September 28, 2008

Honeck Boldly Energizes PSO Renaissance

By Mark Kanny

Promise was fulfilled Friday night at Heinz Hall when Manfred Honeck began his tenure as music director with an exhilarating and deeply satisfying concert that heralds a new era for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Honeck is a soft-spoken maestro whose music-making soars because it is so well-grounded. It is passionate - energetic, rhythmically intense and deeply songful - but also possesses a remarkable inner calm.

Every moment of the concert was decisively cast, but the unfolding of the music was utterly natural and spontaneous in feeling.

Concertgoer Mildred Miller Posvar said before the performance that when Honeck led the orchestra at the Sept. 19 gala "the strings sounded just absolutely ethereal, almost like a new orchestra. I'd never heard them so poetic before. It can seem surprising a conductor can make such a difference because they are the same players up there."

The Austrian conductor began with "The Star-Spangled Banner," led with fervor.

The program opened with the bold sounds of "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" by the symphony's composer of the year, John Adams. It provided an exhilarating start to the season, with Honeck and the orchestra delivering idiomatic American rhythmic kick and glittering sonorities.

American star violinist Joshua Bell provided the evening's individually oriented virtuosity in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Bell threw himself into the performance, with an ardent second movement and a thrilling finale driven by dynamic rhythms and tempi from Honeck and the orchestra.

The concert culminated in Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, a masterpiece that gives its performers the opportunity to show what they're made of.

Posvar, the widow of former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Wesley Posvar, said she was looking forward to Honeck's Mahler. As mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller, she was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and was chosen by Viennese conductor Bruno Walter to sing on two of his final recordings of Mahler's music. Walter was a direct disciple of Mahler, and gave the world premiere of his final two pieces.

Honeck's was a sensational performance, so overflowing with joy in nature in the first movement, earthy and loving in the second movement.

Everything felt right to the 'nth' degree because Honeck's interpretation comes from his passionate devotion to Mahler's music and his thorough internalization of composer Richard Wagner's advice in his book "On Conducting."

Wagner wrote that the primary responsibility of a conductor is to find the true "melos" of the music. He meant that when the conductor understood how to make all the music sing -- not just the tunes -- that he would find the right tempo and the soul of the music.

As a result, every section of the orchestra shined. with purposeful versatility. The characteristically cutting sound of Mahler's writing for massed winds was complemented by solos of true individuality. Brass playing was well-paced for the long, loud triumphant conclusion to be well-proportioned as well as overwhelming. The horns were unbelievable even for PSO horns.

It was all "as exciting as a rock concert," said Jean Thomas, another concertgoer.

The Mahler is being recorded in concert this weekend for commercial release. The CD will document that start of a new era of golden artistry in Pittsburgh.

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall.

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