On August 30, the morning after a concert with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, we met the Austrian conductor and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck for an interview. It was a typical program for Honeck, who has made his reputation as a vital interpreter of what can only be described as the orchestral warhorses: Wagner’s “Siegfried-Idyll,” orchestrations of Schubert songs (with Matthias Goerne), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Honeck is the kind of conductor who can easily compare different versions of various Beethoven biographies. We spoke to him about teaching a youth orchestra, his dissatisfaction with his early approach to rehearsals, and the viola in his life.

VAN: You’re finishing up an 11-day tour with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Is there a difference between how you rehearse with a youth ensemble and with a professional group?

Manfred Honeck: I don’t distinguish between the two. I’m a conductor who’s in love with detail, and when it comes to that I’m tough. I want to make sure that I don’t go easy on the young musicians just because they’re young. We work harder on some things than with a professional orchestra. I also think young musicians have a right to get a sense of what might be expected of them in their professional lives. Besides, it’s a great pleasure, because many of them have never played Beethoven’s Fifth before. They start rehearsals with a certain innocence, nothing is set. Things might take a little longer, but they are ready to give 120 percent, which is something I’ve really come to value.

What’s an example of the kind of detail work that you do?

Take vibrato. That’s always the question: “Can we play with vibrato?” It’s become almost dogmatic. One time, in Stuttgart, [conductor] Roger Norrington joined me for breakfast, and he told me, “Manfred, I’m rehearsing Bruckner, we’re doing everything without vibrato. It’s fantastic.” And, well, I can’t do it, I simply can’t, it’s impossible [laughs]. Playing everything with vibrato is horrible, and playing nothing with vibrato is also horrible. It’s like eating schnitzel every day or eating sushi every day. Something’s missing. 

With the young people in the orchestra, I’ve been telling them that it’s not enough to play the vibrato simply as it comes. There’s fast vibrato, hand vibrato, stringendo vibrato, the kind where the sound slowly develops…I take the time to communicate these things to the young musicians, because sadly it’s a topic that hardly comes up these days with the major orchestras. There, it’s either with or without vibrato. It’s terrible, because then there are certain sounds that you can’t enjoy. It’s a wonderful moment when 16 first violins develop a sound together. It’s something I work on with professional orchestras too. 

Are professional orchestral musicians always willing to work with you on that level of detail? 

When I guest-conduct an orchestra, I always bring my own parts. At the beginning of my career, I wrote things in them like “tight vibrato” or “slow vibrato here.” Of course, that showed how completely obsessed I was. A musician with a German orchestra told me that wasn’t necessary. I realized that he was right, so I erased the markings [laughs]. It was a bit much. 

In 2003 or 2004, I went to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. I thought, I’ll do some detail work on the sound with them, because I believe it’s right, but who knows whether they’ll accept it? After the rehearsals several musicians came up to me and thanked me, saying, “It’s been so long since we’ve done that.” 

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When you conduct a youth orchestra, do you consider the kind of leadership style you want to embody and represent?

At some point I made the decision for myself: Be authentic, be Manfred Honeck, and not someone else you think you need to be. At the beginning, I thought, I’m the conductor now, I have to behave differently. But I stopped that fairly quickly. 

In what way were you behaving differently?

I wanted to be the boss, to implement my ideas no matter the cost. Now it’s much more important for me to see the musicians as partners, because I know that if I convince them to follow me on my interpretative path, the result will be much better than if their knees are wobbling and they’re scared. Sometimes musicians tell me, “So-and-so was a tyrant, but the concerts were excellent.” But I believe the concerts would have been at least as good if the conductor hadn’t been a tyrant. In some recordings, I can feel the orchestra’s fear. There’s a coldness in the interpretation. I can tell that something happened between the orchestra and the conductor. 


How did you realize that you wanted to change your leadership style? Conductors rarely get honest feedback, it’s not like they have mandatory leadership seminars.

Personally, I try to live based on my beliefs. First of all, I need to come to terms with myself. I can’t require something from someone else which I’m not capable of. In the moment, I need to prevent myself from judging too quickly, from reacting in a tyrannical way or from taking advantage of my power, because you never know what’s going on with another person. I remember, I was conducting an orchestra, and every time I cut them off the oboist looked at his watch. I thought, My God, he must be suffering in this rehearsal. Earlier, I’d have said, “Why are you looking at your watch?” But I decided to let it go. After the concert, the oboist came up to me and said, “Mr. Honeck, that was a fantastic concert, I really enjoyed it.” I answered, “That’s surprising, because you were always looking at your watch.” And he said, “Oh, you noticed that? It was because I had a problem: I’m getting divorced, and my court date was right after the rehearsal.” 

Orchestral musicians like to say they decide within the first five minutes of the first rehearsal whether they like a conductor. Do you think that’s true?

Five minutes? I’d say they’ve decided by the upbeat. That’s definitely true, but I don’t care. My approach is not that I need to be loved. It’s important to me that what I’m doing is correct and convincing. And usually that works immediately. I always tell young conductors, “Please, go on stage and be who you are in the moment.” We are all always learning, [conductor] Günter Wand kept learning into his 80s. The musicians can feel immediately if what you’re saying is authentic. 

Of course, there are situations where an orchestra has gotten to know a certain interpretation and embodied that for 20 or 30 years, and then someone comes and wants to do everything differently, and that can push the musicians away. That’s dangerous. It’s a reason why I’m especially careful with my choice of program. I always ask, “When was the last time the orchestra played this piece, and how did they approach it?” 

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You conduct a small repertoire, consisting mainly of symphonic works from the 19th century. Why? Is your “niche” performing the warhorses well? 

There are many elements at play. One is that I take a very, very long time with each piece. I’m slow. I did Beethoven’s Fifth for the first time in 2004 or 2005, the “Johannes Passion” three or four years ago in Pittsburgh, Bruckner’s Fifth this July in Ottobeuren, [Bavaria]. I first want to perform a piece when I feel that I’ve understood it in all its depth. 

I also need time to prepare the materials. I consider every bowing, and then it usually takes about six months before everything is written in the parts. Another reason is that when I started in Pittsburgh, in 2008, I looked at what the orchestra had already recorded. They did a wonderful Shostakovich Eight with Mariss [Jansons], Lorin Maazel did Sibelius, but William Steinberg was the last conductor who recorded Beethoven with them. From the early 1970s to 2008, this important orchestra didn’t record Dvořák’s Eighth, Bruckner, Beethoven, Mahler… I thought that was a shame, because I believe that even if one of the CDs doesn’t sell well, it’s still an important document of how the orchestra played at a given moment. 

When you say you want to understand a piece in all its depth, what do you mean by that? Can you give an example? 

Take the references to folk music in Mahler and Bruckner. I’ve noticed that musicians these days have no idea what different types of [the Austrian folk dance] Ländler there are. People these days can’t tell you the difference between the Ländler from Salzburg, Steiermark, Tyrol, Bavaria, and the Innviertel. They say that everything is a “wonderful waltz.” And that’s sad, because these differences are so important in Mahler and Bruckner. Mahler of course knew them all, but he didn’t write, “This is the Steiermark Ländler.” He’d mark it with a tempo. 

Take the Scherzo from Bruckner’s Fifth. I’ve always wondered why he wrote bedeutend langsamer [significantly slower] for a dance. But then I did my research, and I found out that it was the Ländler from the Innviertel, a slow version of the dance from Upper Austria, where Bruckner grew up and played violin and viola at weddings. These days we look at Bruckner as an organist and a pious man. We forget that he played folk music sometimes, too. These things are extremely important to me–understanding them, and communicating them to musicians. 

In an interview with VAN, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja said, “New music should be the focal point, old pieces are allowed but only in exceptional cases.”  She was arguing that fewer performances of the warhorses would allow us to experience the breadth of contemporary music, but also enjoy the classics with fresh ears. What do you think? 

That is a very radical and dogmatic perspective. But I know what she means, that we should be able to understand Beethoven from today’s perspective as well. I think it’s possible to mix both. I think it’s possible to understand Beethoven from his time. My first wish as an interpreter is not to ban music, but to show it in a new light. But that needs to come out of the heart of the tradition, I feel that’s my responsibility. It’s possible to do a new version of Beethoven today, as long as I, as the interpreter, make an effort with the details. I think it’s silly to do something new for the sake of newness. 

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Since the 1950s, orchestras in the United States have been classified by whether or not they belong to the “Big Five.” Do you think you’ll be able to disrupt that structure with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra? 

It’s already been disrupted; it was questionable even at the time it was made. Maybe there’s a Big 10 or a Big 15. In the U.S. there are so many fantastic orchestras which have kept their individual identities. Pittsburgh plays differently than Cleveland, Cleveland plays differently than New York, New York differently than Chicago–and I think that’s fantastic. 

Many conductors hold two, three, even four posts at once. In 2011, you gave up your second post, as music director of the Stuttgart Opera. Why?

I wanted to dedicate my time fully to one orchestra, both physically and in terms of musical content. I tried to run Pittsburgh and Stuttgart in parallel, but I chose Pittsburgh. That was the right path for me personally. When I was in Stuttgart, due to the time difference, I’d have to do all my calls for Pittsburgh at 2 a.m., and then all my calls for Stuttgart in the morning when I was in Pittsburgh, I was constantly on the phone…

You live in Vorarlberg, in western Austria. What is your relationship with Pittsburgh like?

It’s a healthy and happy one. I know a lot of people and have come to value the friendliness of the people. Over the last 13 years, one construction project after another has been completed and the city is beginning to blossom, after the decline of the 1960s. Technology, medicine, the university and the students, it’s fantastic. I wouldn’t want to go without it.

Before you became a conductor, you performed in the viola section of the Vienna Philharmonic for nine years. Do you still play?

I was recently trying it out a little bit at home, and it was simply awful. If you want to play well, you have to practice every day. I can’t do that, it’s impossible. If you come home after two months away, take up the instrument, practice for a week… that’s no fun. I’d probably do it if I wasn’t busy with music every single day. As much as I love the instrument, it’ll probably stay in its case, gathering dust. ¶

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

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