Spectacle and Silence – Jennifer McGuiggan

Mozart and monks and Lithgow, oh my!

Oh my, indeed. Last night's performance of "A Funeral Mass for Mozart" was my first time attending a PSO BNY Mellon Grand Classics concert, and what an intriguing and exciting introduction it was. This was a multimedia, multigenre event. There were opening lines of text on the side wall monitors to set the story; letter, poetry, and Bible readings by the perfectly dramatic John Lithgow; Gregorian chant from Saint Vincent Schola Gregoriana, eerily cloistered offstage; a stunning trombone soloist tucked away in grand stage box right; four sublime vocal soloists spanning the octaves from a deep, dark bass to a clear, light soprano; the soaring power of the Mendelssohn Choir; the thrilling sound of the PSO; and the physically expressive conducting of Manfred Honeck. This was a performance bursting with exceptional artists and artistry.

It really was a spectacular performance. But I'd like to focus on several of the quiet moments. First, those invisible, chanting monks. I'm a sucker for Gregorian chant. I love its quiet, mystical power; its ability to transport me to ancient cathedrals with flickering candlelight and shadowy corners; its beautiful sound that manages to be simultaneously joyous and melancholic, sparse and rich. Having the monks offstage added to the mood, but it was a tad maddening. I became slightly obsessed with wanting to see them. I was rewarded during the audience's extended standing ovation when the men of the cloth finally appeared on stage to take a bow. I know it sounds silly, but I was ever so pleased to see them, to see their ethereal voices made flesh.

Another quiet star of the night who caught the attention of my fancy was the bell ringer. The imagined mass for Mozart began and ended with three sublime strikes of a bell. That bell set the scene and the mood, transporting us from Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall to Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Three bell strikes together, that's all: one…two…three. It seems so easy, so basic, so simple.

Yet, I found myself holding my breath in the eternal pauses between each strike, caught in both the beauty of the moment and my vicarious stage fright for that musician. In an action so narrow, so defined, so specific, there is no margin for error. Strike too hard and you jar the audience; too softly and the impact is lost. Too soon or too late and the effect could be ruined. Strike just right and it feels like magic.

In no way do I mean to diminish or gloss over the evening's other amazing performances, for indeed they were remarkable. But the a capella chanting and those six simple strikes of a bell: what power and beauty.

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