Hannes Richter

Austrian Becomes New Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Hannes Richter

Interview with Manfred Honeck

For the third time in the last seven years an Austrian has been honored by being invited to be conductor of a world renowned American orchestra. After the selection of Hans Graf as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 2000 and Franz Welser-Möst as the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently announced the appointment of Manfred Honeck as its new Music Director. Manfred Honeck will begin his initial three-year contract in September 2008. In an interview he told AI about the beginnings of his career, his experiences as music director of many orchestras around the globe and his plans for his new assignment as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Orchestra.


Your initial debut in May 2006 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was auspicious. You received an overwhelming endorsement as conductor by the musicians. What in your eyes is important when working together with an orchestra?

As Herbert von Karajan once said, fifty percent of success is a matter of psychology. Of course one must have a precise knowledge of the compositions, the more detailed the better. It is also a matter of imparting that knowledge and the ability to express with one’s hands more than mere technical details. Most important, however, is the ability to motivate the members of the orchestra to give their best and to produce a beautiful sound. Another successful way of working with an orchestra is to gradually introduce them to the art and act of music in a way which achieves the desired response. I believe that musicians today should sense a kind of “pleasant vibration” when the conductor comes onto the stage and feel that they are most appreciated when they play well.

What are the major differences between Europe and the United States in concert management, such as PR, marketing, fundraising, inviting guest artists and orchestra tours, etc.?

There are many similarities but also significant differences. In America it is very professional and perhaps more concentrated, and the power of decision rests largely with the Music Director, whereas in Europe the orchestra has a greater role in decision-making. Of the many orchestras I have experienced during my career the Vienna Philharmonic, for example, essentially manages itself to the extent that even the ticket seller is a cellist. That is a model which only exists in Vienna. In Sweden it is very democratic. The orchestra decides, and the Music Director has only a complementary role in the matter. Although the Music Director in America is the one who invites the artists, he ultimately must bear the greatest amount of responsibility. In Pittsburgh, however, we are working on a new model; that of integrating the orchestra into the process of decision-making. They will work hand in hand with management, not only to find the guest artists but to create the concert program together.

What will be the major focus of your repertoire? Will you be exploring new areas?

I am proud of my Austrian heritage and have been able to absorb a wonderful tradition from Vienna. It is, therefore, only natural that the Viennese classics will be an important part of our program, as well as the Viennese romantics, like Gustav Mahler who will be celebrated throughout the world in 2010 and 2011. We will also include works by Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms. They are all composers who have lived in Vienna, Linz, or Salzburg. A feeling of mine, which I think is shared by many members of the orchestras of the world, is a desire to perform this traditional music. Today, there is unfortunately much more conformity of sound of the orchestras so that the very personal style and sound, which characterized many orchestras, has been lost.

The Vienna Philharmonic is one orchestra that fortunately has still retained its own instrumental sound, the Viennese oboe, the Viennese horn or, for example, the way the strings play. I would like the orchestra to again think about the further shaping of their own tone while at the same time being aware of artistic tradition. When the Vienna Philharmonic comes to Washington, one would like to hear the special sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. That is the reason we go on tour. It is not only the language that I find fascinating but the beauty of playing music in my native language. The music of Johann Strauß, for example, always has a particular sound when played by the Vienna Philharmonic because the orchestra is also speaking his music, as Maestro Harnoncourt so aptly said.

You were born into a family as one of nine children, and each of you were required to play an instrument. Could you tell us more about your musical background and the beginning of your career?

My father was a mailman and a passionate lover of classical music. He was not familiar with Mahler or Bruckner, but he wanted all of his children to play a musical instrument. The idea that all nine children could play together never materialized for practical reasons. It only happened at his gravesite when he was buried, but never before then. Although our family was poor and had little money, I would not like to have missed those years. We did not have Lego or other toys that my children have enjoyed and so we naturally turned to musical instruments.
After the death of my mother, my father decided to move from the small village of Nenzing in Vorarlberg to Vienna. The reason for moving was to provide his children with the best possible musical education.

I admire to this day the fact that he moved to the city without any money. I have vivid childhood memories of the first time that I saw a street car or heard a siren, and I remember how at first I greeted strangers in Vienna on the streets simply because that was the custom in our village. This is only to emphasize how foreign the city was to us. We were required to practice in our little two-bedroom apartment located in the Buchengasse in the tenth district. All my siblings are very grateful for the risks my father took in giving us this wonderful opportunity to study music.

Have you planned any tours to Austria with the Pittsburgh Orchestra?

Three weeks ago I spoke with Dr. Angyan from the Musikverein. He will invite us to come to Vienna in 2010 to be artists in residence. While there we will perform a series of three to four concerts. If a European tour is planned, then Vienna will be on the calendar. Vienna’s Musikverein is something special - the feeling of knowing as a conductor that Bruckner and Mahler also stood here. That is something remarkably similar to Prague where last year I directed on the 250th anniversary of W.A. Mozart in Prague’s Ständetheater where Mozart gave a debut performance of Don Giovanni. We also played the Don Giovanni Overture,  and there is a metal plaque honoring the place where Mozart stood and conducted. That is how it feels to me when I am in Vienna. While still a member of the Vienna Philharmonic, I had the pleasure of playing under the legendary conductors Bernstein and Karajan, and when one stands there himself, it is really a soaring feeling but at the same time you feel a great sense of responsibility.

We want to offer people a better understanding of classical music, particularly the younger audiences. We are greatly concerned that the teaching of music is no longer being given the attention or priority it was twenty or thirty years ago. Where will the audience for classical music be when Schubert or Bruckner are no longer recognized. This is why conductors everywhere have the important responsibility of finding ways to reach out to the younger audience.

Born in 1958 in Nenzing, Austria, Manfred Honeck studied at the Academy of Music in Vienna and began his career as musician with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra  in 1983, first as a violinist and then a violist. His conducting career began as an assistant to Claudio Abbado at the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Vienna. From 1991 to 1996 Manfred Honeck was engaged by the Zuerich Opera House, where he was awarded the prestigious European Conductor’s Award in 1993. As a guest conductor Manfred Honeck has worked with major international orchestras and is a welcome guest at the Salzburg Festival. Between 1997 and 1998 he served as Music Director of the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo. From 2000-2006, Honeck was Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his new position with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck is also  the Music Director Designate of the City Opera of Stuttgart and Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.