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Honeck leads the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center.
Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
Honeck leads the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center.

The maestro

Music | One of the best orchestras in the country has a devout Catholic conductor who wants something beyond consumerist entertainment

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

PITTSBURGH—Maestro Manfred Honeck lives in a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, and as he came down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast before rehearsal, the wait staff already knew what to bring him: oatmeal. Under his arm he had the thick score for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, which he would conduct that evening. Mahler was diagnosed with a heart condition and near the end of his life when he wrote the symphony. He also just had lost a daughter—death was on Mahler’s mind, and therefore it was also on Honeck’s mind. Honeck, a devout Catholic, prayed before he ate.

The Austrian maestro, 55, leads the Pittsburgh Symphony, one of the best in the country, winning music critics’ hearts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, globe-trotting as top conductors do. He recently stepped in to lead the New York Philharmonic when a guest conductor came down with the flu. New York Classical Review wrote that Honeck led a performance “that will linger and grow in memory,” and The New York Times’ review noted that the musicians themselves sat and applauded him after the performance, the top recognition a maestro can receive.

The Pittsburgh Symphony traveled to New York in May to perform an original version of Mozart’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall, which The New York Times’ critic called alternately “tender” and “wrenching,” noting strong ovations. Originally signed on as the Pittsburgh Symphony’s music director in 2008, Honeck recently extended his contract to stay with the symphony through 2020. Honeck’s face adorns symphony posters in downtown Pittsburgh, and in a compliment to the caliber of the symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, which many consider the best in the world, recently hired away Honeck’s young concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley.

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“You can be a good conductor without having faith,” Honeck said over his oatmeal. “If that is the goal, just to be a good conductor, then I would live without faith. But I don’t regard leadership and conducting only as a profession where I earn money.”

Central to Honeck’s work is his belief that audiences are longing for something deeper in their lives than consumer culture. The Western world is in a moral rather than economic crisis, he said—an ironic comment when orchestras themselves are often consumed by discussions of their own economic woes.

“We have the big problem, especially in the Western part, Europe and America,” he said. “You can press the button and the light is going on. You can buy a car, it’s no problem, you can have the medicine, you can take the pills, everything. We can get everything. So our life is somehow very comfortable, and the temptation and the danger to forget God is enormous. And it actually really happens. If I get everything, why should I go to church, to the temple, and pray? Why should I do it? I have everything, I don’t need God. And then they find out, ‘Oh, there is something.’ They question something in moments—and then press the button again and go back to normal life. TV for example, it can entertain me a whole day. [With] TV, I don’t need God. But how poor it is in the end.”

Under Honeck’s direction the Pittsburgh Symphony distinguishes itself from other major symphonies in a couple ways. Honeck’s selection of works is more spiritually oriented, and reflects not a fluffy spirituality but gritty spirituality, like the Mahler symphony about death. At the acclaimed New York performance of Mozart’s incomplete Requiem, Honeck used, among other additions to the piece, readings from Revelation interspersed with the music. In June the orchestra performed a piece from contemporary composer James MacMillan, a Roman Catholic, titled Woman of the Apocalypse about chapters 11 and 12 of Revelation. He also started a free series three years ago called “Music for the Spirit,” where the symphony performs Christian, Jewish, and other spiritually themed music in places around Pittsburgh. The programming has included Faure’s Requiem, a Schubert mass, a Zambian Christian song, and Pigovat’s Requiem “The Holocaust,” among others.

“Oddly enough with no disputing from the orchestra, from the committee,” said cellist Anne Martindale Williams. “People love it. And they know the purpose of it is to come and have your spirit fed.”

Another distinguishing mark of Honeck’s leadership is his manner. Maestros are typically treated as royalty. Longtime musicians in the Pittsburgh Symphony remembered one previous conductor who never allowed musicians to ride the elevator with him, other conductors who threw batons and music stands or ridiculed individual musicians in front of the orchestra. Administration usually tolerates this behavior because maestros of the great orchestras are geniuses. 

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