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PSO and guest conductor relish challenges presented by Vatican concert

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It goes without saying that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concert for the pope will be an extraordinary event. It's the first time an American orchestra has performed in the Vatican for a pope, and it celebrates the 25th year of John Paul II's papacy. Furthermore, the event honors John Paul's long-standing commitment to reaching out to other faiths.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Conductor Gilbert Levine prepares the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for its Vatican concert during a rehearsal yesterday in Heinz Hall.
Click photo for larger image.

But the concert itself also will be extra-ordinary, making the experience for the symphony and its guest conductor for the event, Gilbert Levine, a challenge they eagerly accept.

"The preparation for a papal concert takes all the time you have," says Levine, in Pittsburgh to conduct a special concert tonight at Heinz Hall that contains some of the programming for the papal concert taking place Saturday in Rome. "Everything is run over with an ecclesiastical comb."

Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," will be heard in its entirety tonight, with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. In Rome, its second and third movements will be dropped and the world premiere of American composer John Harbison's choral work "Abraham" will be included beforehand.

Even though Levine has served as a music director for many concerts at the Vatican, he doesn't presume even the smallest detail will escape the judgment of Rome -- or the pontiff himself.

Take Mahler's five-movement symphony, with solo singers and chorus in the final two movements. The well-known work has existed for more than a century, very much in the public ear and under the academic microscope. Its subject matter -- Mahler's personal expression of the anxiety of death and the joy of everlasting life -- is in keeping with Christian thought and the focus of this occasion. But its renown meant nothing to the Vatican, which subjected the secular symphony to its own strict assessment for approval by papal committees and the pope himself.

"I provided translation of the Mahler to the pope, the text of the last two movements," says Levine. The symphony uses poetry by both Mahler and others and if it wavered from Catholic belief, it wouldn't be on the program, despite the fact that Mahler was Catholic.

The Vatican subjected Harbison's new work to the same exacting standards, although it was easier because the text gained approval before he began composing it.

"We came up with a text from Genesis and took it through two papal committees," says Levine.

The Pittsburgh Symphony rehearses for their performance at the Vatican. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The tight logistics don't stop there. With the Swiss Guard in attendance and a multicultural audience in the 7,500-seat hall, the silver jubilee concert will be "a whole different atmosphere than what people have performed in," says Levine.

Beneath this pomp and circumstance lies a unique venture for the PSO. Once the pope enters Paul VI Hall in the Vatican, protocol states that no one enters or leaves the hall (unless due to an emergency). This means that the offstage playing of music that Mahler indicated "from a distance" has to be performed by separate, backstage players. This has necessitated the PSO hiring extra six trumpeters, three horn players and additional percussionists. The offstage musicians will sit patiently to perform only a few minutes of music in the final movement.

Convention also dictates no intermission, so papal concerts last only about 70 minutes. That's why Levine had to shorten Mahler's Second. "I wasn't going to speed up the Mahler," he says.

In particular, he wanted to keep the massive first movement, which has special meaning for the pope. As a celebration of John Paul the man as much as of his papacy, the Mahler was chosen because this movement was likely inspired by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz's epic "Funeral Rites." This resonated with John Paul not only generally as the first Polish pope, but also personally, because as a young, aspiring actor, the future pope acted in a Mickiewicz play and memorized his poetry.

"The pope is a real intellectual and was fascinated that there could be a Polish root to this symphony and a connection to the Abrahamic faiths," said Levine.

The Abrahamic faiths -- Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- are those that view the biblical Abraham as a patriarch. Levine wanted an American orchestra because of the country's religious tolerance. "We are a society of the Abrahamic faiths," says Levine.

For the Mahler and the Harbison works, Rome has assembled a special choir to represent each of these faiths. Members of the London Philharmonic Choir, the Krakow Philharmonic Choir, the Ankara State Polyphonic Choir (Turkey) and the Mendelssohn Choir will join together.

Though the combination is symbolically poignant, it presents musical difficulties. "My Turkish is not what it used to be," says Levine.

Tonight's concert at Heinz Hall is sold out.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.

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