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Lyrical Structures

Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th birthday,


To find a city in Europe that is only now celebrating its 250th birthday would be a very difficult task. In America, however, a city of that age is not common once away from the east and south coasts. Inland settlements took time to get settled, and declare their existence.

To celebrate its 250th Anniversary, the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gave a lasting gift to itself and the rest of the world by initiating the commission of a new cantata celebrating its history. Set for soloists, large choir and large symphony orchestra, The Good Life received its world première performances on 17 and 19 October 2008. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was joined by its venerable chorus The Mendelssohn Choir (prepared by its music director Betsy Burleigh), soprano Hila Plitmann and baritone Kevin Deas, under the baton of new principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin. Considering Mr Slatkin's long history of championing new American music, this was an especially fortuitous situation, as it was his first appearance here under his new title.

With funding from The Heinz Endowments, there were other aspects of this commission, as well. The composer Derek Bermel and librettist Wendy S Walters spent time in Pittsburgh, catching up on the city's history and geography, etc, but also working with several teams of student composers/librettists. The results of this venture were heard at a Saturday evening concert at The Warhol Museum, and brief excerpts were also presented before the Sunday matinée performance at Heinz Hall.

Although the new work The Good Life never actually mentions the city's name, it is definitely about Pittsburgh. However, it could just as easily pertain to any of the northern, so-called 'rust belt' cities that helped to build the United States, primarily through it's manufacturing and steel mills. Regardless, it is about Pittsburgh, as one can easily tell by listening to the words.

Rounding out the concert, the orchestra under Mr Slatkin first performed the amusing Slonimsky's Earbox by John Adams, the current Composer of the Year. During the entire season, a goodly number of his works are to be featured, and on 16 and 17 January 2009, he will conduct a program of his own music, including Doctor Atomic Symphony, On the Transmigration of Souls and excerpts from Nixon in China.

After intermission, the featured work was the Symphony No 9, From the New World, by Antonín Dvorák.

However, it was The Good Life that drew the attention of one and all. Mostly, I think, everyone was (or should have been) pleased with the result. The work is in eight movements: Welcome, Green, City Works, The Good Life, Smoky Town, Used to Be, Grey and Brown and The Space Between Us. (At no point did it mention black and gold -- the colors of all the city's athletic teams.) The words are somewhat simple, mostly short lines, and for whatever reason, every word sung by the chorus was easily understood, which is not always the case, even when singing in English. They range from short declarative sentences (sometimes repeated several times) to actual lyrical structures, that could be read aloud, successfully, as poetry.

But then, Ms Walters is an acclaimed poet and playwright, who drew inspiration from her walking trips through the city, visiting various neighborhoods and engaging in conversations with folks she encountered here and there. She unveils the industrial and social life as well as the picturesque (Pittsburgh is noted for its terrifically hilly portions and the three great rivers that bisect the city) and discovered the strength of the city -- it's people. Busy people crowded in alongside the industry and its resulting pollution, but had the will and necessary devotion to change the economy and clear the skies overhead. There was even a dash of humor. In the last movement, when the chorus sang the words 'who's out there?' the singers raised their music to cover their faces, as they then answered themselves with 'no one'.

The music, while definitely contemporary, is very accessible, with a tranquil violin solo here or gorgeous sunrise music there. It ranged from heroic to jazzy with a touch of swing thrown in. The eight movements were performed without pause. From where I was seated -- at the rear of the main floor of Heinz Hall -- the soloists didn't fare as well as the chorus in being understandable. Both Ms Plitmann and Mr Deas have pleasing voices, but whether it's the acoustics in the hall or the orchestration, their words were not always clear.

Green featured a lovely English horn solo acccompanying Mr Deas, whereas Ms Plitmann was allotted more straightforward portions. Each of them sang in alternating sections with the chorus, as well. Industrial sounds accompanied Smoky Town.

While many of the so-called 'rust-belt' cities could relate to the poetry in Used to Be:

An empty house next to
an empty street next to an
empty store where we
used to meet and dream
in grey and brown.

we can also think of the final lines:

Hello neighbor

No space between us
No space between us
No space between us

and we can dream. All that was missing was the birthday cake. Happy Birthday Pittsburgh! Best wishes for another 250 years!

Copyright © 17 November 2008 Kelly Ferjutz, Cleveland USA




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