PSO puts on balanced, spiritual performance

Last weekend at Heinz Hall, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) performed Antonin Dvorák’s Biblical Songs and Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem as part of its Music for the Spirit concert series. The program, which offers two concerts per season, presents music that is meant to “spread a spiritual and universal message,” according to the PSO’s website.

Although Friday night’s program consisted of two works featuring verse from the Bible, Christianity only served as the lens through which the featured composers explored the ideas of life, death, and resurrection. Both composers picked scripture in their native languages (Czech for the Dvorák piece and German for the Brahms piece) that does not dwell in fear and mourning, but rather in celebration and fond remembrance of those who have passed.

The program opened with Dvorák’s Biblical Songs, which were written after the deaths of his two friends, fellow composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Hans von Bülow. Internationally renowned baritone Thomas Hampson sang with assurance, and his voice carried effortlessly over the orchestra. His clear diction and tone served the difficulty of the Czech language very well. The PSO, under the baton of artistic director Manfred Honeck, accompanied Hampson beautifully. The orchestra delivered the traditional Czech music within Dvorák’s composition without grandeur, acknowledging the timeless beauty inherent in a simple folk dance.

The highlight of the program, however, was Brahms’ Requiem. The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and soprano soloist Chen Reiss joined the symphony, Honeck, and Hampson for this hour-long masterwork. Brahms wrote the piece while mourning the loss of his mother, as well as that of his mentor and dear friend Robert Schumann.

Brahms’ conception of the work was unique in that he avoided the traditional Latin text for his requiem — thus the title A German Requiem. He also refrained from using the standard requiem text; instead, he selected passages from the German Luther Bible that are meant to offer comfort to those in mourning, making this a requiem not for the dead, but for the living.

The composition is a personal one, and the music is distinctly Brahmsian: The polyphonic texture is thick and layered, and the music is deeply affecting and unsettling.

The Brahms piece required much more from the orchestra than did the Dvorák, and the PSO did a wonderful job of supporting the chorus without overpowering it. Although there were a few moments when the chorus and orchestra did not seem to be on the same page, Honeck was quick to reel them in and continue, hardly missing a beat.

Hampson shined in Requiem, especially in the sixth movement, singing with stunning gravity not heard in Dvorák’s Biblical Songs. Reiss’ solo spanned a wide emotional range: sublime and sweet one moment, fierce and dramatic the next. The interplay among the orchestra, choir, and soloists was incredibly warm and well balanced, producing a seamless and organic performance.