Feb 03 2008

Manfred Honeck at home in Vienna

Published by at 3:31 am under PSO 2008 European Tour

Hofburg Imperial PalaceWhile the Pittsburgh Symphony enjoys a day off in Hanover, I traveled with a few musicians to Vienna to interview our Music Director Designate, Manfred Honeck. PSO Director of Corporate Support Lizz Helmsen and I took a 9:00 am taxi to the Hanover airport, where I had much trepidation about the weight of my suitcases. I had packaged up the printed stuff, concert schedules and newspaper bits that I had collected along the way and mailed them home from Hanover, but my luggage was still twenty pounds over the limit. The nice people at Berlin Air just waved me through. This is a new low-cost European airline. The trip from Hanover to Vienna was just 70 euros. The flight, on a brand-new, wide-body Airbus 319, wasn’t full and included a cheese sandwich. The Germans are the best about providing reading material. I picked up a copy of the German version of People magazine, Bunte, with Albert and Charlene — Eine Stürmische Liebe! on the cover. (Who are these nice people?) Inside, were the latest stories on Keith Ledger’s death and David Copperfield’s Zwei heimliche Kinder (two secret kids!)

Mostly Mozart shopThe Vienna airport is spotless. You immediately know you’re in Mozart’s City. A guy hands everyone a brochure about the cultural life of Vienna as you come down the walkway from the plane.

Concertmaster Andres Cardenes is feeling better after a lingering battle with stomach troubles. Andres made the trip early, as did Anne Martindale Williams, Cynthia DeAlmeida, Christopher Wu, George Vosburgh, and Rhian Kenny, who is celebrating her 40th birthday in Vienna.

I met my WQED colleagues, Michael Bartley and cameraman Frank Caloiero from OnQ, who arrived in Vienna last Tuesday. They’re shooting locations and interviews for a special OnQ profile of the new Pittsburgh Symphony Music Director that will air this fall. Michael hopes to put together a preview for broadcast in the next few weeks.

We all joined Rachelle Roe from the Pittsburgh Symphony staff to head for Manfred’s Vienna apartment. He’s lived there since his days as a student, and during his early years as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. In fact, the block of apartments are owned by the Vienna Philharmonic. His neighbors are mostly musicians. The Honeck apartment is on the second floor. His son Mathias and his daughter-in-law live there now, but when Manfred is in town as he was this week conducting the Vienna Symphony, he stays at the old place. I met his wife Christiane, who is charming with a warm smile. She hasn’t visited Pittsburgh yet, but will come for the festivities in the fall. She is the handy one around the house, good with a hammer. She redid the kitchen when she and Manfred lived in this home. Their primary residence is about six hours away by car, near Nenzing, where he grew up.
(left to right) Simeon, Manfred, and Teresa HoneckThe Honecks have six beautiful children. The oldest son, Joachim, is studying to be a Jesuit priest. Manuel is 18, Simeon 9, Teresa 7 and Anna Maria 13. Simeon has a terrific setup of toy soldiers and people in the corner of the living room. Teresa and Simeon dressed for Carnival –Simeon as a ninja warrior and Teresa as a sort of fairy godmother or good witch, with a pointy hat and fluffy pink dress. Their good manners, poise and cheerful good humor were extraordinary.

Chistiane tried to beg off on doing an interview because she felt her English wasn’t good, but in fact she spoke near-perfect English, with only an occasional prompt from her husband. It was interesting to hear her say how excited Manfred was when he came home from conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony for the first time.

After Frank set up the lights and camera, we sat down for an hour-long interview. Manfred spoke of his Vienna and the amazing number of composers who came to prominence there. He talked about Bruckner, Mahler, Mozart, and Johann Strauss. We’ll hear him conduct them all in his first season at Heinz Hall. The details of the season will be announced in just a few days, but I think the secret is out that he’ll begin the season with Mahler’s First Symphony and end it with Mahler’s Second.

After we finished recording, Manfred and Chrstiane insisted we all join them for kuchen. They had prepared a truly wonderful assortment of cookies dipped in chocolate, chocolate cake with Kirsch, carnival doughnuts, a Viennese Gugelhupf marble cake, mandarin orange cream torte, tea and coffee, and red wine. We took photos with three cameras to remember the occasion. Before we began to eat, Manfred asked if he could offer a blessing. It was a simple beautiful prayer in rhyming German that the kids all knew, and recited in a chorus.

Amazingly, we were intruding on the Honecks’s 25th wedding anniversary, and they had plans to have dinner at the Sacher Hotel. Manfred said they had never been there, and they were given the dinner as an anniversary gift. Manfred’s daughter-in-law was off to the Volksoper where she was going to see Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess) by Emmerich Kálmán.

Honeck Family with WQED's Jim Cunningham & Michael Bartley, and the PSO's Rachelle Roe (seated)The entire visit of three hours was absolutely delightful. Manfred had been interviewing with Andrew Druckenbrod and the OnQ staff all week, yet he showed no eagerness to get these strangers out of his home. He was the perfect gracious, relaxed host. It was clear that he loves his family very much. They were all so natural and happy that it seemed like something you’d write for a television script. I never watched The Brady Bunch, but Ward and June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver were said to be too good to be true. There seemed to be some resemblance, Austrian style.

In the recorded conversation, I asked the Honecks if it’s true that the family that plays together stays together. They certainly do make hausmusik together, and enjoy sports as a family.

After packing up our gear, Manfred helped us get a taxi, and we headed to the busy upscale shopping area around St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Frank recorded an amazing accordion player who also played the glass harmonica, an instrument consisting of tuned glass bowls. Then we taped a three-man dixieland group playing Sweet Georgia Brown with banjo and saxophone, and four guys who were doing energetic break dancing, a la Michael Jackson, in the entrance to an elegant shop, using a buzzing soundtrack from a cellphone for their beats.

Back to the hotel to stow the equipment and a final meal two blocks away. I ordered gulasch and nockerl (noodles.) Michael Bartley had tafelspitz (boiled beef.) I ate his spinach. Frank Caloiero ordered the Bavarian weisswurst and I had some extra-vinegary krautsalat. I am sorry I can’t share my gulasch with you, but we have hours of great interview material with the Honeck family to share on TV and radio.

Today, I’ve got to get busy on the cafe and kuchen search in the few hours I have before the Pittsburgh plays at the Konzerthaus tonight.