An illuminating visit with the new PSO conductor, at home in western Austria

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Dietmar Stiplousek, for the Post-Gazette, photos
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director designate Manfred Honeck in Nenzing-Himmel, Austria, in front of his family's old holiday cabin.
By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NENZING, Austria -- Little wonder conductor Manfred Honeck is a religious man and a believer in music's spirituality -- he spent his youthful summers in heaven.

It was actually Nenzing-Heaven, or Nenzing-Himmel, an Alpine summer retreat high above Honeck's childhood village of Nenzing in western Austria. Every summer, Honeck, his eight siblings and parents would ascend the treacherous 10-mile road by car to spend two months relaxing and playing below the snow-capped peaks.

"This kind of place is paradise for kids," he says, walking toward the cluster of single-floor cabins, or "Hutten" in Nenzing-Himmel a few weeks ago. He is wearing a ski jacket in the cool mountain air. The conductor is spending a week at home in adjacent Altach between international conducting gigs.

"We saw the parents morning, lunch and dinner, and we really could do anything [in between]. There was no traffic here. It's a wonderful way of living, with nature. We would have lots of adventures."

For Mr. Honeck, 48, the adventures were really just beginning, leading him from his humble upbringing, to studying music in Vienna, to landing a coveted full-time position as a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic.

His newest one will be his most illustrious yet: music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In September 2008, he will look to follow such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons.

Those who have known the Austrian musician along his journey say he has the musicality, creativity and integrity to succeed.

"He is one of the most gifted conductors in this field," says Dr. Thomas Angyan, secretary general of Vienna's famed hall, the Musikverein, where Mr. Honeck performed many times as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. "After two residences with Mariss and Lorin, now they have another conductor I believe in."

"Manfred is a very modest person," says the Rev. Werner Ludescher, a priest in a town near the conductor's home in Altach. "He has no 'Staralluren' -- airs and graces -- even though he is a really great musician and conductor."

Remembering things past

But on this crisp March morning, Mr. Honeck isn't thinking about future challenges. Drenched in brilliant Alpine sunshine, he is awash in memories.

"Every day in the morning and the evening, we kids were sent to pick up the milk for the day and to get food," he says, pointing to what is now a modern milking facility on the edge of Nenzing-Himmel. "That was an incredible taste, the fresh milk."

Pointing to a towering peak known as Fundelkopf, he tells of the day that bad weather so spooked him and a friend while ascending that they ran all the way down on treacherous paths. Strolling past the village chapel, he recalls how, during one outdoor service, a herd of roving cows camped by the church.

"We were smiling when they were around and were thinking how the cows [were] thinking about the sermon of the priest," says Mr. Honeck, as amused as if it had happened yesterday.

The squat cabin where Honeck and his family lived during the summer is now owned by his brother Rainer. Above the door are written "K.H. -- N. 118 -- 1857," the address and initials of Karl Honeck, who built the cabin in 1857. The Honeck family had emigrated during the Napoleonic wars earlier in the century from what is now the Czech Republic.

Nenzing-Himmel was no resort town, and young Manfred's life the rest of the year in the village of Nenzing had few amenities.

"We were poor," he says, matter of factly, now outside of his childhood home below in Nenzing.

His father, Otto, was the village postman. It was an honorable position, but, with nine children, the single income meant Spartan living. The children had few toys and plenty of chores, including taking care of the farm animals. Other than the kitchen, their house wasn't heated.

"All the sleeping rooms were not," he says, gesturing to the second floor of the two-story stucco home. "We had to take a bottle, put hot water in it and put it in our beds, just to warm up. You can not imagine how extremely cold this was sometimes."

But the Honeck children always managed to have fun. They learned to ski in their backyard on cheap equipment and used a barn door as a soccer goal. "It was extremely noisy, beating like percussion sounds" says Mr. Honeck, pounding his fist on the door."

"We were the two younger boys, doing lots of silly stuff, running around," says younger brother Rainer. "Most of the time we were together, with other friends in the village. He was more of an active one than me. He liked to do typical boy things -- little jokes, [but] he didn't burn the school or anything."

"At the time, we were not thinking about [being poor]," Manfred says. "We were just living. Of course, there were some Legos probably I would have liked to have [and] we had no TV. We were thinking why don't we have that at home, but generally we were not sad."

But sadness would come to the Honeck children with a heartbreaking blow when their mother, Frieda, died in 1965 from complications in the birth of her ninth child.

"I was 4 and Manfred was 6," says Rainer. "I was probably too young to realize that something was missing, but for the other children, the older [ones], it was much worse."

"I don't remember her so much, but this I still somehow [recall], that she was working in the garden," says Manfred staring at a patch of earth behind the house.

Like most Austrians, the Honecks were Roman Catholics; and their faith helped the family through hard times. The older children took care of the younger ones. Led by their father, they forged ahead in the following year, even opening a small restaurant in Nenzing-Himmel.

But another big change was yet to come.

Father sets sights high

Regardless of his financial situation, Otto Honeck made sure each of his children played an instrument.

"He loved Bruckner and Mahler, but he didn't know that much about them," Mr. Honeck says. Otto played cittern, a plucked, mandolin-like instrument popular in the Renaissance, and the musical history of the Honeck family was well known.

"They played brass -- the Bohemians were quite famous at that time for their brass," says Mr. Honeck. "I was very glad to hear that my relatives also played these instruments."

Otto had his sights set higher.

"He didn't like for us to just be a little good," says his son Manfred, who studied violin and sang. Not that his father pushed the children. "He was never a dictator. He took us to concerts as examples and he inspired us. He showed us examples of violinists [on LP], and we listened."

Otto Honeck had come to the realization his children would not have access to the best musical training in their small town. After his wife died and he had retired from the post office, he decided to take the family to Vienna.

"My father was an extremely risky man," Mr. Honeck says, a glint of pride in his eyes. "He went with his whole family in 1970 to Vienna with no money, just to give his kids the possibility of education. There were some people who helped us, of course, but I still nowadays [think that] my father was such a character -- everything was possible."

"You could say it was crazy, but he was a music enthusiast and fanatic," says Rainer Honeck. "We always say if my mother hadn't died we wouldn't have moved to Vienna. It is destiny. She wouldn't have liked to move."

Perhaps most amazing is the Honeck children were not exactly locks to make it professionally. "We were not so good when we were young," says Rainer with a laugh. "We started really late. We didn't practice very much. We were not prodigies."

In Vienna they studied at the prestigious conservatory, the Musikakademie (now Universitat fur Musik).

Otto Honeck's bold maneuver paid off. Although he did not live to see it -- he died in 1984 -- four of his children went on to professional careers in music: the eldest, Otto, is an opera coach at Frankfurt Opera; Rainer is a concertmaster with the Vienna Philharmonic; and Sibylle is a cellist at the Vienna Volksoper. Among the six children of Manfred and his wife, Christiane, Matthias, 22, is closing in on a career himself as a violinist.

Violist chooses conducting

In Vienna, the young Honeck excelled under better tutelage and soon joined his brother Rainer in the violin section of the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic. The difference was that the talented Rainer had landed a full-time job, and Manfred was only subbing. Rainer jokes that, though Manfred started a year earlier on the violin, "I passed him in his third year."

Part of the issue was that Manfred had split his focus between conducting and performing. But this just set the stage for Manfred to show how much raw musical talent he possessed.

By this time, in the early 1980s, Manfred Honeck was in his mid twenties and already married. He and Christiane had met in Salzburg in a youth orchestra -- he was the principal of the second violins and she was a section player.

In one rehearsal, the aspiring conductor asked everyone to play a tricky part alone. "I said, 'Excuse me, Mr. Honeck, I didn't learn this bowing,'" says Christiane, still almost blushing about it. "Then in this week he [taught] me spiccato ... and so we [became] friends. We [went] for a walk and he bought me a cake [and] said to me, you have eyes like Mozart."

"[That's] how I regarded Mozart at the time," Mr. Honeck says with a hearty laugh.

With a young family, the Honecks needed a more stable income. Luckily, a full-time position opened up in the Vienna Philharmonic. The problem was it was in the viola section. While he had once had a few lessons on the larger instrument, Mr. Honeck certainly didn't play it. However, he decided to pick it up, just five months before auditioning in one of the world's most competitive orchestras. Taught by Alfred Staar, a violinist in the Weller Quartet and the Philharmonic, half a year later, he won a permanent spot in the orchestra. "He probably played better viola than violin," says Rainer of his brother. "He was a good musician."

"I thought, let's try it," says Mr. Honeck, driving on the highway outside Altach and recalling his thought process. "If it works, it's good, if it doesn't work, it is good." Learning the orchestral excerpts he would play was the hardest part, he says. "That was completely new for me, actually. [However,] when you concentrate on something and have a basic technique and also a feel for musicality, then I think it is open and it works."

That's a description at least one former colleague in the Vienna Philharmonic agrees with. "He was a very good musician and good colleague," says Walter Blovsky, a violist who often sat next to him and is now manager of Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. "He was very precise."

Thus began Mr. Honeck's real training as conductor. He was perceptive about the conductors in front of him, soaking up their technique and methods.

"That is his formation," says Flavio Chamis, a conductor and composer who is married to PSO violist Tatjana Mead Chamis. He met Mr. Honeck when they both were studying in Vienna. "[Leonard] Bernstein, [Herbert von] Karajan were there. Imagine the learning process for a player. That was his real school." Chief among the conductors he tended to imitate was the Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber, says his agent Lothar Schacke.

It wasn't very long before Mr. Honeck decided conducting was the path for him. It was time for another risk: leaving the financial security of the Vienna Philharmonic for an uncertain future as a director. After conducting youth orchestras while still with the Philharmonic, he made the final break, leaving to conduct the Zurich Opera in 1991.

"My fire and heart was in conducting and I knew that," he says forcefully and with furrowed brow as he steers past a slow moving car. "[The orchestra] is a bigger instrument and you really can control your own way of thinking."

A place for faith

Manfred Honeck's devotion to his faith impresses even clergymen, says Father Ludescher. "He knows very well that all the success and all the good things in his life comes not only from him, and he is very thankful to God."

Mr. Honeck attends Mass not only on Sunday but also during the week. "He looks to get a Holy Mass wherever he is," Father Ludescher says. "If he is in Stockholm or Tokyo or Pittsburgh, he looks for somewhere to pray."

Case in point is his studio in the house he and Christiane built in Altach in 1998. It is attractive, with steeply pitched roofs, but modest. The focal point is a living room turned music studio on the first floor, where the small cellos of the youngest children, Simeon, 8, and Theresa Maria, 5, sit for practice next to an upright piano. Photos of the children and family fill the walls of the stairs and second floor. On the third is the conductor's studio.

Conductor Manfred Honeck
Click photo for larger image.
Listen in

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod recorded his conversations with Manfred Honeck during a visit to Austria to meet the man who will become music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in September 2008. Some highlights:

Honeck discusses his devout beliefs in and his relationship with God.

Summer in Salzburg was the setting when Manfred Honeck and his wife Christiane met while both were in a youth orchestra together.

Life and religion provide perspective for even Honeck's most treasured career goals, such as conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein.

Honeck tries to downplay the amazing story of how he picked up the viola only a few months before winning an audition to the Vienna Philharmonic.

A tour of their 'house chapel' with Manfred and Christiane Honeck.

More on Manfred Honeck's life and views, from Andrew Druckenbrod's recent visit with him in Austria, will be available today and over the coming weeks at Druckenbrod's online journal, Classical Musings.

Mr. Honeck with his wife Christiane and three of their six children by their home in Altach, Austria. From left, Simeon, Anna Maria and Theresa Maria.
Click photo for larger image.Manfred Honeck's 'house chapel' in the studio of his house in Altach, Austria.
Click photo for larger image.

At first blush, it looks like any conductor's studio -- stereo equipment and music scores line the walls. But to one side, behind the cross beams of this attic room, he points out, is a small "house chapel," which had been a "big wish" of his for their new house.

"I thought to do it in the cellar somewhere, to have the silence," he says, gesturing with his hands as if he is conducting. "But then I saw all these crosses here and said let's integrate it in my room. Here the family prays together. It is very important for the family to have a half an hour just to be together as a family."

For Mr. Honeck, finding the time is not a problem. "I clean my teeth every day so ... why not my soul?" he asks. "My relationship with God is like ... if you want to have a close a relationship [with a friend], then you call them everyday. The more you speak with your friend, the more you know him."

He has "an open heart to God," says Father Ludescher.

Honeck's religion is personal --"far away from being fundamentalist," he says. He doesn't evangelize but leads by example. His eldest son, Joachim, 25, now in training to be a priest, was never pushed.

This deep commitment to his faith finds ample coupling with Mr. Honeck's interpretations on the podium. "I think what is special to him is his deep spirituality in his conducting," says Dr. Angyan.

"He has deep ideas, I respect him so much," says Ola Karlsson, principal cellist of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Honeck led that ensemble from 2000 to 2006. "Too many conductors nowadays are more flashy and don't work enough. The real ones dig deep. He is a deep digger."

Dad at home

Manfred Honeck swings by for the second day of interviews in a minivan. He is running a little late to pick up his 11-year-old daughter, Anna Maria, at her school in Bregenz, the same city where his 17-year-old son, Manuel, is at a sports academy pursuing a career in soccer.

Anna Maria convinces her father to drive her and two friends to a house for a play date. Then it's off to do a quick errand -- all a typical day for the down-to-earth maestro when not caught up in the rigors of conducting.

When the PSO's Robert Moir and Larry Tamburri, vice president for artistic planning and CEO, respectively, visited Altach in fall, they witnessed the same thing. "For someone who jets around the world, to see him at home ... moving a bike in the driveway so the car could park impressed me," said Mr. Moir. "It was a very normal home."

The classical music industry typically treats conductors like kings. Chauffeurs, assistants, agents and secretaries combine to whisk them from place to place. Not the Pittsburgh Symphony's new conductor. He carries around an advanced PDA/cell phone, drives his own car and makes his own plans. That's part of the reason he still conducts a concert a year in Altach and a festival in a Renaissance castle in nearby Wolfegg, Germany. Even as he moves up the ranks, Mr. Honeck is loyal to those who gave him early opportunities as a conductor and is careful about taking on new projects.

That's why he turned down an offer from the Houston Symphony, with which he had made his U.S. debut, to consider being its music director. It was the late 1990s when he was already working with the Leipzig MDR Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic and had just committed to lead the Swedish Radio Orchestra.

Now Mr. Honeck is more experienced and able to focus on multiple orchestras. In addition to the Pittsburgh Symphony, he also will be principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and music director of the Stuttgart State Opera. But, even though he won't relocate his family to Pittsburgh (he is content to stay at a hotel), it's clear which is the more important one.

"The Pittsburgh position is the top position in his career," says Mr. Schacke, who says his friend is not looking to jump to another American orchestra. A goal in Europe, however, is someday to be one of the handful of conductors to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein.

It's been a long journey from the mountains of Austria -- and, no, he hasn't seen "The Sound of Music" (most Austrians haven't) -- to the hills of Pittsburgh, but Mr. Honeck is ready.

"I am the kind who really likes to work and work honestly. I want to do good music with this wonderful orchestra."

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.


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