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Sound Conductor: Manfred Honeck

Manfred Honeck and the PSO play the Kennedy Center tonight. (Toshiyuki Urano)

Manfred Honeck is still in his first season as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he’s creating a lot of excitement. The 50-year-old Austrian wasn’t exactly a marquee name in the U.S. when he was selected in 2007, but he was well known in Europe and the concerts he had done here were warmly, even rapturously received. And while the financial climate is forcing orchestras to cancel tours right and left, Pittsburgh is hitting the road under its new star. Tonight’s concert in Washington – Honeck’s first appearance with the orchestra as music director outside of Pittsburgh – is a preview of an upcoming tour to China in May, while this summer will see the orchestra play at the prestigious Lucerne Festival and other venues in Germany.

Honeck is a refreshingly down-to-earth person, who grew up in a small village in the Alps, one of nine children of the village postmaster, before his father moved the family to Vienna to further their musical education (four of the nine became professional musicians). He now lives only a few miles from where he grew up, with his wife and six children of their own. I spoke to him after a concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director for six years; currently, he is music director of the Stuttgart Opera and principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.

Did you have any reservations about taking on an American post?
Actually, not really. I always valued this orchestra highly; they have a fantastic reputation, especially in Europe….

The fundraising aspect of an American music director’s job is off-putting to some European conductors.
My wish is to concentrate on the music; that’s the most important thing… If I conduct in front of an audience, I don’t want to get on stage completely drained from meetings… but I want to help the orchestra; this fundraising is a very very important thing. I’m amazed that [the system] even works in America; it’s very, very different from Europe. [Note: in Europe, most orchestras and opera companies are subsidized by the government.]
(continue reading the interview after the jump)

Has your experience in Pittsburgh gone as you expected? Any surprises?
Everywhere I’ve conducted in America… it’s been fantastic how well prepared the orchestra is. I’m fascinated in Pittsburgh how this youthful spirit… [comes through]: they want to realize everything, they demand that I do detailed work…. I’m against just playing [a piece] through. That’s the last thing I want. The phrasing, the manner you approach it have to be determined; you can’t leave it to chance… It’s not enough to play together; you have to create an identity with the piece. That's hard work…
You have to do a lot in advance… You study [a score] for a year and you have so many ideas, so many thoughts [about it]. Then you get in front of the orchestra and you have two days. Everything that you’ve thought in 365 days, you have to fit it all into those two days…
Sometimes I go so far as to write in the kind of vibrato [I want]. If you have 16 first violins, you can vibrate slowly, you can vibrate fast… [and if they all do it together], it sounds so uniform. So fantastic. But these days people hardly get to talk about that kind of thing. As if it were a private matter, none of anybody’s business…

You conduct both operas and orchestras, which is not as common today as it used to be.
They complement each other… I described to you before that… we leave little to chance. But this flexibility is the other side of making music. I want to feel I can suddenly do something different than I did in rehearsal. In opera conducting you can estimate that much, much better…
Every piece we play on the concert stage is actually an opera. It has a program. A Mozart symphony, a Mahler symphony: you could actually write an opera libretto…. I think music, like a good opera, is taken from life. Even a symphony is a part of our lives.
For me, this kind of opera thinking, thinking dramaturgically, is enormously important….

What is the thinking behind the program you're playing in Washington [which includes Strauss’s “Tod und Verklärung,” Haydn’s first cello concerto, and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony]?

Strauss is a composer who’s a great focus of mine – though perhaps not as much as Mahler. This whole period, the late 19th and early 20th century, is particularly interesting…. This third tone poem goes deeply into the world of the dying, which was a central theme in the 19th century: the meaning of life, and what comes after death…
As a counterweight, I wanted to place the model for all Romantic composers, Beethoven, who uses completely different colors…
The choice of Haydn had to do with the Haydn year [the 200th anniversary of the composer's death], but also with Alisa [Weilerstein, the soloist]; she did a wonderful Dvorak with me in Hamburg with the NDR [North German Radio Orchestra].
… [The program] is a good arc, a slice of life, with death and seriousness [at one end], and this pulsing piece, standing in the middle of life, [at the other].

By Anne Midgette  |  May 4, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  interviews  
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