Honeck to remain Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conductor until 2015

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Excellent harmony on and off stage has led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director Manfred Honeck to dramatically increase their commitment to each other.

Yesterday, the orchestra announced that Mr. Honeck has agreed to exercise not one, but two options in his contract that will add five years to the Austrian conductor's tenure. Mr. Honeck, whose initial three-year contract began in fall of 2008, will now remain in his post until at least 2015-16.

"He exceeded our expectations," said board chairman Richard P. Simmons. "The chemistry between Manfred and the orchestra is mutual and wonderful. He has made our great orchestra sound even greater."

Beginning next season, Mr. Honeck also will increase his conducting weeks at Heinz Hall by one, for a total of 10, with additional weeks for touring. The terms of the agreement were not released.

"I love this orchestra very much," said Mr. Honeck, who turns 51 on Sept. 17. "They do everything I am asking for, and I want to take the chemistry to more music."

That goes for the Pittsburgh audience, as well.

"The artistic reasons to be in Pittsburgh for me as a conductor are important, but equally important are the people here. I have a big family, but this family adds to my life."

The extension is unusual for its length and for how early it came in the conductor's tenure. The two sides began talking last December -- just three months after Mr. Honeck officially took the reins of the PSO, according to his agent, Lothar Schacke.

"It is not business as usual, but it happens now and then," said Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communication for the League of American Orchestras. "It clearly shows a positive connection on both sides that is happening so early."

Honeck is not the only Austrian conductor to have signed a sizable extension: Last year, the Cleveland Orchestra extended music director Franz Welser-Most through the 2017-18 season.

Each orchestra and audience is different, said Lawrence Tamburri, PSO president. "There are many attributes that Manfred brings to the organization that are very special. His music-making fits our orchestra and is at an extremely high standard. But just as important is that he cares about the community of Pittsburgh. He is not only willing, but a happy participant in being part of the community, including fund-raising."

The announcement comes amid financial turmoil that has engulfed the classical music industry in general, and the PSO in particular, caused in part by the recession. But Mr. Tamburri and Mr. Honeck each said that lengthening the conductor's commitment would help to steady the boat.

"The stability that eight years brings is very important," said Mr. Tamburri.

"It makes me very proud that I can follow Mariss Jansons and Lorin Maazel, but such things you cannot do in one or two years," said Mr. Honeck. "To build up a sound, you need a strategy, and a long-term one. Like in a marriage you have to be sure that it is the right partner."

Time will tell if this partnership will reach the level of recognition that the PSO did with those previous music directors in the ears and eyes of critics and audiences worldwide. But last season's concerts at Heinz Hall and on tour in China showed an auspicious and promising beginning.

"It is exciting to see how they follow, they make such beautiful things," Mr. Honeck said. "In the end, I hope it will be the right combination and I hope it will get recognized in the world."

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com . He blogs at Classical Musings at post-gazette.com. First Published September 10, 2009 4:00 AM


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