh, there is no question as to Honeck’s intense spiritual connection to his work, with or without fancy lighting.

Friday’s concert in Heinz Hall was no exception, bringing together an interesting diversity of forces in celebration of Parisian music from the last century.  Opening with Debussy’s Prélude à “L’Après-midi d’un faune,” Honeck’s knack for drawing dramatic extremes kicked in immediately with an impossibly sensitive and quiet introduction by the solo flute (masterfully brandished by principal flutist Lorna McGhee) which had me stunned; suspended, almost, in a cloudy emotional ether that lifted only as the other instruments began to emerge.  Midway through the work, a pair of clarinets dissolved so organically—finishing their line and disappearing into a delicate pianissi-issimo—that the emergence of two crotales (little tiny bells, also known as antique cymbals) seemed almost shocking, despite their own hushed dynamic; barely audible.  The work swelled and sighed and vanished almost as subtly as it began.

Of the two highlights of the evening for me,  Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130 stole the show with a commanding presence by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and two of the Pittsburgh Opera’s 2012 Resident Artists, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella and tenor Juan José de León, apparently on-loan for the evening.  Lili Boulanger was the ill-fated younger sister of the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who instructed some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.  Lili suffered from illness her entire life, dying at the age of 24 in 1918, three years before the premiere of her Psalm 130.  Despite her untimely death and ailments, she managed to build an impressive catalogue and made a profound mark on her contemporaries.  Psalm 130, as Dr. Richard Rodda speculates in his program notes, was certainly born out of Lili’s own understanding of her impending mortality.  The work, which sets the text “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord,” began as one might expect, with deep brooding tones emerging from the organ and subtle pizzicatos from the basses.  A solo tuba (well played by Craig Knox) then heralds the opening of the work, in and interesting contrast to the solo flute of the Debussy.

Following the dramatic expansion and contraction of the orchestra and choir, Ms. Lauricella emerged with a concrete resolve and powerful tone, singing “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”  The clear connection to Lili’s fading life as she penned these passages nearly one hundred years ago was articulated on many levels by Ms. Lauricella’s fine performance.  In one particularly memorable moment, the alto section of the choir overlapped Ms. Lauricella in unison, building a moment of mystic repose as it seemed all the voices of the choir were emanating from the soloist.  Later, at Ms. Lauricella’s second entrance, I was stricken by a particularly interesting moment of orchestration in which the soloist sings with only the organ, celesta, harp and two pizzicato basses.  This passage gave way to an abbreviated solo for the tenor, who stood within the orchestra on a small platform.  Mr. De León sang confidently and added a haunting echo to the greater picture, playing off of Ms. Lauricella and floating somewhere between her and the choir.  Oh, and the choir!  In my opinion, this performance marks the Mendelssohn’s finest this season and I am enthusiastic to hear their continuing evolution under director Betsy Burleigh.

As for the conclusion of the concert, following intermission was a stellar performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G-Major for Piano and Orchestra, captained by twenty-two year old French pianist Lise de la Salle.  Ms. De la Salle commanded the stage collaboratively with Maestro Honeck and brought youthful energy and theatricality to the work without the needless acrobatics with which we have become familiar in recent years.  It was clear to me that the emphasis in Ms. De la Salle’s performance was the music and, while she played with virtuosic capability, in an age when the term “virtuoso” has become a rather insulting status-quo to many players seeking more of each work, it is meant a high compliment to remark that her playing was musical and dramatic.

Undoubtedly, for the remainder of the concert-going public, programming Ravel’s well-loved Bolero as the finale was a clever box-office move.  As I mentioned briefly above, the need for theatrics in bringing relevance to established works treads upon a fine line.  As the lights went out in the hall, plunging the entire room into darkness, the audience let out a hesitant chuckle before settling as a single spot light appeared over snare-drummer and principal percussionist Andrew Reamer, the undisputed star of the show.  Unfortunately, as Andrew Ostrowski’s lighting design unfolded I found it to be rather pedestrian, which added little more than confusion to an otherwise fantastic performance.  Special effects aside, the orchestra played brilliantly and, somehow, seemed to have fun as Maestro Honeck showed off his inner Frenchman with an exciting rendition.  Needless to say, Mr. Reamer received a standing ovation for his snare line, which bordered upon a kind of meditation, keeping in line with the evening’s spiritual foundations.