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A New Faith in Classical Music

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
The New York Times

By James R. Oestreich

SALZBURG, Austria — It has been called the city of churches, and bell towers sound frequent reminders. Yet there is little about latter-day Salzburg, which fiercely commercializes its status as Mozart’s birthplace and the setting for “The Sound of Music,” that brings to mind the word “spirituality.” Tacky Mozart mementos and confections vie for tourists’ dollars with magnificent performances of his music.

Nor is spirituality a word you associate nowadays with the Salzburg Festival, a once-modest summer presentation of classical music and theater founded in 1920 by the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the composer Richard Strauss and others, now grown huge and proud. A product of the economic and cultural despair at the fall of the Hapsburg empire, it is now the summer home of the vaunted Vienna Philharmonic; it’s famous for lavish opera productions and notorious for some of the highest ticket prices anywhere.

But last weekend the festival, with a week added to the front of its calendar, embarked on a 10-day Spiritual Overture. And in doing so, the festival, which has become something of a bellwether since Gerard Mortier shook it up in the 1990s after decades of elegant sameness under the conductor Herbert von Karajan, seems to have caught a wave of spirituality that is surging through the world of classical music (or, given the years of advance planning involved, helped instigate it).

On Aug. 8 the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, which has in recent years been giving increased prominence to sacred music in its Easter outings, opens a summer season called Faith, with repertory including the Mozart and Verdi Requiems and with the spiritually minded Sofia Gubaidulina as composer in residence. Next season the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra expands on its Music of the Spirit weeks, which have so far included dramatic productions of the Mozart Requiem and Handel’s “Messiah,” with a reprise of the Mozart Requiem in the fall and a nine-day festival in the spring. Also formative in all of this, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, a highly personal creation of Jane Moss, the center’s artistic director, enters its third season this fall.

The Salzburg “overture,” the first in a projected annual series, is to feature a different faith each year. This season the focus is on Judaism, and on Tuesday evening in the Felsenreitschule, the moody auditorium carved into a mountainside, Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale (of New York) in the first of three concerts serving as centerpiece.

The inspired program — shaped by Mr. Mehta and Alexander Pereira, the festival’s new artistic director — was framed by Schoenberg’s eloquent “Kol Nidre,” composed in Los Angeles in 1938, shortly before Kristallnacht in Germany, and Noam Sheriff’s brilliantly conceived choral symphony “Mechaye Hametim” (“Revival of the Dead”), written in 1985 and centering on the Holocaust. It also included Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”), which, though not ostensibly spiritual and certainly not Holocaust related, took on added meaning from the context: the more so, given the epic cast of the baritone Thomas Hampson’s superb performance.

Abetted by Mr. Hampson’s tour de force, in which he also served as narrator in the Schoenberg and spoke and sang in the Sheriff, the evening’s performances were everywhere excellent. To single out one other individual, Carl Hieger, a tenor, provided a touching cantorial inflection in the Sheriff.

The concert was greeted warmly, even clamorously, by an almost full house. This, in a city with a long tradition of anti-Semitism, came in striking contrast to, say, the Israel Philharmonic’s reception last September at the London Proms, where hecklers, injecting current Middle East politics, disrupted a concert.

“It’s not by chance that we start with Jewish music,” Mr. Pereira, the intendant, or artistic director, of the Salzburg Festival, said in an interview. Asked whether anyone had voiced objections, he responded emphatically, “They wouldn’t dare.”

Mr. Pereira, 64, said that he first conceived the notion of a spiritual festival almost 30 years ago, when he became secretary general of the Vienna Konzerthaus, but could only now implement it.

“There is definitely something in the air,” he said of the current wave of spirituality in classical music. He suggests that people are looking for something beyond rationalism: a kind of idealism, something that speaks to their own values.

He felt vindicated by audience reactions to the opening weekend of the overture, he said. “It’s as if people were expecting something that finally comes,” he added, “even if they didn’t know what they were expecting.”

Mr. Pereira is far from alone in finding the time ripe for spirituality. In Ms. Moss’s case, at Lincoln Center, spirituality is merely part of a larger concern: transcendence, looking inside yourself.

“There is a huge hunger for more human connections,” said Ms. Moss, who describes herself as “a secular mystic.” “People are looking for larger experiences in a cyberworld” that becomes ever more “like eating candy.”

“Music,” she added, “is going to end up being the only live experience left in the world.”

Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, sees a nascent “spiritual revolution” partly in response to economic crisis. With economies failing around the world, he said, “it is a moment like the collapse of Communism.”

“People feel a lot of things,” he added, “and music helps them to understand. What we are presenting is not just performances but something meant to add context to our time.”

Helga Rabl-Stadler, the president of the Salzburg Festival, while seconding some of what others had to say about the mind-set of the times, also cited a simpler reason for a broadening appeal of spiritual music. The Mozart C minor Mass (K. 427) that she had heard at the festival the day before, she said, “was like opera, with more heart, more soul.”

In addition to the Israel Philharmonic performances the Spiritual Overture has included evenings by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and will include concerts by Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus Wien. The Salzburg Festival proper opens on Friday, with Mr. Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus and Vienna State Opera forces in Mozart’s “Zauberflöte,” and the Vienna Philharmonic takes center stage on Sunday in a morning concert and an evening production of the original version of Strauss’s opera “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

As for the more distant future Salzburg’s Spiritual Overture moves on to Buddhism next year. And Mr. Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic should consider taking the splendid Schoenberg-Sheriff program to New York, where another audience sure to be receptive awaits, festival or no. The chorus, after all, is already there.