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Music Review: PSO's preview of concert at Vatican a unifying event

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In a celebration of Pope John Paul II's ecumenical achievements, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra preached its own musical sermon about unity.

Last night, Heinz Hall overflowed with religious and civic leaders. Habits, hijabs, Roman collars and yarmulkes dotted the audience there to hear guest conductor Gilbert Levine direct Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection." The PSO will play this work Saturday as the first American orchestra to perform for the pope in the Vatican.

Heinz Hall is often the site of exceptional music-making, but less so the setting of a must-see, electrifying event. It is crucial for the future of this organization that it is able to put itself on the big map as it has with this Vatican affair, even if it means the slight subordination of the music to the "event."

Indeed the musical level was adequate but not superb. The PSO needed more musical direction from Levine, a dynamo of a personality who all but arranged this concert himself because of his close relationship with the pope.

His charisma translates into unsubtle, forceful conducting on the podium. Loud sections were stiff and runs were ragged. Also many sublime moments passed by under the same tempo, meaning that symbolism such as the cross or eternity motifs were glossed over in favor of getting from point A to B.

Overall, the concert was a success because the PSO, especially the stout brass and percussion players, pulled it together. Likewise, the Mendelssohn Choir helped convey the grandeur of the piece with a dark, gorgeous sound that sent chills up the spine. Solo singers, Ruth Ziesak and Birgit Remmert, were excellent.

The PSO worked hard to stay on the same page, a poignant message for a celebration of John Paul's 25 years of trying to bring together Muslims, Jews and Christians.

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

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