Conductor Manfred Honeck searches for a vital blend of the scholarly and spiritual

Wed Dec 10, 2014 at 6:57 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Manfred Honeck conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week in music of Haydn, Strauss and Beethoven. Photo: Felix Broede
Manfred Honeck conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week in music of Haydn, Strauss and Beethoven. Photo: Felix Broede

The first thing Manfred Honeck asks about is the weather in Chicago.

“I experienced one of the coldest days of my life in Chicago,” he says with a laugh. “Oh my God. I live in a mountainous area in Austria so I’m used to cold weather but I never experienced anything like that!”

It was indeed a frigid January night when Honeck last led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2012. Yet many are still talking about the combustible Dvorak and Beethoven performances at that week’s concerts, audience members and musicians alike.

Orchestral members’ opinions are varied and intense, especially among CSO players who don’t suffer fools gladly. But Honeck seems to have won the respect of most, with his detailed yet efficient rehearsals and freely exhilarating live performances. “When Muti retires,” said one veteran CSO member, “this guy would be at the top of my list.”

Music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2008, Honeck is a regular guest with the world’s major orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic. The 56-year-old Austrian conductor returns this week to lead the CSO starting Thursday night.

Honeck was audibly beaming on the phone last week having come out of a Beethoven rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony to find out that he and the orchestra were nominated for a Grammy for their recording of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 and a symphonic suite from Janáček’s opera Jenůfa (arranged by Honeck and composer Tomas Ille). “At the present time,” he said with pride, “we are doing very well.”

Honeck is perhaps best regarded as an exponent of the cornerstone Austro-German repertory, music reflected in this week’s CSO program, which offers Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Yet he seems to consistently find a fresh and illuminating take, bringing an individual top-spin to even the most familiar works that stems from long research and study.

Most top conductors are inveterate scholars and intellectually curious, but Honeck never tires of discovering new history and facts about music he is performing.

“That’s one of the most fascinating things in the conducting world,” he says. “You can always find new things and exciting things. As long as you’re curious and as long as you’re interested. How was it presented historically, how was it performed in earlier times, how did people at the time regard the piece?

“But the most important thing in the end is the expression and character of the music. What does the music speak about? Is the theme sad, is there a story behind it?”

He points to the famous Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. “People think it is a funeral march, which is true. But they must also know that when it was first performed at a benefit concert, it was the only movement that was repeated. Why? Because the soldiers there for the concert had just come back from battling Napoleon and the Russians. It was emotionally painful (for them) yet resonated.

“Traditionally, this movement was always played very slow. But there are two indications where I think Beethoven was not thinking in two, but thinking in one. There is a lot of darkness and light in this music. To find out the spirit, it should not be only just staccato but also legato is in the score too.”

So too, in Don Juan, Honeck feels it necessary to get to the essence of the flamboyant antihero protagonist of Richard Strauss’s tone poem—a tortuously difficult score for musicians, but also with plenty of challenges for the conductor, following the brilliant opening flourish of Don Juan’s theme.

“How can you get out of ‘Molto con brio’?” he asks. “It’s not so easy to [make a quick transition]. And at the end where he dies, you need to create a [tragic] atmosphere with the tremolo in the basses and celli where you feel the beat of the heart stops yet have it still feel satisfying.”

Honeck began as a violist, playing in the Vienna Philharmonic from 1983 to 1991. (His brother Rainer is the current concertmaster of the celebrated ensemble.) He counts his Vienna orchestra experience as invaluable training for his present career, providing the opportunity to play under “the best conductors and also some not-so-good conductors.” But, he adds, “You know, even with the conductors who were not so great, you can always learn something.”

Among the most illuminating experiences he recalls as a player were performances under Leonard Bernstein, Riccardo Muti, and Carlos Kleiber.

Kleiber made an especially strong impression on him. “I admired him very much. I like his quote: ‘Only music.’ It’s so simple, but difficult at the same time.

“His conducting technique was very specific and very good but he gave a lot of freedom. He was breathing with the music in every phrase. He had the technique to provide the freedom and to shape every vibrato and every change of tempo in the right way. He was not so much interested in [technical] precision. He was much more interested in musical precision.”

While Honeck is perhaps most identified with Austro-German music, he has also taken a strong lead in emphasizing contemporary music during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

Last season, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented “The Year of Pittsburgh Composers,” performing works by eight local composers, including a collaborative work, The Elements, with separate sections that reflect aspects of the ensemble’s home city and region.

“In the world of contemporary music, it is important to have a connection with our audience, our own people and their relationship to the city and our local culture,” he says.  “That’s so good, and so important. I wish we had the opportunity to do even more.”

“I’m a European conductor but I feel that’s part of my responsibility as music director [in the U.S.]. If we don’t do that here in America and support and perform American composers, who else will do it?”

Many observers have noted a luminous, even spiritual quality in Honeck’s performances, which perhaps reflects the conductor’s strong faith as a devout Roman Catholic.  Witness the imaginatively presented program he presented with the Pittsburgh Symphony at Carnegie Hall this past May, which interstiched excerpts from Mozart and Poulenc with a James MacMillan premiere and dramatic reading of Mozart’s letters.

“It is true,” said Honeck, a long-married father of six. “I’m a believer. I pray every day and I pray before the concerts because it is important to me.

“But, you know, to make music is so wonderful. Whether you’re a believer or not, it speaks to all people, to their emotions and to their souls.”

Manfred Honeck conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, Strauss’s Don Juan and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “Conductor Manfred Honeck searches for a vital blend of the scholarly and spiritual”

  1. Posted Dec 11, 2014 at 8:51 am by jizungu

    I heard him conduct the 7th in Pittsburgh last week, an extraordinary performance with sinuous phrasing and an accent on the piece’s playfulness.

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