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Manfred Honeck with family members (Photo: WQED)
Manfred Honeck with two of his six children (Photo: WQED)

This is the weekend (19-20 September 2008) that Austrian-born conductor Manfred Honeck finally takes the reins at the Pittsburgh Symphony.

His name isn’t well known in the States, but at almost exactly 50 (he was born on 17 September 1958), Honeck is a rising star in Europe. He will be heading up the orchestra led by such legends as William Steinberg and Fritz Reiner. Add more recent names such as Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel, and Mariss Jansons to the list, and you can see that Honeck has some large and very well-made shoes to fill.

There are indications that Pittsburgh needn’t worry. For one thing, Honeck has plenty of experience. He arrives after 6 seasons as music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He’s also shown his mettle piloting three opera orchestras. From 1991 to 1996, Honeck conducted at Zurich Opera (where until this season Franz Welser-Moest was general music director). He spent two seasons as music director of the Norwegian National Opera. Finally, Honeck will be dividing his time between leading Pittsburgh and his recently acquired duties as music director of the Stuttgart State Opera.

Honeck came to the podium from its other side. Until the Zurich Opera hired him, Honeck played viola in the Vienna Philharmonic. Landing that gig was a real accomplishment for him — he was a violinist, not a violist! When the viola position opened, Honeck asked one of the orchestra’s other violists, Alfred Starr, to give him lessons. Five months later, he passed his audition. (He was to repeat this performance with the Zurich Opera; when they hired him, he’d conducted only 3 operas.)

Like most Philharmonic musicians, Honeck played for 3 seasons in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, then in 1986 took his seat in the Philharmonic’s viola section. Many musicans, deeply gratified to find themselves in such a prestigious and comfortable post, would have settled in for the long haul. But Honeck couldn’t resist the pull of the podium. After only a few seasons, the baton won out over the bow, and in 1992 Honeck bowed out of the Philharmonic — to the consternation of his fellow players, who regarded him as a valuable member of the team.

After he shares the stage with star pianist Lang Lang for a fundraiser this Friday night (19 September 2008), Honeck will bring in another star attraction, Violinist Joshua Bell, for the classical series opener next weekend. He begins with the aptly named Short Ride in a Fast Machine by American John Adams (hint: it’s about as noisy as you’d expect). He and Bell will tackle the Tchaikovsky concerto next, and then Honeck will get right down to the business of starting his own Mahler cycle with the first symphony (the “Titan”).

Honeck has been greeted by a flood of favorable mentions in Pittsburgh’s newspaper. Certainly the musicians seem to be keen to work with him. If the audiences respond as eagerly, Pittsburgh should have another winner.

Listen as Manfred Honeck conducts the Hungarian State Orchestra in a short excerpt from Bruch’s Symphony #3 in E:

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