Concert Review: PSO conductor brings New World of sound
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Consider the last week of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Last Saturday, it received a colossal gift from Richard Simmons that will eventually kick off a capital campaign with the goal of securing its financial future. Then came holiday get-togethers. Following it all was the much anticipated return last night of Manfred Honeck.
Talk about Thanksgiving.
Heinz Hall was packed in part for the program which included Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" and partly because patrons wanted to see what all the fuss was about Honeck, who filled in for music adviser Andrew Davis.
The Austrian conductor made an auspicious debut in May and the buzz about that performance has hardly died down among the PSO musicians and faithful. The question was, could he sustain it? If he is to be considered a candidate to lead the PSO in some fashion, consistency at a high level is a must. As a relative unknown, the 48-year-old just doesn't have the track record to reference that.
Last night, he confirmed that his debut was no fluke. Honeck is the real deal. From a "reconstructed" viola concerto by Bach to Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 to the "New World," he cultivated the orchestra as much as conducted it.
Aggressive playing has long been a strength of the PSO, but Honeck managed to keep this while instilling more consistent tone and precision in the strings. From the back desks to the first chairs, they played with cohesion and confidence. The sound was elegant and refined, yet still potent when needed.
Honeck's secret? Just confidence in his own ideas -- he spent years as a violin and viola player in the Vienna Philharmonic -- and hard work in rehearsal on the details, so each player can dig into every note with assurance.
The result turned war horses like the Bruch or Dvorak into exhilarating rides as much for the inner vitality of each measure as for large-scale interpretation. The major themes bloomed and secondary phrases jumped out, sometimes for the first time for a listener. This was music-making from the inside out.
Concertmaster Andres Cardenes doesn't need any extra motivation, but even he seemed invigorated by the orchestral clarity and zest behind him as he soloed in Bruch's concerto. He unveiled a more robust and fuller timbre than usual, one completely befitting this Romantic work. With Honeck launching himself into the tutti passages and Cardenes playing on the edge of the beat, this was Bruch with much needed urgency, the composer's original conception of the work as a fantasy shining through.
The "New World" also tends to be interpreted as either epic or sentimental. Under Honeck, the work was more elegant and even sophisticated, a reading in keeping with a European's approach, be it his or Dvorak's. The barnstorming treatment of the stormy sections gave way to more urbane playing. But this served as a spring from which the climaxes of the piece shot forward with more energy.
Honeck is being scrutinized for his ability to handle varying repertoire, as well as the canonical pieces, and he passed that test, too, with composer Braxton Blake's cobbling together of what may be a lost viola concerto by Bach.
Other than one hiccup in which he seemed to lose his place, PSO violist Randolph Kelly made a strong case for the work, playing with a burnished tone. However, the concerto simply isn't that musically interesting to recommend it outside of musicological circles. We have enough good Bach already to last a lifetime of listening.
The program repeats tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.
First Published November 25, 2006 12:00 am