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Interview with conductor Manfred Honeck

Wednesday, 11 August 2010 , ora 10.38

Perhaps a less familiar name for the Romanian public, Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck has been the Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2007, during which he also assumed his positions as generalmusikdirector of the Staatsoper Stuttgart and Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

I first came across Manfred Honeck on a CD containing Mahler's Symphony no. 1, a recording that really touched me, so I took full advantage of this interview opportunity that came during the Dresden Music Festival that I attended. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck took the stage of the Semper Opera House on May 23rd 2010.

First of all, I would like you to make a short description of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, so that the Romanian public would have a concise portrayal of the band.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is one of the most prestigious orchestras in America, it is wonderful to see how many people wish to be part of it; technically speaking, they are extraordinary instrumentalists; it is known that in America, the performers are very technical, but we are more than that, they are capable of playing anything the conductor asks them. So, they are a group of wonderful musicians and very technical.

Should we say, however, that they represent a merge between the features of an American orchestra and a European one?

It must be said that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been conducted by great names, from Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Steinberg to Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons, so there is indeed a European touch to the orchestra. But nothing works out if the technical part of the performance is not taken care of; when a violinist has technique, he is able to express himself as he wishes, and the same goes to an orchestra. Thus, I did not have to concentrate on the technical part, but on the music itself, from the very beginning.

Let us talk now about the concert in Dresden that took place on the 23rd of May, 2010. You conducted Mahler's Symphony no. 1, the same one you recorded and a wonderful record indeed, broadcast also by Radio Romania Music on February 2010. During an interview taken by my colleague Andra Ivănescu, you said that you had a new perspective on the symphony, on Mahler's works in general. What is this new perspective?

Listeners might think that this is a new interpretation, but at the same time, it is an old one, because almost 100 years later after Mahler's death, we have already forgotten to play the way that Mahler thought. I am talking about the tempo, the phrasing, the old landlers - even in Vienna all of these have been forgotten. My work meant bringing this tradition back to life; I was very fortunate with the education I was given, my father wanted me to play the zither, this ancient Austrian instrument, and I did not like it at all, after 2 or 3 years of study, I stopped and I was very happy. Now, however, I realize that the experience I have gained by playing waltz, polka and traditional march is now helping me better understand Mahler's score. We know that Mahler used a lot of traditional, Austrian sounds combined with more profound themes on life and death. He is not just describing a spiritual world, but an earthly one as well: with despair, grotesque, and all its curiosities. I wanted to bring all of this to life and we can find it in the traditional music. And I repeat: my vision of Mahler is rather traditional than modern, but the people believe it to be modern, precisely because the old manner of interpretation is not known anymore.

In the article that I have written about Mahler's Symphony no. 1 CD, I also touched the subject of your slow-tempo approach, just like Celibidache. Do you think Celibidache would have played Mahler the way you play it?

I believe Celibidache is one of the world's greatest conductors; he is phenomenal. Mahler's world is far from Celibidache's musical approach; it is incredible, for instance, how he managed to reveal such purity in Bruckner's symphonies. Mahler needs a lot of colour, in a different manner. In my opinion, the tempo is a means of giving identity to a musical work. So, if you play slower, it means you hear more...

It is what Celibidache said as well. But it is difficult to play slower...

It is in a way, more difficult because you have to rein in the rhythm, keep the tension, and in the end you have to know why you want to do this. Playing slower might bring more expressive power and that is why I needed more time to reveal the sounds and the energy of music.

Symphony no. 1 is part of a cycle of symphonies by Mahler that you played with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. When will you finish approaching all Mahler's symphonies?

This is a long-term project of 5 to 6 years. That is when we plan to end the Mahler cycle. In February 2010, we recorded Symphony no. 4 which will probably be launched in June 2010. And, in mid-June we will be recording Symphony no. 3.

Still with the Exton record company?

Yes, we have a good professional relationship with them and they are very careful with the sound and with what I want to do.

As far as Symphony no. 1 is concerned, the recording was special, and the result was a great audio CD. The technical part is very important…

Yes, indeed, and the Japanese are known for their keen eye for details, so I am very pleased to be collaborating with them. Mahler's symphonies have a complex score, but they manage to make listeners aware of the details in the score of each instrument. And for me, even as a simple listener, this is very important. Of course, you cannot say that during a fortissimo one can hear the harp, in particular, but in the case of other instruments, the sound engineers can reveal their specific transparency and plasticity.

I was quite impressed with the wind instruments.

Yes, the orchestra has extraordinary blowers, capable of everything.

With respect to the concert's program, the one in Dresden (May 23rd 2010), besides Mahler's Symphony no. 1, you will also be conducting Robert Schumann's Cello and Orchestra Concerto. Do you and soloist Jan Vogler share a common vision on this piece?

Jan Vogler is a great cellist and we have gotten along well from our very first rehearsal. We have the same background, we share the old German-Austrian tradition and I think I can say exactly the same thing about Schumann. It seems that this concert is simple, but in fact, it is quite complex. You cannot compare it to a Haydn or a Dvorak concert. These ones practically play themselves; but, just like in the case of Schumann's symphonies and oratories, you need to dig deep into Schumann's type of sonority that is connected to harmony, on the border between classic and romantic. Of course, Schumann is a romantic composer, but one has to perceive and interpret him from a classic point of view. The same rule applies to Schubert as well.

The same goes to Schumann's works for piano. They seem easy to play, but they are not...

There is a certain tendency towards a rough performance, but sometimes gentleness like the kind used to play Haydn or Mozart, is much needed. Then, suddenly, we hear Brahms-like sonorities, and this union of rarefied yet powerful sonorities is what makes Schumann so special. And Jan Vogler can play Schumann very well, aesthetically speaking, from a classic point of view.

Between May 15 and 29, 2010 you are on a European tour alongside Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. You have three concerts in the program, with three different soloists: Jan Vogler, Emanuel Ax and Anne Sophie Mutter…

Anne Sophie Mutter plays the Brahms concert, and Emanuel Ax plays Beethoven's Concert no. 5. Our musical experience with both of them is incredible; our concerts are sold out everywhere: Prague, Paris, Stuttgart and Basel. It is an important event for us and I think people would want to hear this wonderful orchestra and these great soloists.

Why is it important for an American orchestra to came and tour in Europe? The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has planned a tour this year, and next year as well, in 2011…

I think American orchestras need tours because they are very well prepared; in this case, as you know, Pittsburgh is not that big of a city, and the orchestra has more to say in the area of international values, it needs to be advertised by media everywhere, to let the world know about it. There is no need to keep this orchestra a secret in Pittsburgh. We were given very good reviews, but what is important is that people want to listen to this orchestra. Also, the tours are a tradition that started out with Lorin Maazel and continued with Mariss Jansons. I myself, agreed to continue this tradition, when I signed the contract.

How is Europe perceived in America, as far as music is concerned?

I think we are dealing with the same problems everywhere. In America, the world of orchestras is different from the one in Europe, where orchestras are supported by the government. In America, there is a family of friends and sponsors that help the orchestra. In Pittsburgh we have a wonderful group; I call them our "angels": without them, we would not be able to go on tours, or even have seasons in Pittsburgh. This also means that in America, we have to be very creative: how to attract our public, our sponsors, and we are happy that there are a lot of people attending our concerts, especially in these times of crisis, when other orchestras had a lot to suffer. We are affected by this situation as well, but not so much as the others.

In Europe, the situation is more convenient, even during these times, however, in America our friends' and public's enthusiasm is catching and I am happy for this.

Is classic music in America for the society's upper class or not?

Unfortunately, at school, music classes have been abandoned, which is very sad and I can see some European countries dealing with the same problem as well. I also hear some opinions that economy is more important than art, when, as a matter of fact, it is not. In Pittsburgh, we visit schools and we acquaint students with the instruments, we talk about symphonies with them, about classic music and it is a very good awareness project, because young people attend our concerts. But of course, more can be done, like in Europe. It is clear that the seniors are better educated than the youth, which can sometimes be seen in the European concert halls. But if the young people have never heard of Beethoven or Mozart, why should we expect them to love them? And how can we expect them to attend the concerts? The first important step would be the education received at home, in the family, to start playing an instrument at home and to take music lessons at school, and only then can we talk about a potential public for the concerts.

You have 6 children. What do you do for their musical education?

It has always been our goal that the little ones should play an instrument. I do not push them into doing so, but I ask them what instrument they would like to play and I suggest a suited instrument. I also ask of them to study the instrument, because, for instance, when one learns a foreign language, one must know its vocabulary and grammar. The same rule applies to music. However, the decision concerning their future career is theirs to make; it is their life and parents have nothing to say on this subject.

It is good to familiarize the children with classic music because the chances for them to approach it are very big, young people also like pop music but they forget to ask questions about its culture and history. I know, from my own experience, that if you talk about classic music with them and you give them examples, they will enjoy a beautiful life; so, it is about making your children happy, even if you encounter resistance at first, when they say: it is too traditional, too dusty. But, after that, they will be grateful for understanding Mahler, Bruckner and Brahms.

You have a full life. What motivates you to always move forward?

If there is a flame burning in you, it will never settle; when I am on stage, I forget about things around me; when I am tired, when I am on stage, I plunge into music completely. But we must be careful to make time for recreation, to recharge our spiritual batteries. It is like cars, they would not go so smooth without oil. As artists, it is good we ask ourselves: "What do I do now? What is the purpose of life? Is there something I should change? Can I do something new? Can I send new messages?" That is why I always ask myself what I can do for others, and not for myself.

What is the most important thing for you in your life?

For me, as a single person, faith is very important. Just like Gustav Mahler, I ask myself why we are now, here, on this earth. Is it enough to just have millions in your pockets? Every one of us has the possibility of being born and dying.

And for me, it is important what lies after death, and I truly believe in life after death, just like Gustav Mahler and other composers. It is interesting to be connected to an experience that you cannot describe. I am one of those faithful people that are happier because they understand that everyday life is not the most important thing. What is important is to work for others, through others. For me, God is everything.

I know you met Radu Lupu. Are there any other Romanian musicians?

Romania is grateful to have such a big culture and tradition. I have many instrumentalists in the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra that are preoccupied with the promotion of Enescu's music and I am impressed with the musical life of your wonderful country. I deeply regret that I cannot come to Bucharest for the moment, which I would have loved to. I hope Radu Lupu will not remain the only Romanian musician with whom I collaborated in concerts; however, Radu Lupu offered me a wonderful musical experience, when we met at Hamburg and we played Schumann. It was simply another dimension for me, because he was not interested in playing loud, he was interested in the culture of the piano. He taught me all of this, and then I invited him to play together again, and know we have a wonderful friendship.

You were invited to open the 2011 Enescu Festival with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but the project did not pass. What happened?

It is very hard for us to plan a tour, as there are a lot of rules. We all wanted to come to Bucharest, especially when we meant to perform in two concerts during the Festival. But, I am sure we will visit Bucharest in the future.

So, the problem was NOT that you were asked to play a piece by George Enescu?

No, not at all. This would actually be a great thing for me. No, the problem was a program mismatch. The American orchestras have clear regulations: the instrumentalists need 6 hours of rest before the concert, and you can imagine, that if the plane landed 3 hours before the concert started, the instrumentalists would have been tired and this was the only problem we encountered.

Did you ever think of an Enescu piece that you would want to study and play?

Yes, it would be great to play the Romanian rhapsodies. My friends from the Stuttgart orchestra keep calling me and I am sure it will happen someday. Now, I am very busy with the Mahler and the Beethoven projects, and we are talking about an American orchestra, so we have to play American music as well, but I certainly enjoy Enescu's music very much.

Cristina Comandașu
Translated by Andra Stroe
MA Student, MTTLC, Bucharest University