Maestro conducts business as well as symphonies

PSO's Honeck represents a new breed of director

On the eve of a major concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, its music director had the eyes of 200 people trained on him. But Manfred Honeck wasn't on the podium at Heinz Hall, he was in one of the building's reception rooms. And when he extended his arms, it wasn't to wave a baton but to shake hands.

He was greeting the patrons -- members of the Friends of the PSO eager to hear the man who captains the renowned orchestra. Mr. Honeck spoke about the music the orchestra was to perform that weekend last year in Heinz Hall and later at New York's Carnegie Hall. Soon the questions turned to Mr. Honeck's personal life: "Do your children play instruments?"

About 50 people stuck around afterward hoping to meet him. That once would have been a lost cause: Since the days of former PSO director Fritz Reiner (1938-48) when there was a clear line between the artistic and business sides of the business, many conductors have deigned to talk only to a few donors and patrons and then scurry away to study scores.

Not Mr. Honeck, 52, who's a prime example of the new style of conductor.

"He stayed until every single person had gone," said Vice President of Donor Relations Mary Ellen Miller, her voice still betraying some disbelief.

"It would be a shame not to do it," he said. "If I treat a friend in a way that I don't want to meet them, I would feel bad."

It's a pattern that the maestro has repeated on numerous occasions, and it may just be exactly what the arts organization needs in these uncertain economic times.

"There are new and different expectations of the orchestra," said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, based in New York City.

"They are having to compete in ways they didn't have to compete in the days of [former Cleveland Orchestra maestro George] Szell. "There used to be a centrality the symphony, opera and dance shared, but now there are all sorts of arts groups and organizations that are demanding resources."

Some orchestras have tried to address this by offering special concerts and events designed to engage nonsubscribers in classical music.

Mr. Honeck offers special concerts, too, but stands out among other artistic directors in his outreach efforts.

Mr. Honeck "speaks to everyone who wants to talk to him, from the person at the top of the donor list or someone who loves music but doesn't donate," said Ms. Miller. She readily admits, though, that his accessibility is an enormous benefit to fundraising: "There is great response when [the message] comes from him."

That's doubly important be-cause the PSO is not just asking for annual donations but additional contributions to its $80 million capital campaign.

"On a number of occasions we will have potential donors who had not yet made a commitment," said orchestra board chairman Richard P. Simmons. "After they spend a half an hour with Manfred, these people not only make sizable donations, but more than we anticipated."

Before taking the post in Pittsburgh in 2008, the Austrian conductor led orchestras and opera companies exclusively in Europe. Most arts organizations there are state supported and little fundraising has been needed. European conductors are not accustomed to the practice and many adamantly feel it is not the role of the artistic head. These factors have been a perennial problem for American orchestras, since they often hire European conductors. A prominent recent example of the rift came in 2004 when outgoing Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim cited fundraising as a major reason for his departure.

"I have come to realize that the position and responsibilities of a music director in America are changing in that they require many nonartistic activities, and I feel I have neither the energy nor the time to fulfill them," Mr. Barenboim said.

That's a long way from Mr. Honeck's take on the situation.

"I feel it as my duty to do this [as] a representative of the symphony," said Mr. Honeck. who is finishing three weeks of symphony concerts here with a performance today.

"He comes to board meetings to talk and to listen, and he even meets with people before the concerts, which is unusual," said Mr. Simmons. "He never says no."

It's all the more remarkable, say many in the PSO, since Mr. Honeck still lives in Austria with his family. Charged first with maintaining the high artistic level of the orchestra, his short visits to Pittsburgh are packed with planning sessions, meetings with musicians, rehearsals, and not to forget, concerts.

The PSO staff never asks Mr. Honeck to solicit donations. "We simply need him to speak about his passion for music," Ms. Miller said.

He is known for engaging young people one hour and sitting with corporate sponsors the next. On his one day off on last year's European tour, he took time to have a dinner with BNY Mellon executives in Vienna.

In Pittsburgh, Mr. Honeck has offered concerts that go beyond the usual to extend the orchestra's reach to nonsubscribers, such as a performance of Mozart's Requiem interspersed with readings or his recent "Music for the Spirit" event last week at St. Paul Cathedral. But his contributions have been more behind the scenes, and he has become adept at it. Two conductors who share these traits are right by his side: PSO principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and principal pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch.

But with conductors such as Marin Alsop (Baltimore), Gerard Schwarz (Seattle) and Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco) already operating this way (with the gregarious conductor Leonard Bernstein as an influence) and new blood such as Gustavo Dudamel (Los Angeles) and Alan Gilbert (New York), the field is embracing the notion that maestros and money don't have to be at odds.

"My impression is that conductors in America are much more attuned to this because ... they know how difficult it is to secure funds," says Mr. Rosen of the League of American Orchestras. "Every conductor's aptitude for it is different, but I think in the orchestra of today music directors see the value of being approachable."

For Mr. Honeck, connecting with people didn't stem from watching trends. It is his makeup.

"Music making is very important, but it is also important to know your friends and ... to give back to people for their support and great passion for the music," he said. "Every time I come to Pittsburgh, I meet new friends."

Manfred Honeck leads the PSO in works by Beethoven at 2:30 p.m. today at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings, Twitter: @druckenbrod. First Published February 27, 2011 5:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?