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.
“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.
Honeck manages to have both the demanding genius of a conductor and a kindness that is clear in his treatment of each musician and staffer at Heinz Hall, where the symphony resides. “Sometimes things get tense on stage,” said Christopher Wu, a first violinist who has been with the symphony for 26 years. “I haven’t ever seen him retaliate, or get short with someone, or handle it in a rude way.”
Without any entourage Honeck arrived at the hall for rehearsal just before 10, greeting the boy who held the door for him. The musicians, though some of the best in the world, were anxious about Mahler’s 9th. The symphony is one hour and 20 minutes long, so the entire performance would be devoted to Mahler with no intermission. “A lot of notes,” said Williams, the principal cellist, who is in her 38th season with the orchestra. “The music is just black, it just flies by.”
The orchestra had no time at rehearsal to run through the entire symphony because the musicians had to practice Brahms and Beethoven for the following night as well. Honeck, in a simple black polo and black slacks, greeted the musicians before calling out measures as starting points. At intervals he would cut off the music and pick out a certain section and sing the sound he imagined. The musicians played back, and he would say, “Exactly, exactly,” before moving on. Once a member of the Vienna Philharmonic himself as a viola player, an anomaly for conductors, he has credibility with the musicians. But Honeck is the boss, not the musicians’ friend.
Up in the balcony at the rehearsal sat friends of Honeck, John and Jane Hawes, who had made their first trip to the United States from Nottingham, England, to hear the performance. “I close my eyes and I know it’s him conducting,” said John Hawes. The Haweses have followed Honeck’s career since they lived in Sweden, where Honeck led the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and traveled to his performances in Vienna and Prague. Back in 2000, they saw Honeck at a restaurant in Stockholm one night after a performance, and John worked up the courage to talk to him. Honeck was warm, and a friendship developed. John brought up Honeck’s contract extension in Pittsburgh, and Jane said they had hoped he would have been lured away to London. The Haweses are crazy for Mahler, and John followed the rehearsal in a score that he brought along. “He gets it absolutely right,” said John, explaining that Honeck’s characteristically braying horns make the piece more “rustic.”
HONECK GREW UP in rural Austria, one of nine children in a family that was Roman Catholic, he said, merely in a traditional sense. Only later in life when he was a young father himself did Honeck begin to pray and take his faith seriously. His mother died when he was 7, and his father, the town postmaster, worked with what little the family had to provide Honeck with a musical education to match his abilities. The Honecks are music driven; his brother Rainer Honeck is the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic.
“Through music you can touch the soul, and you don’t know why. Why is it that people sometimes cry if they hear beautiful music? Why? Even if you hear, ‘I love you,’ you don’t cry necessarily all the time. But if you hear music sometimes, it goes so deep in your heart,” Honeck said. “I know it’s a little bit politically not correct what I say, but I believe there is a part of music which does not heal. I believe if you consume a certain type of music, the danger to get depressions are very high. … If Mozart and Bach have a positive influence on the healing process, then we might consider also the other part. And this is a serious thing. I’m a little bit amazed that we are not talking about this area so much.”
Mozart and Bach may be healthy for mind and body, but symphony audience numbers have dipped nationally, and since the recession corporate donations have fallen off a cliff. Bankruptcies hit even renowned symphonies like Philadelphia’s. Pittsburgh’s ticket sales fell slightly last season, and a spokesperson for the symphony said the struggle of symphonies to build and sustain audiences is “common knowledge,” especially among young people. Anecdotally, of three cultured 20-somethings I talked to who live in Pittsburgh, two had no idea the symphony was one of the best in the country and had never attended a performance. One had just gone to her first performance and mentioned how much she liked the charismatic conductor. Wu, the violinist, thinks younger families find it inconvenient to come to the symphony, or they opt for easy entertainment from Netflix.
“I think society has changed and we want immediate gratification,” said Wu. “We want to get on our computer, we want to see something, and coming to a concert means that you have to be still. And people are not so good at that.”
“Your attention is fully given,” concurred Williams, the cellist.
Attendance at performing arts events, not just symphonies, has dropped steadily for the last 25 years. According to a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts survey, people are listening to classical music more online, but attending performances less. Honeck says Spotify will never come close to the live experience.
“There are humans, the humans make music there,” he said. “You are sharing something which you never can repeat in your life again. A CD, yes, you can. You put the CD in and you have the same mistake or the same wonderful phrase. You hear it a hundred thousand times. In a concert, no. You hear it in the moment, and if it is good music made on the stage, you hear the music in a way that is only right in this moment. … It is compared to architecture and painting—this is forever, it is here. But music, once you have played a tone it is already history. So music lifts from that moment. And I always encourage people to understand there is no way not to come to the concert.”
Twenty minutes before the Mahler performance that night Honeck does what he always does before a performance. He invites anyone to join him as he prays in his suite on the fifth floor of the concert hall. Initially controversial, Honeck keeps the prayer gathering open and low key—he doesn’t want musicians to think they might rise or fall in his favor by praying with him or not. This night Williams and Wu, both Christians, joined Honeck and prayed for the performance, for those in the orchestra who were sick, and then holding hands recited the Lord’s Prayer together. Then Honeck shooed everyone out of his suite with a chocolate so he could change into his performance attire. Downstairs, the hall was filling, and soon Honeck emerged to applause.
The power of Mahler’s “farewell” symphony grew in each movement that night, the orchestra a unified living being under Honeck’s passionate direction. The piece is alternately quiet and ferocious, with Honeck windmilling his arms like a third base coach sending a runner home. It crested in the final quiet movement where Mahler used what sounds like dissonant versions of the opening chords from the hymn “Abide With Me.” As the strings faded slowly on the final notes, Honeck continued to hold his arms aloft, an uninterrupted silence filling the hall. The audience felt Mahler’s farewell, and some wiped away tears. After a minute Honeck slowly lowered his arms and the audience erupted.
He returned for an ovation, and then another, and another, and another, shaking hands with key musicians. Backstage after the performance Williams said she felt “wrung out” from playing Mahler. I asked her if the number of ovations was normal: “It is at his concerts.”
The next morning the orchestra returned for rehearsal, and had another performance that night of MacMillan, Beethoven, and Brahms. John Hawes, the Brit, stood outside the hall afterward, giddy. “What did you think of the ending?” he exclaimed.
“I love to give something to people, the spiritual music. Because there is a lot of need and people [don’t] know that,” said Honeck. “I feel people longing for that, that something. I want people to understand the greatness of our life here … if you can touch the deepest ground in the soul, if you are able through your music making to make that, then I’m happy. And I can do this with classical music probably easier.”
Anne Martindale Williams is the principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, the first female to fill that role, and has been with the orchestra for 38 years. Christopher Wu, a first violin, has clocked 26 years with the orchestra. The two are good friends and both part of Evangelical Presbyterian churches in the area. They have rehearsals Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and then concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Williams and Wu teach students on their two days off. “You fit in the teaching and you try to be a good parent and spouse and clean your house once in a while,” said Williams. They all travel regularly on tours as well. And they have to make time to practice. To be a cellist, Williams feels that she has given up certain features of “normal” life; she and her husband of 39 years didn’t have their daughter until Williams was in her 40s. But she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“When you play an instrument, it’s such a specific gift or talent. It’s not, I’m a musician broadly. It’s, I’m a cellist,” said Williams. “It’s something I don’t get tired of. One summer I had been working very hard, and I just said, I’m going to take the summer off. I don’t want to play in all these festivals and go around everywhere being crazy. I’m just going to stay home and be a human being, get to know my neighbors, enjoy my deck. And it was the worst summer of my life. I hated it. I was so bored after one week I just felt the need for the outlet of playing, because that’s what I’ve been wired to do.”
“It’s a long time to be doing something,” said Wu. “And yet it still feels new.”
Williams and Wu both won positions with the symphony out of school; their students, many from Carnegie Mellon University with its excellent music program, now have a tougher time. Williams watched some of her students form a successful cello rock band; she’s glad they have work, but chagrined that they aren’t doing what they studied with her. On the other hand, top orchestras like Pittsburgh have such high standards that it can be difficult to find the right talent. The orchestra had a principal flute position open for a decade.
“It’s a family, and you have to work so closely in the most intimate kind of things. … You have to find people who handle criticism, who know how to speak kindly,” said Williams. “If you’re a section leader, you have 12 or 14 people in your section—how to deal with a group. You can’t be a rotten egg.”
Williams’ mother was a professional cellist, and Wu’s father an engineer. “You can be an engineer, a lawyer, or a doctor—you know, typical Chinese family,” he said laughing. Like Manfred Honeck, Wu lost his father at a young age, as a 14-year-old. “He was the one who loved classical music,” Wu said. His father turned on classical music in their house every day, and would ask Wu to guess the composers. “My fondest memory is my dad standing between the two speakers conducting. He spent his money saving for his kid’s education and buying classical music.” —E.B.