John Harbison to Pen Choral Work for Vatican Premiere

John Harbison to Pen Choral Work for Vatican Premiere

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been invited by conductor Sir Gilbert Levine to perform in Rome for Pope John Paul II on January 17, 2004. To date, no other American orchestra has ever played for the pope at the Vatican.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison has been commissioned to write a choral work based on text from the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis to open the concert program. A chorus drawn from members of the London Philharmonic Choir, Krakow Philharmonic Choir, and the Ankara State Polyphonic Choir (Turkey) will sing the world premiere of Abraham. Mahler‘s Second Symphony will follow.

The concert has a stated theme of “Reconciliation,” honoring Pope John Paul II’s 25th year as pontiff and his “lifelong commitment to interfaith understanding and outreach of the Abrahamic faiths.” It is also intended as a comment on current global issues. The official Vatican invitation to the PSO read: “This initiative has assumed a special significance in view of the current world context. The event entrusts to the powerful efficacy of music the commitment to reconciliation that all the children of Abraham – Jews, Christians and Muslims – must embrace with conviction.”

Photo by Katrin Talbot

In a statement this morning, Harbison said that as the reconciliation concept for a concert featuring Mahler’s Second Symphony took shape, “I was honored to be invited to compose a piece as Prologue, speaking directly in contemporary terms to the themes of the concert.” He explained that the selected Biblical text “presents Abraham as ‘father of many nations.’ In these difficult times, the music centers on the name and spirit of Abraham as a bridge, a mode of communication, a point of commonality.”

Though a first for an American orchestra, this will not be a first visit for Levine, who has led performances by European orchestras at the Vatican for 15 years. Recently dubbed the “Pope’s Maestro” during a CBS “60 Minutes” profile, Levine said in a statement issued by the PSO that he insisted on featuring an American orchestra for this Vatican concert because “there is no country that better represents a society of tolerance.” He personally chose the Pittsburgh Symphony to represent the “great American culture” abroad, stating, “this is truly a great orchestra with a central European tradition second to none.”

Speaking today specifically about the premiere, Levine was remarkably enthusiastic about the upcoming event, especially the fact that it would include new music. Noting the recent lack of works written especially for a papal event, Levine said Harbison’s piece is important “for the historical reason that what you’re talking about is a rarity even in hundreds of years of Vatican musical practice.”

Levine said he has been aware of Harbison’s work for a long time and considers him “one of our most important spiritual music composers.” After attending the premiere performance of Harbison’s Requiem and talking with his publisher G. Schirmer, Levine said that the composer “stuck out as somebody that I felt would really understand what was required for this very special commission.”

Harbison’s task wasn’t easy. He was charged with creating a work that fit the spiritual nature of the performance and added to the meaning of the Mahler symphony. All text had to be approved by the Vatican.

Levine has gone over the finished piece and said confidently, “I think it’s perfect.” After 15 years performing at the Vatican, he’s fairly confident the pope will enjoy it as well. “I think he’ll be very impressed with the modernity of it and yet its dedication to the spiritual values, which the pope obviously feels extremely deeply, and honoring the tradition of the Vatican. So I hope the pope is going to be enthralled.”

The concert is being sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, who have reportedly donated more than $500,000 in suport. U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Bishop Donald Wuerl and Pittsburgh Symphony Board Chairman Richard Simmons have been credited with facilitating the participation of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Seeming to summarize the sentiments of all the concert’s planners, Simmons noted that the event “has historical significance for not only the Pittsburgh Symphony, but the entire country…Through music we have the ability to speak to all nations, all religions, all people. It is a universal language that uplifts the soul and gives us renewed hope for a brighter future.”

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