Pittsburgh Symphony's Honeck revisits his musical home in Vienna
Incoming Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck stands in the back of the Musikverein Hall in Vienna in the same spot where he heard his first concert decades ago.
Incoming Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck stands in the famous St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Behind him is the area in which he sat as part of an orchestra that played during Masses.
As a young conductor, incoming Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck used to shop in the famous MusikHaus Doblinger, a CD and music score shop in central Vienna.
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VIENNA, Austria -- The stage of the Musikverein lies at the center of this city's love of classical music, but for conductor Manfred Honeck, the other side of the hall has the most meaning.
The night before, Mr. Honeck had commanded a thrilling performance on the podium, leading the Vienna Symphony, one of the city's two great orchestras, but this morning he is caught up in the music of his memories as he pauses in the standing-room section in the rear of the large hall. It is a place where, even today, students and music lovers can buy inexpensive tickets, even to the best concerts.
"I still remember the first time in my life I attended a New Year's concert and I was standing in the middle of the crowd, all of them taller than me," he said yesterday.
Another orchestra is rehearsing in the hall, and, almost on queue, the music begins to build as Mr. Honeck continues.
"Here there was a very old waiter who saw me and he picked me up and put me in front of this [railing]. That was a time which influenced my life very much because I started to think about becoming a Vienna Philharmonic member or a conductor." His eyes scan back to the spot where he stood as a 12-year-old and says, "Still this place is very emotional to me."
Vienna is the spiritual home of classical music. Haydn sang in its spectacular St. Stephen's Cathedral as a boy and returned to forge a career as the first independent composer. Mozart composed "The Marriage of Figaro," the Requiem and "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" here. Beethoven's revolutions in music thundered first in Vienna's Theater an der Wien. Schubert played piano in its houses. Strauss created a dance craze, and Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler composed towering symphonies.
Vienna's gravitational pull in the world of music is nearly unavoidable, and it took in the Manfred Honeck's family in 1970 after his mother died. More recently, Vienna has lured the maestro's newest orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for a performance at the Konzerthaus.
In a tour of his Vienna for orchestra members and board members, he includes the Vienna State Opera, one of the world's finest, where he sat in the pit as a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic. There is the conductor's room of the Musikverein, where Mr. Honeck was granted an hour with Leonard Bernstein, who gave him advice on conducting and where he shows the group famed conductor Herbert von Karajan's once personal elevator, put in so he wouldn't have to deal with anyone before performances.
Although it's now clear that Mr. Honeck's departure from the Philharmonic (in which his brother Rainer is now concertmaster) for a career in conducting was the right one for him, at the time, his friends in the orchestra weren't so sure.
"I was a little surprised," says Alfred Altenburger, also a violist, who served as the self-governed orchestra's president for 10 years. "Why would you leave the orchestra? He was a very good member in this group and we were a little upset when he [left] the orchestra because it is not so easy to find good quality artists."
Mr. Honeck left the Philharmonic in 1991 to conduct the Zurich Opera.
"He went to Zurich so quick," said Christian Birnbaum, a violinist in the Vienna Symphony and former concertmaster in the Jeunesse Orchestra that Mr. Honeck founded. "That was surprising for me. I was always convinced about his qualities."
But with hindsight -- and hearing -- the former section mates and friends now think differently.
"He is going his way that he feels is good for himself," Mr. Birnbaum said. "I find it is very good. The musicians know that he is one from our [ranks]. He is a musician, he knows the orchestra programs ... it was a good experience for him in the orchestra."
Closer to the center of the city is the Musikhaus Doblinger, which, in the days before the Internet, fed the music community with scores and recordings, and where smart students constantly monitored the secondhand shop in the back for bargains.
Nearby, strolling down the busy Karntnerstrasse, Mr. Honeck recalls the night that a quartet in which he played second violin did a little late night busking for fun.
"It was 11 at the night, after a concert, and we thought, let's go to the Karntnerstrasse and play a little bit," he said, laughing. "After 10 minutes the police [came]. Either we disturbed the neighbors or we played so bad that they had to come."
The Zu den Drei Hacken (At the 3 Axes), where the tour eats lunch, was a place "Schubert went in and out," Mr. Honeck says.
Several apartments of Viennese composers have been restored, and Mr. Honeck's tour stops by Mozart's. "Here you got connected to his identity," he said, remembering stops he'd made in the neighborhood with his father, Otto.
Mozart was married in a side chapel of the mighty St. Stephen's Cathedral. Mr. Honeck, a devout Catholic, says he was "lucky" enough to play several Masses in the cathedral as a student.
The Honeck children's musical studies were at the Universitat fur Musik. Yesterday's path took the conductor there the first time in over two decades. "I went here for my violin lessons and piano [on out-of-tune pianos "made years before the First World War"], made my exams for composition and harmony and my 2-year conducting classes. We had really a lot of experiences here. Many wonderful musicians were here.
"This is the first time since 20 years I am here in the high school again," he says after a pause. "I remember when I played the Franck Sonata here ... Every day I walked through these halls."
It is fitting in a city in which music hold such exalted status that the school's building was formerly a monastery. Mr. Honeck shows his tour the small hall with a barrel vaulted ceiling now known as the Vivaldi Hall. It is here that he performed for the first time in front of a concert audience.
Not all that sings is musical, even in Vienna, and Mr. Honeck makes sure his tour includes a stop in the Imperial Hotel for Viennese coffee and sponge cake with chocolate icing. Of course, in his days as a student, this, Sacher Tortes and the other famous desserts were out of his reach.
Long after the tour is over, the history of the music of this city lives with him. "You feel an air of music history," he said. "Where I conducted these last days [Mahler] was standing on the same place -- Brahms was standing on the same place and Bruckner."
Just a typical night in musical Vienna.
First Published February 3, 2008 12:00 am