At the Mann, taking flight with Tchaikovsky

Manfred Honeck has since 2008 led Pittsburgh's ensemble.
Manfred Honeck has since 2008 led Pittsburgh's ensemble.
Posted: July 26, 2012

What is, musically speaking, Manfred Honeck's deepest wish?

Tuesday night at the Mann Center with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, heady interpretive ideas sprang from virgin canvas. What you thought you knew about Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 wasn't quite there anymore. Tempos switched like the wind. Phrases once merely broadly noble were now finely etched. After an evening of three programmed works and two encores - five composers - Honeck's ambition for illuminating scores anew both startled and pleased.

Among podium travelers right now, a good number of individualists flourish. Jaap van Zweden and Vladimir Jurowski come to mind most immediately, and Honeck, 53, an Austrian violinist and violist who became Pittsburgh's music director in 2008, is firmly of that school.

There's a line, however, that separates revelation from random acts of quirkiness - it's a clearly drawn one, actually - and it turns out there's nothing impetuous in Honeck's approach. Tempo changes, even ones that seize the narrative suddenly, are rationalized by where the music is going long-term. Material gets the same treatment when it's repeated later in a movement. Over time, connections are made, story lines established.

It means everything that Honeck and the orchestra appear to see eye to eye. He "plays" the orchestra as a piano, with the same single-minded, nimble control. Anyone who knows the second-movement horn solo in Symphony No. 5 would tag it as vaguely romantic, or, on a good outing, even searchingly romantic. To principal hornist William Caballero, it was something beyond - a brief, urgent song.

The printed part was just the starting point; note values were stretched, minute dynamic changes deployed. In other words, in a fairly short solo, Caballero was able to communicate a multitude of emotions whose collective meaning, dear listener, was all yours to ponder. It was a nice rejoinder to jazz musicians who think they alone hold license to stray from dictates of the score.

The third movement's opening bars gusted in from the realm of dance - a waltz, but an unusually euphoric one that, again, related little to the actual written length of notes. Elation edged out pomp in the last big statement of the final movement, a fluid procession of bright sounds and sustained, big-shouldered phrasing.

Pittsburgh has a firmer concept of tone than I remember its having before Honeck's arrival, and, in general, a serious and formidable mien. The woodwinds are stylishly pungent, the lower brass homogeneous - qualities laid bare (even via the Mann's oddly blunt sound system) in Glinka's Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, and Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor.

In the concerto, cellist Johannes Moser looked like he was interacting with the ensemble, but more important, he sounded that way. With a fine, vocal tone that, in the second movement especially, recalled the purest of his predecessors, Moser was an ideal soloist - concerned with drama, but with greatest fidelity to moments of interplay with his ensemble colleagues.

Choosing the right encore is an art mastered by few. I'm not sure Honeck needed to embellish an already magnificent impression, but if the encores were meant to expose aspects of the orchestra not explored in the rest of the program, these two succeeded. The "Andantino quasi Allegretto (Prelude to Act III)" from Bizet's Carmen was pleasant and serene.

The other encore came layered with added meaning. Curtis Institute of Music graduate Michael Rusinek ('92), Pittsburgh's principal clarinetist, briefly referenced both the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak in his showy cadenza to the "Galop" from Khatchaturian's Masquerade Suite. Impressive, for sure, and it's clear the Pittsburghers can be good convivialists.

But it was the printed program, and everything unprinted that came in it, that made the more salient point: This is an orchestra to be taken seriously.


Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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