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Q&A with conductor Manfred Honeck

May 12, 2017


Manfred Honeck (Photo credit: Felix Broede)

The Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck has been Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2008.  His initial term of three years has been repeatedly extended as audiences, critics, and the musicians themselves have responded enthusiastically to his bracing, thoughtful performances.  From May 25 to 27, Honeck makes his debut with the San Francisco Symphony with a program that features an old favorite, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, and Shostakovich’s Suite On Verses Of Michelangelo, a work he considers an overlooked gem. 

Q. Is Tchaikovsky’s symphony a good place to start for a newcomer to classical music?  They can follow that main theme as it recurs throughout the piece.

A. Yes, but it’s not just the “fate” theme that makes this symphony so great.  There are so many details; that’s why I’m doing the open rehearsal on Thursday morning (May 25).  I think it gives the audience the possibility to know the context for the performance.  Actually, sometimes I think I am more interested in the rehearsal process than in the performance itself.  Because in the rehearsals you are working out the details that are so important.  I’m in Berlin right now preparing to conduct Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and there’s a moment where the third horn plays the “fate” motif from his fifth symphony –the famous ‘da-da-da dummm’ – there it is, right in this third symphony!  So I want to take the time to make those moments happen. 

Q. Does that approach change when you are playing the piece with a new orchestra?

A. I’ll never forget my first time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doing this piece.  I walked in and saw all these experienced musicians, and I asked one violinist when he joined the orchestra.  He said 1948!  That’s ten years before I was even born!  Now here comes this young, at the time, Austrian conductor, and what can I tell him about Tchaikovsky?  But for me, it’s important to be authentic, to present what I think is right for the piece.  And if that means going into details in rehearsals, well, I like to do that.  I am not a fan of “let’s go through the piece and go home.”  I would rather fight for the result. 

Q. You recorded Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony back in 2006.  That was a special moment for you and for them, wasn’t it?

A.  Exactly.  I was invited there as a guest conductor.  I had no idea, no clue, that they were looking for a new music director to succeed Mariss Jansons.  I worked very hard on the programs, but I already had a contract on the table with another orchestra.  So after the concerts, when they asked if I wanted to be their music director, I had to decide.  And I decided to go with Pittsburgh. 


Manfred Honeck (Photo credit: Felix Broede)
 

Q.  Your version of Tchaikovsky’s fifth has some surprises in it…

A.  Hah! Well for me – and I’ve never been able to do this successfully – the ideal way to play it would be to play the first and second movements attacca (without pause).  The first movement ends like a death march: the orchestral gets lower and darker.  The second movement starts with the same dark instruments, but then this beautiful horn solo emerges and you think, it will just melt me down.  But to do it attacca – it gets darker and darker, stays there, and then rises up into the light. 

Q.  Like Beethoven’s Fifth.

A. And like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as well.  They all have a Fate motif, aspera ad astra (“through adversity to the stars”).  They all take you on a journey from darkness to light. 

Q. This is your SFS debut.  Have you been to the city before?

A.  Actually, in the 1980s, when I was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic, we toured with Leonard Bernstein and played in San Francisco.  I only spent one day there, but it was one of the most beautiful cities.  Our hotel was near the tram going up the hill, and looking down on the city – it couldn’t have been more romantic.  

By John Schaefer

IF YOU GO:

Manfred Honeck leads the San Francisco Symphony in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti with baritone Matthias Goerne, May 25-27 at Davies Symphony Hall. 415-864-6000 sfsymphony.org

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