VIENNA, Austria -- Well, if it isn't the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra after many years of absence.
The PSO didn't just return after several years to the famed Musikverein for two sold-out concerts Wednesday and Thursday, it returned to a state of mind. Playing for music director Manfred Honeck in his hometown as much as with him, the musicians found a groove that it hasn't had since its visits here in the early 2000s under previous music director Mariss Jansons. And more to the point, it showed the world's most discerning classical music audience that the orchestra is back to top form.
"We feel like we are back to where we want to be," said violist Penny Brill following the first concert, a feeling echoed by many musicians.
The programs, a lively Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, with Emanuel Ax, followed by a sensational Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, and then a dramatic Mahler Symphony No. 1 and a noble Brahms Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter provided the aural proof of the outstanding reviews the group has been getting on this 2010 European Tour. They also showed why the general vibe of the musicians was so high. I caught up with the orchestra midway through its travels, but I could sense a palpable change in demeanor -- a quiet and healthy confidence and a looseness not felt since the Jansons years. Even with Mr. Honeck at the helm for two tours last year, to China and to Europe, he and the orchestra were still getting to know each other. But now, the trust is there. Combined with the outstanding level of soloists in Ms. Mutter and Mr. Ax, and the top venues on this tour, the musicians have a little swagger back.
And it couldn't have come at a better time. The Viennese can sometimes act as if they own classical music, but the fact is, they kind of do. This is the city in which so much of the foundations of the art form was snatched out of thought and put to paper. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Schubert and many more walked these streets with great tunes percolating in their heads. But the stakes were even higher for Mr. Honeck, who lived here as a youth, cut his teeth as musician in the conservatory and then joined the renowned Vienna Philharmonic. "Welcome to my hometown," he told the musicians first thing after he took to the podium for a rehearsal Wednesday morning, eliciting happy feet shuffling, the musicians' hallmark of approval.
Mr. Honeck has played many a concert on the Musikverein stage, and also led several orchestras on it, including the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Symphony. But he hasn't yet had the honor of leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the gilded hall. The Viennese, like any city, are harder on their own. The PSO concerts will go a long way to changing that, and to showing the Viennese just how talented he is. "I imagine this is a big moment for him," said Peter Kislinger, host for the classical music broadcasts on Austrian public radio, ORF.
The concerts also will elicit some controversy -- but the good kind that attends any original artistic vision of an established work. The first night brought a Shostakovich dressed in Mahler's clothing -- a thoughtful reading that brought out the color and folk elements of this heart-wrenching opus by focusing on how much the former was influenced by the latter. The strings had a urbane sound despite the angularity of the music, and the soloists, including concertmaster Andres Cardenes, oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida and principal horn William Caballero, were outstanding. The horns benefit more than any instrument from the sumptuous acoustics of the Musikverein Great Hall, singing out with rich luster. Mr. Honeck's expertise may be in the Viennese tradition, but he was able to cultivate such depth of timbre and of interpretation in this work with a double meaning of praising yet resisting totalitarianism that should scuttle any thought of him as a specialist.
Actually, you could find evidence of that in the Viennese classics themselves. Thursday brought not Vienna's customary song-filled, flowing Mahler, but an ultra-contrasting reading that emphasized Austrian folk elements that have been lost over the years, as Mr. Honeck describes his reading. His interpretation was even more extreme in this regard than his conducting of Symphony 1 in Pittsburgh and on disc, and to my ears a bit too much so. But the freshness of the rustic yelps on the horns and the inventive contrast between the earthy klezmer and the angelic strings in the second, not to mention the sheer power of the finale, made an impression on audiences, highlighted by performances by principal bassist Jeffrey Turner, principal bassoonist Nancy Goeres, the clarinet, horn and trumpet sections. The first night elicited good response, but after the Mahler concluded Thursday, the audience -- famous for leaving no matter what to get coffee at the many famous Viennese cafes -- stuck around to hear three encores. Mr. Cardenes made sure to give Mr. Honeck three bows.
The entire affair pushed the orchestra into overtime, which is quite rare for it and results in extra payments, but it was worth every euro cent. It may well be the clincher, too, for a return trip to the Musikverein, which has invited the PSO back, likely for 2012.
That's great news, but perhaps the most intriguing thing for someone who hears the PSO under Mr. Honeck so often is to hear the origin of his conception of sound and timbre. They have been shaped by his experience in the Musikverein, whose shoebox shape and filigree adorned walls boost sound in a sweet way more than any other hall.
Mr. Honeck has been preaching pianissimo since he arrived at Heinz Hall. No wonder. Last night, the quietest parts had a luminosity and the acoustics warmed the sound so the different sections blended so well. Witness the first violins delicate, yet still sweet rendering of the folk tune in the first movement of the Shostakovich or the entire orchestra's subtle entrances and accompaniment in the second movement of the Beethoven. It is a hall that rewards you when you go for bold color, as Mr. Ax did in the "Emperor" concerto and as Mr. Honeck did in the third movement of the Shostakovich.
Ms. DeAlmeida did the same in her extended solo in the Brahms Violin Concerto, delivering such a tender melody in the second movement that even the soloist, Ms. Mutter, seemed visibly touched (in the bows, she repeatedly acknowledged the oboist). Before and after, the PSO and the famous violinist ferociously tore into the score, to the delight of the crowd who knows this work well.
The reviews aren't due for a few days, but the PSO already feels it has begun to win this town over again. The PSO has world-class talent, but in the years after Mr. Jansons departed, it didn't always show it, even with some outstanding performances. But with Mr. Honeck urging the musicians on -- and working them hard -- they have that mojo back.
As the Pittsburgh Symphony was gearing up for its concerts at the Musikverein, its maestro and leaders were helping to promote Pittsburgh. They were guests of honor in a lunch given by the U.S. ambassador to Austria, William C. Eacho, on Tuesday at Vienna's famous Sacher Hotel. It was arranged by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance to further contact with Austrian businesses that may become future investors in the Pittsburgh region.
Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.