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Manfred Honeck is Not Your Typical Maestro

The way Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Music Director Manfred Honeck conducts himself has won over musicians, and his dedication has solidified the orchestra’s international stature. After 10 years at the helm, he has forged a legacy that stands out among the PSO’s legendary leaders.



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Photos by Becky Thurner Braddock
 

People-watching is not what you’d expect a classical music conductor to do with the little free time available in a concert week. But if you want to list the ways the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Manfred Honeck is not typical, you’ll need a fair amount of time yourself.

“Sometimes I just enjoy sitting in Market Square with a coffee, watching people,” the Austrian conductor related at breakfast in the midst of a string of concerts at Heinz Hall this spring. “I like to go to a museum or see nature, but my interest always is to find out how people think and how they live their lives. Pittsburgh has such friendly people.”

When the PSO named Honeck music director in 2007, his personable demeanor was striking for how it differed from most orchestra leaders.

“He is incredibly kind and thoughtful when you speak with him,” says the PSO’s Jeremy Black, principal second violin. “He may have a strong viewpoint about something but always allows everyone else to speak first and listens attentively to every point of view.”

Michael Rusinek, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, concurs. “When he speaks to you, he takes genuine interest in getting to know you as a person.”

After a decade of leading the orchestra, Honeck’s enthusiastic and inclusive approach has defined his tenure, but with his contract nearing the end, his compelling interpretations and acclaimed recordings could be his real legacy.
 


 

Honeck came late to conducting after a successful career as a string player. That timeline had much to do with why he was a virtual unknown in America, although he had a burgeoning reputation leading orchestras in Europe in the early 2000s. The PSO may never have connected with him under normal circumstances, but it was casting a wide net as it had trouble finding a successor to Mariss Jansons after his 2003 departure.

Even for an ensemble with a history of famous directors, including Fritz Reiner, Lorin Maazel and Andre Previn, Jansons set a high bar. Many critics and classical music enthusiasts considered him the world’s best at the time. As the search went on, the orchestra ultimately punted, hiring three conductors for slightly different functions, the lead being Andrew Davis.

“Having a single music director was vital if we were to maintain the quality of the orchestra,” says Richard Simmons, the orchestra’s board chairman during this period, in an email. “We only had more than one because we could not find a single person we wanted to lead the PSO.”

As the search continued, a large contingent of guest conductors served as candidates. There were bites but nothing as strong as Honeck’s debut in spring of 2006, with a program headed by Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5.” It’s one of many works in the so-called standard repertory that orchestra musicians have played many, many times. Honeck quickly showed he would not accept playing by rote; he had his own conception.

“It was amazing that he spent so much time on musicality, on basic rhythmic patterns and color,” says William Caballero, PSO principal horn player. “I was hearing sounds I had never heard before from this orchestra.”

“It was liberating and gave us a new perspective on a warhorse,” says Black.

Individual thoughts turned to a collective response.

“In the first half hour of his very first rehearsal, a lot of looks were exchanged around the orchestra recognizing that we had found our next music director,” says Rusinek.

It wasn’t just that Honeck had a vision for the piece — he brought his own set of parts for each section with detailed penciled markings — but that he listened to the musicians and then told them he thought they could play with more stylistic consistency and artistry. It was a bold position to take as a visiting conductor.

“Technically they were brilliant, but they were longing to make music,” says Honeck. “The charisma of Mariss was still there, and they knew what they wanted — to be challenged. That is probably the reason they chose me. They knew I was coming from a tradition in Vienna and tried to bring new ideas to well-known pieces.”
Then, and in return engagements prior to being hired, Honeck pushed the musicians to rethink the European symphonic canon.

“The orchestra was actually too precise,” he says. “They played the correct rhythms, but music of the Romantic and even Classic periods need to be executed with a portion of rubato.”

It’s a standard music term meaning stretching or compressing the length of notes for artistic expression, but it’s more prevalent in solo music than in large ensembles and actually more likely to be heard in music with more relaxed tempos, such as blues, folk and Honeck’s beloved Viennese waltzes of Strauss and contemporaries. The emphasis was on music being “fluid and dynamic and rarely held to a strict metronomic beat,” says Black.

Honeck also labored to craft a different tone quality, a focus on the “sensitivity of sound,” as he calls it: “soft and quiet but with a certain excitement.”

It took some convincing, sometimes frustrating musicians who found themselves all but feigning playing when Honeck wanted extreme quiet. “You aren’t able to produce a decent sound when playing so soft,” said one member anonymously. Additional complaints have been lodged about his fast tempos, especially in the beloved Beethoven “Choral” Symphony No. 9.

But Honeck says his techniques allow him to interpret masterworks in the flexible style — sometimes elegant, sometimes abrasive — that they likely sounded when first performed, an approach that had him examining original sources for music scores and talking with older musicians and music historians.

Take Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1.” Honeck worked to resurrect the Austrian composer’s conception of the piece as seeking the profound through commonplace by emphasizing popular elements such as old peasant dances. It’s an approach heard in the recordings of Mahler contemporary Bruno Walter, not in those of Leonard Bernstein or most modern conductors.
 

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