Brussels and Stuttgart

Published by on June 02, 2016

There was lots of kissing going on in the great square in Brussels, Belgium, known as the Grand Places. Passionate young couples, just lost in the moment, kissing at length on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. More than you’d see in Market Square, I’m sure. I walked with Paul Silver and his daughter Sarah, the amazing WQED-FM Musical Kid. Members of the orchestra said they saw soldiers in the square in front of the Sheraton Hotel. Two even chased down someone suspicious. The soldiers at the airport were in full regalia – green and brown camouflage outfits with large rifles at the ready. Three were at the door when we first walked in.

On our walk through Brussels, we wound past Gretry Street, named for the composer Andre Ernest Modeste Gretry, and past the front door of the Maurice Bejart Dance Theater – a company which has performed in Pittsburgh for the Dance Council. There was a fromagerie and lots of beer stores.

Beer is extra fizzy in Belgium. It’s very tasty, but can be very expensive – like the Belgian brews at the Sharp Edge. Some of the very yeasty lambic beers can only be found in Brussels, so it’s a beer mecca. Pittsburghers can find Lindemann’s Framboise beer at Giant Eagle (also expensive.) Lindemann’s fruit beers, in varieties flavored with raspberries, sour cherries, peaches, or black currants, disguise the extra-yeasty taste that you may find odd.

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Stadtcasino Basel

Published by on May 31, 2016

Basel’s Stadtcasino is one of the few spots on the tour where something other than the Euro is called for, but it isn’t a place where you can wager Swiss Francs. Here are three concert halls, including one named for Swiss composer Hans Huber, who wrote eight symphonies yet is almost completely unknown in the US.

I took the Baden-Württemberg railway from Lindau to Basel with just one switch in Friedrichshafen. Violist Randy Kelly, cellist Adam Liu, English hornist Harold Smoliar, Flutist Jennifer Conner, and Principal Trombonist Peter Sullivan all like the train for its more congenial atmosphere – although it was delayed about thirty minutes which seemed very not Swiss. The cell phone service was also very spotty on the border between Germany and Switzerland. Anna Singer and I discovered this just as the train rolled into a tunnel during a live tour report broadcast.

It was hot in the Stadtcasino, which doesn’t appear to have any air conditioning. Pink granite provides an elegant baroque mood in the intimate 1,400 seat hall. Daniil Trifonov was still amazing in his Liszt Concerto and still not repeating himself with encores. In Bregenz, it was another of Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales, this time Opus 24 No. 3. At breakfast this morning, Daniil told me that Medtner made some interesting recordings, and pulled them up on his iPhone to demonstrate. Medtner left his native Russia late after the Russian Revolution, settled in London, and stayed put for the most part.

An old friend of Nancy Goeres from the midwest asked for her in the lobby at intermission. They happily connected backstage.

Cellists Michael Debruyn and Abe Feder took a look at the Jean Tingueley sculpture in a reflecting pool in front of the theater. It’s a whimsical Rube Goldberg-style mobile with black sculptural parts. All around is lively scene in the center of the city with trolley after trolley, green, white, and red all slipping by. Also in front the Theater was a massive Richard Serra sculpture of rusty-red Cor-Ten steel panels, like Serra’s sculpture in front of the Carnegie Museum. There’s an outdoor stage on the other side of the Stadtcasino where rock bands play.

Christiane Honeck introduced me to another brother of Manfred’s and his wife. They live not too far away, near Davos in Switzerland.

In the lobby, I picked up a copy of the free “Rondo” magazine published in Germany. The current issue contains an article “Musikstadt: Pittsburgh,” suggesting that the mysteries of Pittsburgh have not yet been fully revealed in spite of Michael Chabon’s “yuppie saga.” Manfred Honeck is described as a late-blooming conductor who is a favorite collaborator of Anne-Sophie Mutter, and as a candidate for music director of the New York Philharmonic. The article by Roland Mackes says that maestro Honeck is not afraid to invite organist Cameron Carpenter to try something new, such as his Paganini Variations arrangement, and concludes that the Pittsburgh Symphony may not remain a mystery in the 21st century.

Another Austrian maestro, the Cleveland Orchestra’s Franz Welser Möst is also profiled in the magazine, as is Meadville’s (actually Townville, PA’s) Cameron Carpenter, who told Rondo that he is “the Lisa Simpson of the organ world.”

After Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony performed an encore from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty,” and the Khachaturian “Galop” with a quote from the Tchaikovsky Sixth as the evening’s final music. I noticed a few people buying the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony CD in the lobby afterward. A few raindrops were falling for the return to the hotel. On to Brussels in the morning.

Familie Honeck Homecoming

Published by on May 30, 2016

It was two wunderschönes days in Bregenz and Lindau – and for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Music Director Manfred Honeck, a return to the western Austrian region of Vorarlberg where he grew up. It is a magical part of the world. I had been told to expect a rural part of the country, but while it’s farmland, and green, it’s also very cosmopolitan. The borders of Austria, Switzerland, and Bavaria are just a few miles apart along the shore of the expansive Lake Constance. The region also borders tiny Liechtenstein. It is gorgeous.

The orchestra’s hotels could have been part of the set for Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” or “Die Zauberberg” by Thomas Mann. The Seegarten and the Bayrisches Hof are right next to each other, and have winding, connecting hallways that had everyone lost at some point. You can sit in the restaurant or out on the front porch facing the water. I walked a block to the main drag, the Maximilienstrasse, to buy a few SD cards. I’ve already filled the cards I brought. The Lutheran Church was beautiful, as was the Liebfraukirche.

Percussionist Chris Allen invited me to join him for a coffee. I ordered the gross and it was enough coffee for three. A glockenspiel tinkled at 6:00 pm as a few last-minute shoppers, strollers, and holiday visitors enjoyed the cool evening on the cobblestones. I bumped into Rick Lebeau, who told me his famous father Dick, of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, is doing well with the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Rick studied German in Bregenz and had lived in the area. Dr. Michael White, who practices at Shadyside Hospital, loved the beautiful city and the concert at the Festspielhaus.

The centerpiece of the day was an invitation from Manfred Honeck to see the location of his Wolfegg Castle concerts, about 30 minutes away. It was fabulous. Archivist Bernd Meyer and his wife Irene gave us the royal treatment, including a grand tour of one of the largest print collections in the world. Their holdings include documents from the Pope to the Prince (in the 14th century), and an instrument collection which Principal Horn William Caballero demonstrated with a bit of his solo from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The Prince had sold a map from the archives bearing the first-known printed reference to America to the Library of Congress. The purchase price was over $10 million.

Manfred Honeck joked that when he conducts his summer concerts he can’t have the orchestra play too loud, because the decorative figures which adorn the Knights Hall might fall down. In the winter, when the concerts are off season, the family has used the Knights Hall as a tennis court. During the hall’s recent renovation, a tennis ball was found lodged behind one of the knights, high up near the ceiling. Now, the massive complex with its former convent, car museum, church, grounds, vineyard, and much more, are occupied by only two people. They are very fond of Manfred Honeck, and couldn’t possibly be more charming and gracious. They served coffee and kuchen for the tour group, and gave an interview which I’ll post on Facebook as soon as possible.

The Festspielhaus in Bregenz last night was a sharp change acoustically from the Musikvein. Much more dry, but clear. It was a night of great pride for all, as Manfred Honeck was officially presented the title of Professor by the Austrian government in a document signed by President Heinz Fischer. The city’s Kulturstadtrat, Michael Rauth, and Vice Governor Karlheinz Rüdisser joined Maestro Honeck at the podium. The mood was extremely cheerful at the reception afterward. Manfred’s star soccer-playing son Manuel joined in the fun. Maestro Honeck sat down at the piano to lead a group in singing “Happy Birthday” to PSO benefactor Jamee Todd.

I met Pitt University Professor Ivo Fischer, now in his 90s, who had practiced obstetrics at Magee Hospital in the 1950s during the early years of William Steinberg’s tenure as PSO music director. Dr. Fischer contributed $50 each month at Steinberg’s request when the orchestra was at a financial low point. He said he also helped to start the Austrian Nationality room at Pitt, and loved living in Pittsburgh.

The PSO’s final encore of the night was the “Galop” by Khachaturian, this time with the anthem of Vorarlberg mixed in. In Vienna, quotes of “Edelweiss” and the “Blue Danube” waltz made a special appearance in the cadenza.

Pianist Daniil Tifonov played yet another subtle encore that no one could identify. I’ll check into it. This after Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto. The audience seemed very quiet during the piano stage change.

The hall is relatively new. At the intermission, a stylish crowd enjoyed champagne in the very bright white lobby with a green band of colored light at the ceiling level. I stepped outside to look at the adjoining opera house which will present “Turandot” this summer. It was used as a spectacular set for the most recent James Bond film, “Quantum of Solace.” The bad guys escaped at the Bregenz airport – a Hollywood fiction since Bregenz has no airport.

The next five concerts will be a lightning-strike final leg of the tour starting at Basel, Switzerland on Tuesday.

On the Beautiful Blue Danube

Published by on May 29, 2016

It’s daunting to think of how to describe the success of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s three-day residency at the Musikverein in Vienna. All three programs were wildly successful. Remember Rainer Honeck, Manfred’s brother? He is the lead concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and played the VPO’s 2016 Sommernachtskonzert, which you can see on WQED-TV 13 soon. Over 100,000 were said to be at the Schönbrunn Palace for that concert, given the same evening as a sold-out Pittsburgh Symphony performance at the Musikverein. Rainer played for several rehearsals, the Sommernachtskonzert, and attended a tribute to a colleague – but there he was backstage to greet his brother after the Sunday afternoon concert.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos played a Bach encore after his Alban Berg concerto. He told me he’d never played the Berg here in the composer’s home town, even though he’s played many times at the Musikverein. I see there’s an exhibit locally that features a car that Berg owned. I’ll share it with you later, as soon as I can find it again in my absurd and heavy suitcase holdings.

I have been slow to add photos to the blog due to technical challenges. The Dell guy is coming to visit me in Lindau, which is a little like saying he’s coming to visit me in Butler. Lindau is not a huge place for specialized computer repair. I picked up a gizmo to help with my WiFi problems at the Media Markt (sort of like Best Buy) store in Vienna. They still have CDs. On the wall, they had a poster for a Deep Purple concert in Graz, Austria. Perhaps you remember their big ’70s hit, “Smoke On the Water.” There was a big retail display for Taylor Swift. If you’re in the market for some Ritchie Blackmore, you’ll find him and and other monsters of metal at MediaMarkt.

In Dresden, the management of the Albertinum asked for a brass ensemble to play a fanfare at intermission, so George Vosburgh organized a bit of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben – the offstage music – which sounded great.

There are so many little details I want to tell you. I enjoyed consuming a bottle of Almdudler soda pop in the hotel yesterday. A sketch of guy and a girl who appear to be dancing in Austrian folk outfits is printed in white on the front of the clear bottle. Almdudler is known as the “national drink of Austria.” It combines grape and apple juices with herbal flavors. I also enjoyed a Bobby candy bar made in Salzburg.

I had to say “Es tut mir leid” to the usher at the Musikverein when he noticed I was taking pictures from Paltz Eins, Reihe Eins. Wish I had a nickel for every time that has happened! You may have noticed listeners standing in the balconies to get a better look at the stage during the Vienna New Year’s Day concert telecasts. They were doing that yesterday. It was a 3:30 pm concert, so sunlight was streaming in the windows as the PSO played an encore by Schubert and another by Prokofieff. Maestro Honeck held his arms in the air for what seemed like 90 seconds after Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Big, big applause.

Off to Bregenz by plane in 15 minutes.

Berlin Video Dresden Museum Theresienstadt 48 hours

Published by on May 24, 2016

Two more wildly successful days have flown by in Deutschland for the Pittsburgh Symphony. The tour party is still talking about the fantastic evening in Berlin with the webcast. Everyone I met could not have been nicer or more helpful in pulling together the backstage camera position. I had a wonderful makeup artist Jeanne Groellmann. She needed to dab me a lot with the warmth in the hall and the hike from the hotel needing speed. Magdalena Zieba-Schwind gave me the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown and kept things moving with good cheer and warmth. The Head of the Video Department Katherina Bruner met us in the lobby to guide us up to the control room for a production meeting. George Nducha served as video supervisor. Hannah Dorn guided us through the early stages of figuring out what to do. Almost everyone had perfect English. Erik Koschnik helped run the prompter. Thomas Kutschker, Martin Baer and Boris Fromageot followed the maestro and special events in the hall like the encores including It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood from Michael Rusinek and Berliner Luft with Noah Bendix Balgley.. Alexander Lueck, Christopher Rowe were also wonderful. Creative Producer Christoph Franke was backstage at the end of the evening he seemed delighted with how the concert had gone.



There was such a super charged feeling of sharing something special and working together to bring the best possible experience to music lovers. Because the Digital Concert Hall at the Berlin Philharmonie is one of a kind they could have employed a take it or leave it attidtude but they worked way beyond expectations to make it the best and laughed about it too. I’m sure they may have had some trepidation about a stranger showing up at the last minute with a lengthy script but they handled in stride. Highest rating! It was fun to watch the backstage activity. I spent a few minutes with Principal Harp Gretchen van Hoesen who rushed out onstage for the Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty encore. Our director must have been surprised by the Terrible Towel wich even won a mention in the rave review from the Taggesspiegel critic.

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Berlin Dresden Terezin

Published by on May 24, 2016

Watch this space. We’re on our way to Terezin or Theresienstadt in just a few minutes. Last night in Dresden at the Albertinum was swarm but beautiful. Much more to come.

Forbidden Bremen

Published by on May 22, 2016

Daniil Trifonov and the PSO at Die Glocke

Thunderous applause greeted the Pittsburgh Symphony after their concert at Die Glocke in Bremen, Germany. I sat next to a fan who stomped his feet along with everyone else in the 1,400 seat hall. The wood floor surface amplified the stomping along with the cheers. Pianist Daniil Trifonov charmed with his Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, benefiting from an especially sonorous new Steinway. His hair flew in the air and he stabbed at the keyboard with his characteristic intensity. Trifonov could make a piano in an old wild west bar thrill. He played the last of a set of Nikolai Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies with exquisite tone.

It was hot on stage in the tight space. Every seat was filled. The sound was big and bright. The third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 always feels like an ending, and there was some applause. Manfred Honeck included two encores. First came the Panorama from Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and then the Khachaturian Galop from the “Masquerade Suite,” in which Principal Clarinet Michael Rusinek quoted a tune from the first movement of the Tchaikovsky sixth as part of his florid cadenza. That Tchaikovsky theme had been played earlier by Mrs. Rusinek, PSO Principal Bassoonist Nancy Goeres.

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The Musik Begins

Published by on May 21, 2016


And they’re off – with the cheers for Last night’s concert in Hanover now history. The Kuppelsaal, named for its round cupola shape – like a mini Royal Albert Hall, although not so mini with 3,700 seats. It’s been remodeled since the Pittsburgh Symphony’s last visit. Formerly brown and beige, it’s now white and blue. In the center of the ceiling is a large black circle with jagged edges like you might expect for an alien landing station. Above the top balcony, in white and gold, are all the signs of the zodiac: Aquarius, Aries, Sagittarius, etc. Large white columns in a circle rise from the third balcony. Chandeliers, white acoustical “clouds,” and thin silver cylindrical light fixtures hang from the ceiling. There is one row of audience behind the orchestra. Conductor and soloists emerge from a door behind the orchestra and walk around to the front. Dark woodwork surrounds the stage. It was a full house with only a few empty seats at the very back of the top balcony.
There was a relaxed atmosphere as a very well-dressed crowd stood in long lines to purchase flutes of Prosecco at intermission. The flutes were also lined up on a table to speed up service. Why doesn’t every concert hall do it this way?

There was some applause after each movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. Manfred Honeck smiled during the pauses. The acoustics are dry, but clear. The Tchaikovsky was powerful with the PSO’s terrific winds and brass. The strings were especially silky at the beginning of the second movement. The oboe’s solo was gently phrased, and the beautiful theme repeated ever more gently. Tympanist Ed Stephan provided some thrills on the first and second half.

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Freitag Sonnenschein

Published by on May 20, 2016

Hannover Center for Bechstein pianos

I’m headed over to Manfred Honeck’s hotel for a short interview marking the start of the tour. It’s a mild sunny Friday with sun. A business conference is taking place in the hotel. I am in the “overflow” hotel with Maestro Andres Franco and the PSO staff. The conference is all businesses who sell to the companies doing home infrastructure–radon detection, heating and Internet of Things stuff. I think it would be obscure to me if it was in English.

Last night I took a few minutes to walk around the area. Just down Hinuberstrasse where I’m in the hotel is the Hannover Center for Bechstein pianos. I thought of pianist Henry Spinelli who is a big Bechstein fan. He owns one, and Chatham University has one,  but you don’t see them all that often. They also had some digital pianos made by Casio and Roland.

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Published by on May 18, 2016


Hanover is the old stomping ground of King George I, the King of Great Britain and America until the American Revolution changed everything. Did you know that King George was a Hanoverian? Famous Hanover connections include Waterloo (there’s a Waterloo Platz in Hanover) and Wellington, Continental Tires, and Deutsche Grammophon records. Dating back to the middle ages, the Hanseatic League cities including Hanover were essential to trade, shipping and finance. A Hansa was a convoy. Hanover, Germany’s 13th largest city, is in lower Saxony, south of Bremen and Hamburg. In America, we spell the city’s name with one “n”: in Germany it has two, “Hannover.” The River Leine runs through town, and was used by ancient convoys to convey their raw materials and treasure.

The Pittsburgh Symphony will trade in musical treasure, Tchaikovsky and percussion instruments, on Friday when they open their tour with Martin Gruebinger playing the Percussion Concerto by Bruno Hartl.

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