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.


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.
 

 


 

The easiest way to explain Honeck’s personality to Pittsburghers is that he probably would have been a fixture on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He is affable, at ease in front of a camera and (always a plus for Fred) a musician.

For PSO musicians, the proof comes in rehearsals. That’s where the true character of any conductor emerges, with more than a few impatient and tyrannical examples over history. Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Arturo Toscanini get top billing for 20th-century bullies, but tirades and temper tantrums persist. Conductors have been known to throw batons, music and insults at rehearsals. Not Honeck.

“Ten years later and not once has he belittled a soul on stage or gotten mad,” says Caballero. “He is always good-natured.”

Honeck learned as much what to do as what not to do in his 10-plus years as a violinist and violist in the Vienna Philharmonic, seeing how famous conductors operated and how the musicians reacted.
What is it that keeps Honeck from the ranks of the domineering conductor set? His Roman Catholic faith and his family (six children and wife Christiane) are strong reasons, but the most central is a seemingly intrinsic humility.

For all the effort that symphony orchestras and opera houses have admirably poured of late into shedding classical music’s haughty reputation, one particularly pretentious tradition lives on: calling conductors “maestros.” You don’t have to recall the “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer exaggeratedly calls Elaine’s conductor boyfriend “The Maestro” to know the title is over-the-top. But for many conductors, the podium symbolizes a better-than-thou relationship to musicians, staff and even audience.

But these types of maestros don’t drive minivans.

When Honeck is at home in the mid-sized town of Altach, Austria, he frequently finds himself driving his youngest child around, the older children having left for college and careers. His children understand he can’t be around as much as other fathers, so he spends a great deal of time with them when he’s there, always thankful for a strong partner in Christiane.

“To be a conductor, if you are married, you need someone who understands your profession,” Honeck says. “Christiane is definitely that. She takes care of the family. That does not mean that I am not taking part in the family.”

He frequently calls, to connect, praise or reprimand, and leaves weeks open despite many invitations to guest conduct. As for that transition from conductor to chauffeur: “I always love to drive the kids to different things, and it also gives children the opportunity to see you not only on a podium,” he says. With a chuckle, he adds, “If you talk with them in a car, you can ask them questions and there is no way they can escape!”

Yet there is no true understanding of Honeck without incorporating his faith. He attends Mass every day and says grace before every meal — but does not evangelize. “I would never hang a sign around my neck and say I am faithful,” he says. “I actually would never consider myself an extremely faithful person … I am trying to find this in my own way, and I find in the faith enormous happiness.”

He likes to prepare for concerts with reflection and prayer, but early in his tenure, he opened that time to any who wanted to join him. Often more than 30 people would assemble in his Heinz Hall office or a nearby room.

Almost immediately, it was controversial. Many PSO members felt non-Christians were excluded, and others thought some musicians used it to gain favor with Honeck. Honeck was adamant neither was true.

Eventually, it became divisive enough that Simmons asked Honeck to end the practice. As the years passed and his character has become understood within the organization, Honeck reopened the time to people.

“Sometimes we come together with two or three, and other times 30 people,” he says. “Those who want to come can; my relationship with those who don’t come is not affected. Really, it is my personal preparation.”

Preparation also includes sticking to a less-than-adventurous diet, to remain in tip-top shape. However, he has been known to binge on chocolate and recently ate Wiener Schnitzel for dinner every night for a week in Munich during an appearance. “It was embarrassing, actually,” he says.
 

 


 

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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