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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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Honeck’s tenure at the PSO also has been marked by a fervent commitment to recording.

“The sound engineers say he is more involved in the editing process than any conductor they have worked with recently,” says Melia Tourangeau, president of the orchestra. “He spends hours and hours editing with a clear vision of what he is looking for.”

“Every note has to be perfect,” says Honeck with passion in his voice. “Sometimes in the editing process I said 10, 20 times, ‘This has to be changed.’”

The orchestra made 13 recordings with Honeck, with the last winning a Grammy in the coveted Best Orchestral Performance category (Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on Reference Recordings).

“The Grammy has been galvanizing,” says Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic and Reporter  Jeremy Reynolds. “Musicians (who went on strike in 2016) are taking it as an indication they were in the right about fighting to protect the integrity of a great artistic organization, and it’s a great peg to hang initiatives and funding goals on.”

“The Grammy affirms who and what we are,” says Tourangeau. For the musicians, this one was an extra point of pride, she adds. “Our only other Grammy was with Yo-Yo Ma in 1992. This is the first time they won it on their own.”
 


 

One criticism of Honeck has been over programming, specifically that it has been too focused on composers working in, no surprise, Vienna. Of course, most of the biggest figures in classical music history lived there, but there has certainly been no shortage of Mahler performances at Heinz Hall. Honeck is a devotee of Mahler, although there remains one piece many would love to hear (and see) at Heinz Hall: Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8.”

“It is definitely on my radar,” says Honeck. “I don’t want to leave Pittsburgh without having done it because it has never been done here,” he adds, animated as he explains the thrill of the monumentality of the symphony written for a huge orchestra and chorus. “It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.”

The orchestra concert as “event” is something at which Honeck excels, seen with staged or enhanced performances of concert pieces over his time here, including Mozart’s “Requiem” and Handel’s “Messiah.”

A legitimate question is whether Honeck will be around to program Mahler Eight. His contract takes him through the 2019-20 season. He is not saying if he will stay on, but there is little doubt he wants to re-establish positive feeling and momentum following the two-month musician strike in fall of 2016 over a contract proposal that called for cutting pay and shrinking the orchestra’s size (it was resolved later that year with a five-year contract).

“It was hard for him because he loves the musicians and believes in their positioning,” says Tourangeau.

While many orchestra members — although they are a diverse group not summed up easily — wanted his support, Honeck’s agent and PSO management advised him to not take sides.

“Some didn’t like that he stayed neutral,” says Caballero. “I — many of us — thought he should have shown up at least once during the work stoppage, to keep him in our mind as leader. He didn’t have to pick up a sign, but he could have stood with us for a time or brought doughnuts and coffee or something to show support. But he had a lot of pressure from board and management. Ultimately, I don’t think Manfred could bear the thought of friction between him and the orchestra.”
 


 

Asked about what concerts he most fondly remembers from the last 10 years, Honeck takes a long breath that would qualify as a grand pause in an orchestra score. His list includes many concerts from Heinz Hall and tours — the orchestra has taken 10 international and six domestic tours under him — but interestingly he says it is not the musical quality that makes the performances stick in his mind.

“Some were better than others,” he says, “but I judge them from the emotional side. That is what carries them from then to now.” 
 

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