Pittsburgh Symphony's Manfred Honeck arrives with a sound approach
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Manfred Honeck's appointment as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has the appearance of an overnight success because he is not well-known in North America. But his rise to this role has been a long journey, one that can help Pittsburghers to know what to expect when his tenure commences with the gala concert Friday.
Honeck's training began with a bow, not a baton, in his hand, watching conductors from his seat in the viola section of the Vienna Philharmonic and the pit of the Vienna State Opera in the 1980s.
"You can imagine when you play all the operas there are a lot of things you can learn," he said recently from his home in western Austria. "You can learn something from any conductor, even the worst one."
But Honeck's makeshift classroom rarely had mediocre headmasters. The likes of Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Carlos Kleiber and Claudio Abbado were his "teachers."
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Lang Lang, piano
- Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
- Tickets: $39-$105, plus gala packages starting at $200; 412-392-4900.
It was in this environment that Honeck, who turns 50 Wednesday, realized the critical importance of how conductors, well, conduct themselves with the orchestra, in terms of respectful demeanor and of preparation. It was here that he absorbed the standard repertoire. It was here he realized how much music exists beyond the printed notes. And it was here that he even picked up a baton technique:
"Kleiber's technique gives you so much freedom and musicality that I thought this is exactly what I have to learn."
Honeck was fueled by "a fire in my body to be a conductor." But without having a conservatory degree or being another conductor's protegee, the largely self-taught Honeck took a more opportunistic approach: In 1987, he founded his own youth orchestra.
Created as a teaching ensemble for Austrian students, the Vienna Jeunesse Orchestra was a learning experience for Honeck, too. Along with Abbado's Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (also based in Vienna), Honeck was able to conduct the Germanic standard repertoire, from Beethoven to Brahms, Dvorak to Mahler, and more.
Honeck poured his energy into the Jeunesse Orchestra, musically and personally. "Young musicians love to see the conductor of the youth orchestra when he gets familiar with the members," says Christian Birnbaum, former concertmaster under Honeck in the Jeunesse ensemble.
The youth orchestras also afforded the conductor the opportunity to experiment, make mistakes and form his own voice without being crushed by the notoriously stringent Viennese music press corps.
"With a youth orchestra, that's OK, but I took too many risks, so that sometimes musicians were not always together," he says. "But I don't regret this any second because this freedom and thinking" of only music helped him grow in his role.
Honeck credits watching Bernstein, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and others with helping him balance expression with ensemble. And slowly but surely Honeck moved on to professional ensembles.
"When I [left] the Philharmonic, I had already conducted all orchestras in Vienna, which was a little bit unusual, actually," he says.
That included prestigious pieces -- Dvorak's Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Stravinsky's ballet "Pulcinella" at the State Opera and Mozart operas at the Vienna Volksoper. But more often, he conducted off-the-beaten-path repertoire such as the Bruckner "Double Zero" Symphony and world premieres. "I could do this kind of repertoire ... because no one else was doing that. It was good for me."
His first major music directing post was to run an opera house, in Zurich, in 1991. "I [had] conducted only three operas when I went, which was a risk for the director of the opera," Honeck says, still with a hint of astonishment in his voice. (The operas were "Die Fledermaus," "Marriage of Figaro" and "Magic Flute.")
"Opera conducting is very different from the concert: the flexibility, the listening, [directing over] the distance to the choir and the singers. That was one of the most important steps of my conducting [development]."
In 1996, Honeck moved back to the orchestral world as one of three main conductors of the MDR Symphony Orchestra Leipzig, at which he had at his disposal an excellent choir. Here he conducted works such as Bruckner's "Te Deum" and Beethoven's "Missa solemnis." In 2000, he became head of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the largest institution he had yet led.
"He went step and step above where he was before and the orchestras became better and better," says his manager agent Lothar Schacke.
And Honeck got better and better, too -- both more detailed in instruction and more effective in handling professional musicians. When Honeck conducted the Swedish ensemble, members felt as if they had "a very supportive friend," recalls Ola Karlsson, principal cellist. "Even if you didn't play well, he wouldn't get angry, though he is very persistent with things -- he could take 15 times to work on a dynamic."
"I was quite free to choose my repertoire there," he says. He did not conduct Bruckner, however. "I felt I did not have enough white hairs." (He now feels "ready" and will conduct Symphony No. 7 at Heinz Hall in November.)
Honeck's Viennese repertoire extends to the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, as well as Zemlinsky and Hartmann. For Honeck, it is a work-by-work approach. "Webern's 'Six Pieces' is great music, but I would not say that I add now Webern as my favorite composer." The same goes with Shostakovich (he prefers the Fifth Symphony).
While shepherding the PSO's artistic quality is his first priority, Honeck realizes it is crucial that he tend to the business side of an orchestra, even though his experience has been with state-supported ensembles.
"I am not the type who refuses to take part in the fundraising or to help the symphony to create this environment in which the audience feels extremely well to come to us," he says. Indeed, Honeck sees his job as making a convincing statement "that music is still the best ambassador of the world to bring people together" and "to create a musical environment in which people think they should come to Heinz Hall."
First Published September 14, 2008 12:00 am