City opens arms to PSO's new music director from Austria

Maestro meets the 'Burgh

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Forget polite European kisses on each cheek -- this was a love fest, Pittsburgh-style, and the object of affection was Manfred Honeck.

At Heinz Hall, the debonair Austrian conductor was officially introduced yesterday as music director designate of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Manfred Honeck receives a hug from Susan Jenny during a reception for the PSO's new music director yesterday at Heinz Hall. Ms. Jenny, manager of building operations at Heinz Hall, greeted Mr. Honeck with a big hug, saying, "This is how we do it in Pittsburgh with a 'Big Squeeze.' " Mr. Honeck replied, "Go Steelers!"
Click photo for larger image.

Graphic: Music directors of the Pittsburgh Symphony

Conductor Manfred Honeck is humbled by the Pittsburgh Symphony naming him its ninth music director.


Speaking to a throng of reporters and PSO supporters, with portraits of the previous eight music directors lined up behind him on the staircase in the grand lobby, he said he was committed to upholding the standards of excellence they embodied.

"The reputation of the Pittsburgh Symphony is incredibly high," said Mr. Honeck. "We know this history ... with Lorin Maazel and with Mariss Jansons and wonderful conductors. When you are the No. 9 in this row, you feel proud."

Mr. Honeck immediately displayed some of the qualities that impressed the musicians in his guest conducting this past year. Soft-spoken, intelligent and intense, he commanded attention with largely flawless but formal English.

"I really feel in my inner heart a natural happiness, together with the responsibility of having this wonderful orchestra," he said.

Of average height and with slightly graying hair, the 48-year-old charmed many in the audience with his elegant demeanor and polite discourse. After listening to administrators sing his praises, he accepted congratulations from everyone in sight.

"I have a big family at home," said the father of six. "I didn't know that I had a bigger family in Pittsburgh."

The musicians put out the welcome mat when he was formally introduced as director on the Heinz Hall stage earlier in the day. Said union spokesman and PSO percussionist John Soroka: "I would absolutely characterize it as unanimous support for his hire."

The PSO's courtship of Mr. Honeck was a whirlwind affair compared to the glacier pace orchestras typically take to make such decisions.

"Normally discussions go on for one or two years," Mr. Honeck said. But the chemistry that he felt with the group during performances in May and November was all he needed to know it was time to take his first position with an American orchestra.

But stage chemistry is not the only aspect of being a music director, and it was the PSO's satisfaction that Mr. Honeck could meet the demands of the extra aspects of the post that sealed the deal.

For one, would he be amenable to the new collaborative arrangement of the PSO, negotiated in the current collective bargaining agreement, that gives the musicians more power in nearly every aspect of the organization? For instance, the music director -- or with the present trio of conductors, music adviser Andrew Davis -- no longer has veto power in matters of musician hiring and repertoire. Industry insiders pegged this as a deterrent, a reason the PSO would not be able to attract a top candidate.

For Mr. Honeck, this was not only no problem, but a positive.

"I was born in a tradition in the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have no chief conductor," he said. "Ticket sales, everything, is organized by members of the orchestra. So this is nothing new to me. The time is over where the bosses just tell the people what they have to do, in any profession."

His take, as also evidenced by his collegial demeanor in rehearsals, is to give people confidence and "motivate them to create a fantastic atmosphere and working place."

Another desire from the orchestra's perspective was that its new director command touring dates at prestigious European venues. Clearly, with a tour already planned to the famed Musikverein in Vienna in 2010, the PSO got assurance that Mr. Honeck had the connections and would pursue them.

"Honeck is perfect for us," said Andres Cardenes, PSO concertmaster. "He is from Vienna. The places we want to play are the places he has strong connections to: Lucerne, Salzburg, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam]."

But Mr. Honeck was quick to say that as much depends on the quality of the product as the director's connections. His presence in the top halls and festivals "will definitely help, but one thing we have to have is the quality," he said. "If the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with me plays with the highest quality, then the people will easily say 'yes' to every engagement."

The quick pace of Mr. Honeck's hiring also played a role in his availability during his three-year contract. He will conduct only eight concerts his first season, 2008-09, and just 10 in each of the next two; however, he will conduct an additional concert each year, either a gala concert or a community event, and visit several times for planning and administration duties.

"We conductors have this system -- it can be fortunate or unfortunate -- that you book three to four years in advance," he said. But he made clear to the PSO and his other engagements that "Pittsburgh has priority."

In addition to guest conducting, Mr. Honeck will lead only two productions at the Stuttgart State Opera a season and give just three weeks to the Czech Philharmonic, a post that begins at the same time as that with the PSO.

"They wanted much more and it was a big deal, but I had to make a decision and I made the decision for Pittsburgh," he said.

Mr. Honeck has hardly had the time to determine exactly how he will select repertoire, but he generally knows it will be to his strengths as a interpreter of the Viennese classics.

"I was born in the Viennese tradition; therefore the music which is deeply in my heart, I will perform," he said. Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler are his strengths, but they also are the core repertoire of any major orchestra.

Yet he approaches other music at a high level. Mr. Honeck's crafting of a tricky 20th-century work, Poulenc's Concerto for Organ and Timpani, in a PSO concert in Philadelphia last year, showed that.

He is interested, too, in commissioning new music, but only if the composers are interested in the audience.

"I am really looking forward to finding people who will write pieces that hopefully will have a longer life," he said. "The developments of the last 30 to 40 years have [set a] wonderful intellectual standard, but we need also that the audience understand it and get the confidence that when we put a contemporary composer on the program, they don't think, 'Again?' "

Like many who have never been to Pittsburgh and know it only by reputation, Mr. Honeck was "surprised" when he visited here last spring for his debut with the orchestra.

"I was happy to see the very fresh air and clean and new buildings," but he also singled out the "openness, the warmness and the kindness" of those he met here.

He does not plan on moving his family here; they are much too ensconced in the small town of Altach, Austria.

"My family is not that small to organize in that way," he said with a chuckle. "I have children who are still [in] school."

One thing you will not likely see during Mr. Honeck's tenure is him playing an instrument on stage. Although he reached a high level as a violinist and violist in the Vienna Philharmonic, he has given up performing since focusing on conducting full time.

"I think the people will not love that, if I play," he said, jokingly.


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


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