What a difference a maestro makes.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra faced economic hardships in the 2008-09 season, but it saw artistic recovery with conductor Manfred Honeck in his first year as music director.
Honeck's inaugural season with the PSO went about as well as one could imagine. With electric and daring performances of Mahler's Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Bruckner's Symphony No. 4, Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, Orff's "Carmina Burana" waltzes by the Strauss family and others, Heinz Hall buzzed with excitement of a level that hasn't existed since Mariss Jansons led the orchestra.
The post-Jansons experiment with a trio of conductors instead of a music director bought time to find the right guy and integrated capable union musicians in the running of the orchestra. But those four seasons saw the orchestra's collective artistic focus and its European reputation diminish somewhat amid so many chefs.
Honeck is still perfecting his stylistic recipe -- "It is a continuous process," he says. But having one voice at the top has already helped to hone the entire orchestra to the high level it has been used to. PSO musicians were hungry for leadership and for an artistic challenge. And they have impressed Honeck.
"These are not only good musicians, but fantastical, bright people," he says.
There is perhaps no better place to assess Honeck's impact on the PSO than in the strings. Always flexible and rich-sounding, their collective timbre and ensemble has improved in less than a year. Honeck has challenged nearly every aspect of the PSO's string playing, from investigating multiple types of vibrato to striving for lively bell tone to placing the two violin sections opposite each other on stage for older repertoire (what he calls "old German seating").
The result has been scintillating. The strings now play with complete cohesiveness back-to-front and with much more presence and precision. It's not that they weren't excellent before, but even in the Jansons days the PSO strings didn't sound this graceful and vibrant. Honeck's tenure in the Vienna Philharmonic and his past skill as a violinist and violist have given him the confidence to make these changes.
Equal credit goes to the musicians. They agreed to let an unknown conductor alter their approach to the core Germanic repertoire and work them like they haven't been worked in years. Some are chafing under Honeck's fast tempos and emphasis on details such as vibrato, but only because they want what is best for the group and the music, not because they have a beef with him as a person.
It is actually positive that the honeymoon period is coming to an end between Honeck and the musicians; that's necessary for any relationship to gain greater depth. The musicians raved about Honeck's bedside manner at rehearsal when he was hired in 2007. But I knew it was only a matter of time till they would dislike something he did or said, no matter how quietly or politely he uttered it.
Besides, a new music director should ruffle some feathers. Honeck has told me his rehearsal technique will change as the PSO assimilates the sound world he wants. The first season always requires the most repetition.
For instance, Honeck has decided to make old German seating the standard arrangement for all PSO concerts, including with guest conductors, starting next season (allowing for exceptions with modern works). It's a more dramatic shift than his experiments this past season for older works but won't require much drama because the musicians are doing it occasionally now.
If Honeck has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the timbre and style of the PSO, he has also made his own interpretative mark. Clearly, this is a conductor with a knack for drama in music. His biggest successes in his first season came with works that either have a "plot," such as Mahler's Symphony Nos. 1 and 2 and Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," or that develop musically in a dramatic way, such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
"It is very important to tell a story," he says. And what a storyteller Honeck has turned out to be! These works arrived with provocative readings that shocked me at first, but ultimately pushed me to listen to them more honestly than before.
At his core, Honeck is a new sort of early music practitioner. It isn't obvious because he's not interested in period instruments, but he constantly seeks to reach beyond performing conventions erected in the mid-20th century to get to the styles that existed when the music was created. He has gleaned some of his ideas from reading scores and letters. Others stem from performing traditions he learned under other conductors.
Honeck might tell the musicians a story about the writing of a piece to inspire them to play differently, such as describing the potent pizzicato in the first movement of Mahler's First Symphony as the shots of a hunting rifle. He may even slightly "re-write" a score, as he did by asking for only pizzicato at the end of the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (based on the advice of a conductor who had seen the manuscript).
Working on lighter, edgier and more nimble orchestral playing is just the groundwork. In any piece, Honeck might move the timpani forward to bring out its thunder or put cloth in the bassoons to get the right subdued tone. While these aren't unheard of solutions, they are not asked for as much these days. Anything is game if it serves the music and makes the performance more compelling.
What will next season hold? More artistic high points and probably a few more artistic bumps, including a lengthy search for a new concertmaster to succeed Andres Cardenes.
Quite possibly next season could witness a full fusing of Honeck and the orchestra into a tangible musical identity. I have said before that the PSO needs to build upon its reputation in the Jansons era as the most European of American orchestras. It will take a while, but perhaps it will come in time for the orchestra's major tours next season: to the Bonn Beethoven Fest, the Lucerne Festival, New York's Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Musikverein and more.
It's about time the rest of the world realizes just what a special music relationship is being built here in Pittsburgh.
Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at email@example.com . He blogs at Classical Musings at post-gazette.com. First Published June 21, 2009 4:00 AM