Can Honeck take PSO to loftier heights?
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When Manfred Honeck raises his baton tonight at his first Heinz Hall subscription concert, he will face more than the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In front of the Austrian conductor is a challenge to fully recapture and build upon the PSO's reputation in the firmament of world orchestras. He will pursue that goal as much by honoring traditions -- the PSO's as well as classical music's -- as by rethinking them.
The versatile PSO is best known for its adept interpretations of 19th-century Germanic, especially Viennese, repertoire: from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven to Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss and many in between. Former music director William Steinberg codified this reputation, Lorin Maazel increased it and Mariss Jansons honed it -- Vienna's Die Presse praised the orchestra for "combining cultivated European sound with American perfection" after a 2003 concert under Jansons.
This branding singled out the PSO from the pack of excellent U.S. orchestras considered in Europe to be technically adept yet prizing their own distinct sound above that of the music. But in the years the Pittsburgh orchestra operated without a music director, that identity lost some of its luster. Good reputations are like gold in this ultra-subjective business, and it's here that Mr. Honeck and his connection to the Viennese repertoire can make a substantial impact.
Mr. Honeck grew up in the culture that created this music and learned the traditions of performing it as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic.
But how exactly does one re-envision music that's over a century old? One way is recognizing that classical music is contemporary at its core, relying on the connection between the musicians and the audience -- it's called "live music" for a reason.
A conductor might create a more musical version of a piece than even the composer realized or of which earlier champions were capable. History is filled with examples of works that gained acceptance later because of good conducting.
But interpretive license also may obscure original intent, and sometimes a musical work, like an old diamond, needs to be buffed to reveal its original gleam. That's the approach that Mr. Honeck takes when conducting. He is interested in getting back to the composer's intent and stylistic context, rethinking every detail and only then allowing a personal interpretation to emerge.
"A lot of orchestras in the world play these works; it is just a question of, how deep do [their] conductors understand the tradition?" asks Mr. Honeck. "For example, listen to the kind of tremolos in Bruckner. It is not only one style, there is a quick tremolo, slow tremolo, cantabile tremolo, electric tremolo. It is very important for me to get inside the tradition for this repertoire."
"When he conducts, it is a deep love for music, but more so, he tries to go deeper to see the spirit of the music," said Dr. Thomas Angyan, secretary general of the Musikverein in Vienna.
Underlying Mahler's First Symphony, "Titan," is a story of a heartbroken hero who eventually triumphs over the pain. Mr. Honeck doesn't deviate from this program but seeks to enhance it with small touches, some of which are not the norm today.
Going through a musical score with Mr. Honeck is like visiting a tourist attraction with an expert local guide. He constantly points out things that have been long forgotten or interprets them in a way that seems utterly appropriate. "After 100 years, some traditions were lost, even in Vienna," he said.
"He knows exactly from what church a bell was ringing in each piece," recalls Ola Karlsson, principal cellist of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which Mr. Honeck ran from 2000 to 2006. "He did so much research."
Members of the PSO say the same thing about Mr. Honeck's direction of works with them, and say it helps them to gain an overall image of the music.
Audiences this weekend will get to hear further examples in Mahler's First Symphony, which begins with offstage trumpets depicting a hunting party. Most conductors ask for each statement to sound with similar volume, but Mr. Honeck thinks Mahler intended the trumpets to get louder each time, signifying the hunting party's arrival.
It may seem like an inconsequential detail, but masterpieces are built with such small steps. "You have to ask, what is the reason he wrote that?" Mr. Honeck said.
Following the offstage trumpets, Mahler curiously writes three plucked notes in the strings marked fortissimo. Traditionally, these are conducted as part of the texture representing the awaking of spring, replete with bird calls.
Mr. Honeck has other ideas about the pizzicatos: "It is a shot" -- the firings of hunting rifles.
This interpretation makes so much sense, it is a wonder few if any have tried it. Mr. Honeck has no evidence for this interpretation; he just feels it must be so, and at least one prominent conductor agrees with him.
"It is an astute observation, because in fact they are very aggressive, those three pizzes, and the offstage calls are rather martial," said Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic and a predecessor of Mr. Honeck's at the PSO. He had never heard of the interpretation but said that sometimes things "escape" conductor's notice. "It could very well be that that's exactly what [Mahler] has in mind."
"These are the really small things which I really work out," said Mr. Honeck, echoing no less an authority than Mahler himself, who once wrote, "All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish."
All this adds up to a potential shot in the arm to the PSO's reputation here and abroad, and the potential for scaling even greater heights. At the least, Mr. Honeck looks to give local listeners a chance to hear familiar music in a new and vibrant way.
Manfred Honeck conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler's Symphony No. 1, John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and Peter Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell, at Heinz Hall, Downtown at 8 tonight and tomorrow and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
First Published September 26, 2008 12:00 am