Sunday, February 04, 2007

Manfred Symphony

I'm cultivating a small backlog of cultural stuff to write about, most of which will accumulate this afternoon through Wednesday with a Shostakovich-fueled concert binge at the Kennedy Center (plus of course the annual festival of communal TV-watching and consumer excess that is the Super Bowl). I still need to collect some worthy insights into Mike Judge's and Don Hertzfeldt's third go-around of their Animation Show -- the short answer is, go see this if you still can in your city, which you probably can't, if you ever could in the first place. Some more music first, though.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently announced the hiring of Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck as Music Director starting in the 2008-09 concert season. Even without the benefit of local news coverage I'd guess this hasn't captivated the city like the Steelers' roughly analogous selection of Mike Tomlin as their new head coach, though as far as the organization's prospects and direction are concerned the PSO's pick is bigger news, since they haven't had a single director since Mariss Jansons left a few years back. Jack pointed out to me late last week that Honeck is guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, so I took him up on his suggestion to go do some recon on the hometown symphony's future director.

Honeck's interpretations were uniformly tight and effectively straightforward, favoring brisk (sometimes outright fast) tempi and sweeping, dramatic changes in dynamics. The program was a conservative but likeable assemblage of well-known Romantic works. Honeck gave a snappy reading of Verdi's La forza del destino overture, energetic and attentive to detail: He built up the flashier parts with razor-cut precision -- the phrasing in the brass sections and timpani were particularly closely clipped -- and managed some vivid, swampy atmospherics in the piece's moodier material. The orchestra's louds weren't as loud as their quiets were quiet; one of Honeck's strengths throughout this program was the warm, often inward-facing hush he brought to the soft moments of each generally extroverted piece.

The singly-named Korean violinist Chee-Yun performed Saint-Saens' third violin concerto to close the first half of the program. The composition isn't too showy or too deep and, except for some minor creakiness in the opening bars and getting a little lost rhythmically in some streaming arpeggios towards the end, she gave a charismatic performance, bringing a light tunefulness to the central Andantino movement and a defiantly proud attitude to the stern minor-key virtuoso stuff that opens up the third. Honeck kept the orchestral parts crisp and finely balanced and seemd to communicate well with the soloist (though he seemed close to outpacing her on one open stretch of the final movement).

The real meat of the concert was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, and Honeck's take on it was similarly lithe and very well received by the audience. He kept up a rapid pace and an almost physical sense of momentum throughout -- in the first movement in particular he accelerated the orchestra into a couple of Tchaikovsky's dramatic crescendi, with an effect similar to a pressurized jet of superheated water. The straightforward approach worked especially well in Tchaikovsky's absurdly songful second movement, in which Honeck forcefully drew out the melodies without getting bogged down in their breadth.

Honeck again used big, sweeping dynamic changes in the brighter sections of the waltz movement, lending them a kind of hallucinatory swirl, which he backed off of in the brooding, halting contrasting sections. His most virtuosic moment of the evening was his handling of the symphony's momentum at the end of that movement, as he decelerated just slightly in its final brass outbursts before scooping out the opening phrase of the fourth movement without a pause. The orchestra's playing in the body of the fourth movement wasn't as tight as it had been earlier -- playing at high velocity for an extended time seems to shake the NSO's bolts loose -- though they maintained their earlier level of excitement. Honeck bluffed nicely on the symphony's false ending, plowing into it with apparent finality and eliciting a smattering of pent-up applause. The coda, for as clipped as Honeck's phrasing had been so far through the concert, was softer-edged and less martial than I expected: the march sounded warm and bright and he took on the final flurry of musical activity at high speed and in good cheer, bringing the finale of the symphony somehow closer in spirit to the bonhomie at the end of Mozart's The Magic Flute than I thought possible.

According to the bio in the Kennedy Center program Honeck has his musical roots in Vienna, having studied at the Academy of Music there and worked as a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic. (I imagine the time he spent as an orchestral player has something to do with the rapport he apparently has with the Pittsburgh Symphony's musicians.) His presence on the podium is appropriately undramatic; his movement onstage mostly consists of punchy cues with his hands and flowing, elliptical arm motions which in lyrical passages elongate into vaguely hula-like gestures. At 48, he's relatively young as far as major orchestra conductors go, which seems like a plus. I'd be curious to hear how he approaches more inward-looking music than what was on last night's program -- even Tchaikovsky's Fifth, for all its fatalism, keeps most of its drama close to the surface -- since in a few places Honeck's detail work, particularly his high dynamic constrasts, seemed to buy immediate excitement at the expense of the long-term shape of a passage. I also don't know anything about his repertoire and will be disappointed if he isn't at least somewhat committed to new music (and preferably new music of the non-mid-century-continental-European-avant-garde variety at that) but as a bare minimum I would expect him to deliver one or two crackling Beethoven 7ths over the course of his initial three-year contract. The main skill he showed off last night was an ability to make familiar music sound lively and fresh, which is no small thing.


Blogger Jack said...

That's good to hear. Thanks for a lively report!

2/05/2007 7:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home