Symphony’s ‘Music for the Spirit’ uplifts and exhilarates |

Symphony’s ‘Music for the Spirit’ uplifts and exhilarates

Mark Kanny

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra‘s fall “Music for the Spirit” concert Nov. 20 was an uplifting experience, a memorable blend of inspired programming and bold performance.

The performance took place in the acoustically superb Westminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon. The sanctuary seats 500 and is shaped like a shoebox, as are many of the best concert halls. It also boasts a magnificent Austin pipe organ.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Te Deum in C major began the concert in lucid grandeur. Manfred Honeck led a vigorous performance, both musically stylish and closely attuned to the text. This concert was the debut of the Music for the Spirit Chamber Chorus, a group of 22 professional singers who produced a robust and well-defined sound that balanced well with the forceful chamber orchestra sounds.

The symphony’s music director was shrewd in focusing on Viennese classicism’s style of spirituality in the first part of the evening, but also creative in his selections. The finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 followed in a high-spirited performance that picked up not only speed but also joyousness in its final pages.

Sari Gruber was the concert’s soprano soloist. In Franz Schubert’s famous “Ave Maria,” the appeal of Gruber’s legato lines were enhanced by Honeck’s arrangement of the accompaniment for pizzicato strings.

Two instrumental pieces followed, starting with the slow movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 38, in which Honeck placed a solo violin in the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary to provide some of the musical echoes that give this piece its unofficial nickname, “The Echo.” The finale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 was effervescent at a quick tempo.

The “Hallelujah” Chorus, which is the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” was a briefer large-scale counterpart to the Haydn Te Deum, and concluded the Viennese classicism. The chorus was again impressive.

Gruber made an effective stylistic adjustment in singing Pietro Mascagni’s “Ave Maria,” an arrangement by the composer of the instrumental intermezzo in his famous verismo opera “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Again, the purity of her line was appealing, but her pitch wavered on the final note.

Honeck is not likely to have conducted much, if any, music like Moses Hagen’s arrangement “Elijah Rock,” but led the choir singing a capella in a boisterous performance.

After Gruber returned to sing Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus,” with heartfelt oboe solos by Cynthia DeAlmeida, the concert concluded with John Rutter’s “Gloria,” in the version for brass, percussion and organ.

The music begins exuberantly with arpeggiated chords and sharply rhythmic answers from the brass and timpani, while Rutter’s setting of the text has refreshing shape. The middle movement, the “Domine Deus,” is a prayer for mercy and more introspective. Only in the big climax was the chorus swamped by the instruments. The third-and-final section brought the concert to an exhilarating conclusion.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Nov. 22 at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School, 1617 Route 228, Cranberry. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Details: 412-392-4900 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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