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September Song

The debut of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's new music director, Manfred Honeck, makes this month's opening of the 2008-'09 PSO season an extra-special cultural experience.

by Jim Cunningham (from PITTSBURGH magazine, September 2008)

Here's a prediction: In the near future, the combination of Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will be as familiar as Heinz ketchup and kielbasa. That magical symbiosis is ready to be tested this month, when, after many months of anticipation, Honeck makes his official debut as music director of the venerable PSO.

"There is just something about him." That's the succinct description of Honeck from PSO cellist Hampton Mallory. I myself haven't heard a discouraging word from the Pittsburgh Symphony musicians, and they do not impress easily. After a rehearsal, Pittsburgh Symphony principal trumpet George Vosburgh told me, "Honeck has ideas. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to tell us what he wants."

Although there were wonderful concerts during the past three seasons from the PSO's three-maestro leadership team, the orchestra has been looking forward to a steady hand at the helm since the departure of its last music director, Mariss Jansons, in 2004. The Symphony's season opener is always one of the most exciting events of the new cultural season, since for more than a century, the PSO has been, and continues to be, one of the most significant worldwide symbols of Pittsburgh's cultural riches. Adding the debut of Honeck this month will create a not-to-be-missed musical experience.

Honeck assumes a position with a distinguished history, because Pittsburgh has had a powerful line-up of conductors - from Victor Herbert at the turn of the 20th century to Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, André Previn, Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons. Honeck was appointed in January 2007, and it was love at first sight for the Pittsburgh audience and Maestro Honeck, who has conducted a handful of Heinz Hall concerts and appeared on tour with the PSO before his appointment.

To know Manfred Honeck is to love him. In interviews, he shows no sign of star behavior, speaking perfect English with a German accent. Deeply spiritual, he never misses Mass and had a chapel built in his home for his family in his native Austria. Honeck, born in 1958, is one of nine children, and has six of his own, ranging from age 7 to 26. He lives in Altach, not far from his birthplace in Nenzing, Austria, about a six-hour drive from Vienna in the Austrian Alps.

Honeck learned to play the violin and sing at an early age with guidance from his father. He studied at the Musikakademie, now Universität für Musik in Vienna. Both Honeck and his brother Rainer benefited from the Vienna Philharmonic's players who tutor talented young musicians in their string-playing methods. He played in the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera orchestra. During those years he also assisted conductor Claudio Abbado with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Vienna. From 1991 to '96, he conducted at the Zurich Opera House; from 1996 to ‘99, he was one of three main conductors of the MDR Symphony Orchestra in Leipzig. From 2000 through December 2006, he served as music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. (Rainer Honeck still serves as one of the Vienna Philharmonic's concertmasters.)

Visiting his apartment in Vienna last February while the Pittsburgh Symphony was on tour, I asked the maestro how he planned to bring Vienna to Pittsburgh. "Generally I work on the colors, the sound of these composers who lived in Vienna. This is something I really, really like," Honeck said. "With what I experienced of the Pittsburgh Symphony, I think they will create an absolutely great sound."

Those who attend the Pittsburgh Symphony's Golden Gala on Fri., Sept. 19, can help commemorate Honeck's first official performance as music director. Attendees will find Vienna represented well with the overture to Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. (The evening will also feature the young Chinese lion-of-the-keyboard Lang Lang and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2.)

The "Grand Beginning" opening subscription weekend of concerts, Sept. 26-28, will feature a blockbuster showpiece for large orchestra, Austria native Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. "The old Austrian folk music and the old Austrian way of thinking is here in Vienna," said Honeck. "Mahler was extremely interested in life. The happiness, the variety of life and death are all so close together in Mahler's music. That makes him very, very special."

What makes for an authentic Viennese Mahler experience? "The music of Mahler is very strongly connected with the Viennese dialect, the way Austrians speak and sing. You have to speak the language to conduct the music," he said.

In addition to Mahler, this month's performances will exude high hopes for a long ride in the Pittsburgh Symphony's fast machine with a contemporary American touch - the program will include the PSO's Composer of the Year John Adams' most popular piece, Short Ride in a Fast Machine. (In 1988 the PSO gave the world premiere of this piece, with Adams in the audience on opening night at the Great Woods Festival outside Boston.) Another highlight of the performances is Joshua Bell, one of the hottest names in the violin world, who will be playing Tchaikovsky.

Although the conducting giants of the classical-music scene are usually Olympian dramatic figures removed from the man on the street, Honeck is a down-to-earth guy, happiest with his wife, Christiane, and family at his side. Honeck met his wife while teaching for a youth orchestra of which she was a member. Mrs. Honeck dreamed of playing chamber music, and her family has made the dream come true when they play music together.

The Honecks' eldest son, Joachim, 26, is studying to become a priest. Matia, 23, is studying violin in Vienna. Manuel, 19, wants to be a soccer star. Anna Maria, 13, is a violinist and pianist. Simeon, 10, likes to play basketball. Their youngest, Theresa Maria, 7, is learning cello, piano and flute. Honeck loves being a dad. He's been there for the birth of each child. "A miracle," says Honeck. "I can't compare it with anything I conduct. We experienced it six times. It's wonderful."

Christiane Honeck has not yet seen Pittsburgh, but she hopes to bring the family to Heinz Hall for Manfred's debut this month. "I never saw him like this when he came from Pittsburgh. I was very surprised," Mrs. Honeck told me. "He was so happy!"