PSO picks Austrian conductor as music director

Manfred Honeck heartily endorsed by symphony musicians, begins in 2008

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By Andrew Druckenbrod

Less than a calendar year after debuting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conductor Manfred Honeck has been selected to lead it.

Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's new music director.
Click photo for larger image.

Graphic: Profile of Manfred Honeck

The PSO has hired the Austrian conductor as its music director, making it official last night at a board meeting, which Mr. Honeck attended.

Mr. Honeck, 48, will succeed the trio of conductors now providing artistic leadership for the orchestra. His three-year contract begins in fall 2008, when the contracts of conductors Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Marek Janowski expire. Terms were not disclosed.

"It is with great joy that I assume the post of music director of one of the world's finest orchestras," said Mr. Honeck yesterday in a statement. "It is no exaggeration to say that the orchestra and I got on like a house on fire. Right from our first encounter, I realized that with these highly professional and motivated musicians, it would be possible to convey a vivid message much needed in today's world of classical music."

Mr. Honeck will lead the orchestra in eight weeks of concerts in his first season, and 10 in subsequent seasons. He also will conduct several tours in Europe, including a return in 2010 to Vienna's famed Musikverein, the hall that gave him his start as a violinist years ago.

"In taking our time to assess the needs of the PSO, we have concluded that a strong, central leader is important to enhancing the artistic excellence of this orchestra," said Larry Tamburri, PSO president. "We have found that leader in Manfred Honeck, and we are exceedingly happy to welcome him."

"I think this is going to be great," said William Caballero, PSO principal horn player and a member of the search committee. Mr. Caballero points to Mr. Honeck's auspicious debut in May at Heinz Hall. "The chemistry was very evident between the orchestra and Honeck and the audience. From that point on, he stayed in the front of our mind."

He may have been on the minds of the Pittsburgh musicians, but Mr. Honeck is not a "name" conductor. But neither was Mariss Jansons, who until his departure in 2003 was the last person to hold the music director title.

"When we got Mariss, he was not known," former PSO head Gideon Toeplitz recalled recently. "I had to spell his name to people for quite a while."

That hire proved to be one of the best in PSO history, and the orchestra feels it again has caught lightning in a bottle.

Dick Simmons, chairman of the board of trustees and a major PSO benefactor, said, "In the 16 years I have been associated with this orchestra, I have never heard the overwhelming endorsement of a conductor by the musicians, and that includes some pretty high-level conductors."

Certainly Mr. Jansons is excited about the hire. "Manfred Honeck is a profound musician and a wonderful human being," he said. "He is a superb choice."

Rare is the review that doesn't praise the musicality and talent of Mr. Honeck. Under his baton, the PSO produced a thrilling sound but one that was attentive to musical detail. He seems to have the best of the traits of a showman and a musician.

After several appearances with the PSO, the musicians also said it was the way he communicated his ideas that was most impressive.

"He has the ability to be insistent on a result without being negative in any way," wrote Robert Lauver, PSO horn player, on his symphony blog on Nov. 23, after Honeck's most recent concert at Heinz Hall. "He speaks softly (on purpose, I believe) and requires the orchestra to be quiet and attentive to hear what he is saying. ... It takes a leader to pull that off with such grace."

The Washington Post called Mr. Honeck's conducting of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Centre its "Single Best Orchestral Concert in 2001."

In recent years, other critics have concurred in their praise. The Guardian called him "the model of good taste." The Times of London wrote: "The impressive thing about Honeck was not his showmanship but his subtlety." The New York Times praised Mr. Honeck for drawing "a lively, supple and elegant performance from all." And the Boston Herald wrote: "The Austrian-born conductor, making his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut ... impressed greatly with a rigorously intellectual program. He will be invited back."

Mr. Honeck recently relinquished his post at the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, allowing him to focus on the Stuttgart Opera, the PSO and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (where he will be principal guest conductor for the 2008-09 season). He also has held positions at the MDR Symphony Orchestra Leipzig and the Oslo Philharmonic.

Guest appearances have included Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Born in 1958 in the small town of Nenzing, in the mountainous region of Austria, Mr. Honeck knew he wanted to be a conductor at 13 while attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert.

"In this moment I got the inner vision that either I would be a member of the Philharmonic or get to be the conductor," he told the Post-Gazette in November.

After graduating from the Academy of Music in Vienna, he soon achieved both of those goals with that famed orchestra, first as a violinist, then as a violist, then as a guest conductor. His brother, Rainer, is concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Along the way, he studied with Claudio Abbado, performed under Leonard Bernstein and in general soaked up music from the many eminent conductors leading the Philharmonic.

"I call all of these conductors my teachers," he told the Post-Gazette.

Mr. Honeck grew up in a family of nine children, and he and his wife, Christiane, have six of their own, ages 5 to 25. They live in Altach, Austria.

While name value means little if the chemistry between music director and orchestra is scintillating, it does have an effect on touring. One of the biggest concerns among the PSO and industry pundits had been whether Mr. Honeck had the reputation to command European dates, since these are based on selling tickets and the personal connections of maestros. The PSO's administrators have stated that touring to the world's top stages is essential to being a world-class orchestra.

With a tour already confirmed to the holiest of classical music sites, the Musikverein, and others in the works (the BBC Proms likely among them), it appears these concerns have been at least partially met.

"In Europe, he is very much a rising star," Mr. Tamburri said. "We look forward with a lot of enthusiasm to introducing him to America."


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


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