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PSO’s Manfred Honeck marks 60th birthday with new composition | TribLIVE.com
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PSO’s Manfred Honeck marks 60th birthday with new composition

Mark Kanny
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Manfred Honeck on his birthday with his wife Christiane, center, with their six children (from left): Simeon, Manuel, Theresa, Anna-Maria, Joachim and Matthias, in the chapel of the Basilica where his parents were married.

Celebrations of Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck’s 60th birthday are extending to nearly two weeks. Sept. 17 was the actual day, which was spent with his family — his wife Christiane and their six children and seven grandchildren — at their home in Altach in far western Austria. In addition, new music commissioned in honor of his birthday will be introduced at the opening concerts of the symphony’s classical subscription series.

His Pittsburgh contract has just been extended to 2021, when he’ll lead celebrations of another birthday – the symphony’s 125th.

Speaking a day after his birthday, Honeck said, “Only my brain tells me I’m 60. My body feels as it always has. As a conductor, I feel like a teenager.”

Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s opening concerts of the BNY Mellon Grand Classics season on Sept. 28 and 30 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is the world premiere of Mason Bates’ “Resurrexit,” Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist, and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

Special birthday gift

The conductor asked Bates, twice the orchestra’s composer of the year, to write a piece for his birthday.

“I said what about a piece about Pittsburgh and its three rivers, with the three themes coming together for the climax,” Honeck says. “He said I have another idea,” but kept it to himself.

Knowing that Honeck is a devout Catholic, Bates decided to write an orchestral piece on the resurrection. Beginning in dusty darkness, the music employs the Easter chant “Victimae Paschali Laudes” (Praise the Easter victim) during the 14-minute composition, including for the soaring conclusion.

I’m very excited about this piece,” Honeck says. “It’s a really good and I think it can be a fantastic opener.”

The Bruch Violin Concerto is a piece Honeck played as a young violinist. But it was remembering a collaboration with Zukerman at the Aspen Festival in Colorado that prompted the conductor to program it for the opening concerts.

“He has wonderful ideas and wonderful feeling for this piece, which is why I wanted to bring it to Pittsburgh,” says the music director.

Fitting finale

The joyfulness of Brahms’ Second Symphony makes it a fitting finale for the birthday celebration. It will be the first time Honeck leads it in Pittsburgh, although he first conducted it a long time ago.

Honeck says the Second is the most Viennese of Brahms’ symphonies, noting that it begins in ¾ time – the same as waltzes. The Vienna Philharmonic gave the world premiere in 1877. Honeck played it many times as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1980s, including under one of his “great idols” Carlos Kleiber.

“Its character is joyful and associated with nature,” says Honeck. “It’s a very beautiful, organic piece, with a light atmosphere and more charm than Brahms’ First.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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