Review: Honeck makes strong debut with PSO

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Wieder, wieder.

"Encore" is more common at the end of a concert, but considering the strong debut of Austrian-born conductor Manfred Honeck last night at Heinz Hall, the German seems more appropriate. Especially since I don't know the Farsi equivalent, wieder will have to suffice -- even though the concert was highlighted by a premiere of an excellent piece by Iranian-American composer Reza Vali sung exquisitely by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung.

The German fits better than the Italian, too, for it is not necessarily the concert I want to hear again, but the conductor. This was a fiery, if eccentric, leadership, but, to truly gauge his artistry and depth, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and its audience needs to hear Honeck again, preferably in a completely different program from the canonical Mozart Symphony No. 40 and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5. The relatively unknown conductor is currently music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and will add Staatsoper Stuttgart next year.

But what stood out was the robust chemistry. As guest conductors go, Honeck was a Commendatore, directing the orchestra with the power and confidence of Mozart's operatic character. The orchestra was agog. It hung on his every movement, following his sudden diminuendos and crescendos and more than abiding his blistering tempos. The ensemble was tremendous. For an orchestra that usually raises a wary eye at a newbie, this was amazing stuff.

Honeck's appeal to the orchestra surely came in part because of his technique and musicianship (he spent time in the Vienna Philharmonic) but also because he had well thought-out interpretations. I appreciated that even if I respectfully disagreed with some of them.

While his driving of the orchestra captured the drama in the Mozart and Tchaikovsky, it often obscured the beauty therein. The woodwinds were the biggest casualties, often squeezed out in an orgiastic display of string and brass might. It was refreshing to hear the introduction to the Tchaikovsky crafted so tenderly, and the second movement of the Mozart benefited from the brisk pacing. But too often the music felt rushed, with contrast being the goal rather than sublimity.

Vali's "The Being of Love," could be seen as a Persian "Das Lied von der Erde." This marvelous orchestral song cycle traced an arc similar in scope, color and weight on the last of five movements. Here, however, the subject is not death, but love, and the goal a serene poem by Jalal ad-Din Rumi. The Carnegie Mellon University composer combined real Iranian folk songs with his own "imaginary" folk pieces, and the melodic character was uplifting. DeYoung took to the language beautifully, singing ecstatically.

The program repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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