No pressure: PSO guest conductor has patience both on and off the podium

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After impressing audiences and musicians last May, Manfred Honeck returns to conduct the PSO this weekend.

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Conductors are usually by nature an impatient bunch. They have little time to get their points across and brook few who delay the process. Most are not content to take only one directorship position, acquiring frequent-flyer miles in cut time.

   
Pittsburgh Symphony

With: Manfred Honeck, conductor; Andres Cardenes, violin; Randolph Kelly, viola
What: Bach, Concerto for Viola, Strings and Basso Continuo; Bruch, Violin Concerto No. 1; Dvorak, Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $17-$72; 412-392-4900.

   

Not Manfred Honeck. Throughout his career, and every time he steps on a podium, the Austrian conductor displays a patience that's nearly unheard of in the conducting business. The 48-year-old prefers to take the time to make sure the music meets his desire. Even his conducting career has been deliberate, not beginning until his 33rd year.

"To start a conducting career, that is quite late," he says of his appointment to the Zurich Opera House in 1991. "Some people start at 15, 16, 17 to get into this conducting world. But for me it was very important, because I see my career based always on the experience of playing together chamber music or being inside in the orchestra [to] watch and play under the baton of fantastic conductors. I felt it was absolutely the right time, with all the experience, to start this."

Honeck, head of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Stuttgart Opera, was actually bitten by the conducting bug much earlier.

"I had this burning element that I had to be a conductor," he says a week before his important return to lead the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. At 13, he attended the Vienna Philharmonic's famed New Year's Concert with some family. "We did not have enough money to sit on a seat; we had to buy a very cheap standing place. Everybody was tall around me, and I couldn't see anything from the middle of the crowd. [An usher] saw me and put me in the front so I had the pole position. In this moment I got the inner vision that either I would be a member of the Philharmonic or will get to be the conductor."

Turns out, he got both. After he graduated from the Vienna Academy of Music he landed a temporary first violin position in the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the most prestigious of all orchestras. One childhood goal attained.

Two years later he switched to viola, to take a permanent position that had arisen. "I had already a family and wanted to get this job," he says.

The move not only underscores Honeck's immense musical talent, but also it shows one of the reasons he has not made a bigger name for himself to this point. He has been deliberate in building his career.

"I am not one who makes pressure to be now [one of] the stars of the world," he says. "It is the other way around. I really have a lot of patience."

This summer that again paid off as he conducted Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" at the Salzburg Festival. The pit orchestra was none other than the Vienna Philharmonic. Make that two childhood dreams accomplished.

Musical family

Born to a large family of five girls and four boys in the small town of Nensing in the western mountainous region of Austria, Honeck was instilled with a deep affection for music, family and religion. He is a devout Roman Catholic, spotted at St. Paul Cathedral during his last appearance here.

He calls his childhood "very nice and connected with nature." Honeck's parents couldn't afford a TV and encouraged everyone to play an instrument. At one point, he played in a quartet with his brothers. One, Rainer, is now the top concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. After the death of his mother in 1965, when he was 7 years old, Honeck's father moved the family to Vienna.

Honeck moved his own family of six children back to a small village (Altach) near his hometown.

But being near his children is not the only reason he has moved slowly in his career. "But I think the reason I take only one or two jobs is that I want to do the things I can do very seriously. I really like to be involved."

If that sentiment seems out of touch with today's jet-set conductors, it's purposeful on Honeck's part. Like the conductors of yesteryear, He is interested in cultivating a long relationship with an ensemble. "I say for every composer and every music you need a little bit of time. I take a long time to understand and to make it really come from the [innermost] of my heart, every place has to have a reason why I do it."

But Honeck has none of the egoism of the past giants of the field. "I think it is so important that we conductors are more servants of the composers and of the music and take away the ego," he says. His old-school tendencies stem his desire to recover stylistic traditions that have become lost in some circles.

"When you take for example, vibrato of a violinist, there is a finger vibrato, stringendo vibrato, hand vibrato, arm vibrato, nonvibrato and so on," he says. "So many colors. Nobody talks about that. [Conductors] will say no vibrato, and some say more vibrato but [not] how to vibrato."

In his impressive debut with the PSO in May, Honeck spent an extraordinary amount of time working on this and other more basic issues with the orchestra. When he replaces Sir Andrew Davis for two concerts this weekend, he will take the time to effect the same outcome. Two of the works are core repertoire -- Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony -- but the other is a "premiere" of a recently reworked J.S. Bach concerto for viola.

Harmony from within

Far from being a martinet, Honeck has a way of getting an orchestra to work hard without getting resentful.

"The musicians don't need an explanation, but they need to know how you see, as a conductor, this certain place," he says. "The homogeneity gets much more transparent, and, therefore, the expression goes much more over to the other instruments and the public. If my view about the piece, about the certain sound, can get out together with the orchestra, the people in the audience will understand it much more."

Honeck says even in these days of diluted knowledge about the arts, "People really are longing for that, for this kind of work. Wherever I go it is always the same."

It was certainly the case for his debut here in May, where critics, audiences, board members and musicians raved about the sound of the PSO under Honeck. He not only gave the Viennese touch to works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky, but also he gave a smart realization of a new work by Reza Vali.

That's one of the reasons Honeck is high on the minds of the musicians and management as they consider successors to artistic adviser Davis. The PSO is not yet sure what direction it will take for its artistic leadership, but Honeck is among those names of new faces that impressed last year in their debuts.

He is leaving the Swedish Radio Symphony at the end of this season, but would Honeck even consider taking an orchestra so far away from his family and home? In the mid-'90s, he was said to be a candidate for the Houston Symphony, but that did not materialize.

"I am always looking to make good music, wherever it is," replies Honeck. "I like to see other cultures and other musicians. For me everything is possible because I love to do music and I love to make concerts." While his resume is still thin compared to conductors who have been active for longer, he has guest conducted the Bavarian Radio, Concertgebouw and Chicago orchestras and opera houses in Dresden and Berlin (Komische Oper) and more.

He is keen on the PSO -- "I think it is a great orchestra. Every one of these musicians [has an] extremely high standard" -- but he will treat his next career move with the same patient approach as he has everything else.

"It is personally funny to see that I get so many offers and so many questions. For me it is so wonderful to say, 'Let it come like it is coming.' "


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


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