If "Spring For Music" had to end, at least it ended like this. This ruinously expensive festival, now in its fourth and final year at Carnegie Hall, has dedicated itself to innovative programming, to showcasing American orchestras beyond the “Big Five”, and to giving music space to experiment, fail, and triumph. This last concert subverted expectations yet again. One of the country’s more underrated partnerships, Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, turned Mozart’s Requiem, that most commercialised and devalued of works, into the climax of a profound meditation on spirituality, on the place of Catholicism in American culture, and ultimately, on the purposes of death itself.

Elizabeth DeShong © Dario Acosta
Elizabeth DeShong
© Dario Acosta

So this was less a concert than something more liturgical. After a first tableau devoted to the Virgin Mary that mingled an a cappella choral entrance, moments of opera, and a new work by James MacMillan, “Mozart’s Death in Words and Music” brought together Gregorian chant, readings of letters, poems, and scripture, and various Mozart works including the parts of the Requiem that the composer had finished by the time of his death.

This multi-textual experience was also multi-sensual. The Schola Cantorum of St. Agnes sang from just off stage, incanting, a trombonist summoned in the Tuba mirum from up in the dress circle, stage lights rose and dimmed, and, most importantly of all, Honeck managed silence impeccably, allowing space for concentration and contemplation. If we endow concert stages with the sacral aura we once reserved for altars, for once we could actually have been in the pews: papers ruffled during the readings, a baby cried, and only touch, taste, and smell were missing from a genuine service.

The result was contrived only during actor F. Murray Abraham’s readings. Quoting from one of Mozart’s letters to his father – to the effect that life is only preparation for death – made sense, as did chapters of the Book of Revelation. I was less sure how poems implicitly about the Holocaust by Nelly Sachs fitted into the whole, nor why Abraham proved so declamatory a reader of scripture. Of the Mozart, though, I had no qualms whatsoever.

One expects a former violist of the Vienna Philharmonic to know his way around this composer, but rarely have I heard such vital, urgent Mozart. The Introitus was tense, as if the choir and orchestra knew not whether the Lord really would grant the dead eternal rest, while the Dies irae exploded into life, full of jagged accents and the nastiness of the Judge’s “strict justice”. Not that Honeck could not draw hushed, restful playing too, especially in Sunhae Im’s solo turn in the Laudate Dominum from the Vesperae solennes de confessore and a trusting, gentle Ave verum corpus. The conductor drew slightly unfocused singing from the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and his four soloists (Im, Elizabeth DeShong, Liang Li and a notably clear Benjamin Bruns). But what Honeck did achieve, in the singing as much as the orchestral playing, was a genuine fusion of the Latin text and musical meaning, of the awe, the majesty, and the fright this mass is supposed to inspire.

A fearsome faith also came across in James MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse. Receiving its New York première, this long-winded and quite brutal tone poem takes its inspiration from Revelation 11 and 12, chapters that feature a great battle between Michael and the Satanic dragon, and ultimately the coronation of Mary. This was not your ordinary Mary, though, as she ascended in a pounding, raucous barrage of brass, strings, and percussion. Tender this was not, and nor did it hang together particularly well, but there were great moments in this fiercely committed performance, particularly in fulsome and extended fanfares for the Pittsburghers’ magnificent brass section, and furiously difficult passages for the string section, quick shakes of notes that sounded rather like a wind machine tearing the very air it apes.

The final scene of Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites didn’t quite work, more because of its lack of context than the music itself. Without any backstory at all, the excerpt attenuated the emotional power the opera itself finds as nuns march to the scaffold to defend their faith, and seemed to me to focus much more on the mercilessly slicing guillotine. As each of the nuns died, they slumped to one side, emphasising death itself rather than sacrifice. Im and DeShong sang impressively here, as did the female members of the Mendelssohn Choir.

Visionary programming, good execution, and a concert about more than an overture, a concerto and a symphony, a concert that spoke to more than the walls of its own hall. We need an elegy for that as much as for Mozart.

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