New and Old Reach a Striking Balance to Pittsburgh Symphony’s Music for the Spirit Festival

Beethoven is dead.  He died a hundred and eighty six years ago, not long after the premiere of his soaring ninth symphony, which, not unlike the triumphant soldiers to which it pays homage, trampled the last remaining conventions of the symphonic form and gave birth to an era of grand romanticism.  These last two hundred years, however, may also be responsible for establishing a tradition of performance practice that, in and of itself, put to rest Beethoven’s own intentions for the interpretation of his work, obscuring the maestro’s detailed specificity with overly poetic assumptions and ideals.  Beethoven is thought to be the first major composer to use voices in a symphony, and a single movement of a Beethoven symphony, often exceeded the duration of entire symphonies by composers of the previous generation, such as Mozart and Haydn.  That said, as duration is inseparable from the chosen tempo in performance, the latter point  may also have become distorted over time.  Beethoven is recognized as the first composer to have utilized a little machine called the metronome (having been recently invented by a colleague of the maestro).  Using this little gadget, Beethoven was able to make exact markings in his scores, indicating precisely the tempi he had in mind.  Before Beethoven, tradition dictated just how slow was andante and how quick was vivace or allegro.  But not for Beethoven, who was able to mix science into his recipe for composition in order to let us know that when he writes allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, he actually means eighty-eight beats per minute.

Leading up to last night’s exhilarating performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, each of these interesting little points was expounded upon by conductor Manfred Honeck, in a brief lecture complimented by live musical examples.  The audience nodded attentively, as though Maestro Honeck were speaking to each of them personally, and little squeaks of “ohhh,” or “ah-ha!” occasionally floated out of the house as the maestro put down his microphone and struck up the band, first the conventional way, then with his own contrasting interpretation.  Honeck’s example of how he properly interprets the text by phrasing the music accordingly made the man in front of me giggle excitedly and sit up straight in his velvet seat, eager to hear how.  Honeck showed how, using the word brüder; punching the first beat on brü- and backing away to almost nothing on –der, suggesting a speech-like cadence, rather than an abstract musical construction.  Amazed sighs of satisfaction wafted out of the crowd.

I must say, while I also found this information to be enriching, it did feel a little bit like Maestro Honeck was preemptively defending his speedy interpretation of the work, which has taken some criticism by traditionalists following previous performances.  Of course, writing the word “traditional” at this point has got me all confused.  What could be more traditional than what Beethoven himself wrote on the page, and what more accurate than the clockwork of his metronome?

As I have already pointed out, without the use of a ouija board, we will likely never know just what Mr. Beethoven intended.  Thankfully, composers are still around and in the case of American composer Christopher Theofanidis, they still seem to know what they are doing.  Last night’s concert felt rife with elements of balance; the spiritual and the secular, the fast and the slow, the grand and the conservative.  Thankfully, my inability to chat with Mr. Beethoven was balanced by a wonderful conversation back-stage with Mr. Theofanidis, whose work “The Gift,” which was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony, received its world premiere during the first half of the concert.

I have been remiss in failing to mention thus far that this concert served as the finale to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s inaugural Music for the Spirit Festival, an expansion of Maestro Honeck’s past Music for the Spirit outreach concerts, which have endeavored to bring together different faiths in landmark houses of worship to explore the intersection of music and spirituality.

Mr. Theofanidis’ “The Gift” is a purely secular story originating in Pakistan.  It is a charming tale of an old curmudgeon who unintentionally brings together a distant king and queen, barters their marriage and sees the formation of a beautiful new kingdom.  Ultimately, the protagonist, a simple peasant named Wali Dad (sung last night by tenor Anthony Griffey), finds his satisfaction not entirely from his selfless good deed, but because he can finally be left alone.  In contrast to Beethoven’s aggressive fervor, Mr. Theofanidis’ work was nothing short of delightful, speaking a contemporary language at once refreshing and familiar and establishing an excellent fusion between Theofanidis’ very personal musical language and Amy Beth Kirsten’s sprightly libretto.  Among the questions I posed to Mr. Theofanidis in our chat, was how his knowledge of the context of the premiere—amidst the Music for the Spirit Festival and countering Beethoven’s Ninth—may have influenced his compositional process.  It was in service to the same sense of balance that permeated the evening in Heinz Hall on Friday night, that Mr. Theofanidis attempted to craft his work; to look toward Beethoven’s mystical grandeur, while reminding us who we are, now, and where we may be headed, rather than looking back at who we might have been, as in the case of Beethoven.

While the story of Wali Dad may be about people going about their business on earth, the ultimate enjoyment of this tale and its timeless morals made a definite intersection with Maestro Honeck’s spiritual trajectory.

As for the performance, another of my questions to Mr. Theofanidis was what sensitivity he paid in his compositional process to his knowledge of the performers.  It was revealed to me that while the composer played no hand in engaging renowned tenor Anthony Griffey to perform in Friday night’s concert, it was a happy coincidence that the two have known each other over twenty years.  This allowed the composer to craft a work around the individuality of Mr. Griffey’s instrument, and create a custom-made work that was able to succeed on every level.

Therein lies another balance to the scales of Friday night’s concert.  Beethoven’s infamous lack of sensitivity to the mechanics of the voice have often made choristers wake up in a cold sweat the night before the first rehearsal, while Theonfanidis‘ work seemed a real pleasure to sing.  That certainly provides another link between the two as it would seem Wali Dad is not unlike the Mr. Beethoven; he just wants to be left alone and do his own thing.

It is difficult to judge the quality of a performance in a world premiere, as there is no context within which to measure it.  That said, the Mendelssohn Choir, under the direction of conductor Betsy Burleigh, truly does a remarkable thing.  Made up mostly of trained volunteers who share a love and dedication to singing, preparing a piece of new music with no referential material but the printed page is an extraordinary feat.  While I found Mr. Theofanidis’ musical language immediately approachable, there is not always a correlation between approachable and easy-to-sing.  Nonetheless, The Mendelssohn sang beautifully in both the Theofanidis and the Beethoven, and exhibited a flexibility that is hard to come by in choral societies and groups of similar make-up.  As I have mentioned, tenor Anthony Griffey sang beautifully as Theofanidis’ Wali Dad, though I dare say he and the rest of the supporting cast were overshadowed by baritone Anexander Vinogradov during the fourth movement of the Beethoven.  I was unfamiliar with Mr. Vinogradov until last night, and when his voice emerged, ten times larger than his small physical stature, I felt sure that the old lady in front of me who had been enthusiastically head-banging through the second movement might explode.  Soprano Angela Meade and Mezzo Kelley O’Conner provided a perfect balance for Beethoven’s solo quartet.  I only wish Mr. Beethoven had written more so these fine ladies could have had a greater chance to shine through.

I have written much more here than I typically do for OperaPulse, and if you have read this far I hope it means your enthusiasm for what you are reading has matched my enthusiasm for what I heard last night.  There are two more chances to hear this exciting concert, and if you are in Pittsburgh, I encourage you to take advantage of them.  I look forward to hearing more of Mr. Theofanidis’ work come to the opera house and the concert hall.