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Manfred Honeck

Three contrasting worlds of sound are on the bill at Heinz Hall when Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck returns for the first of two weekends of concerts.

He built the program to proceed from a piece of contemporary American music he likes to an ultra-popular violin concerto before concluding with his favorite symphony by Johannes Brahms.

Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra April 20-22 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Steven Stucky’s “Silent Spring,” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist James Ehnes, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

Many composers say a second performance is at least as important as the premiere in the life of a new piece. Stucky, who died at 66 in 2016, came to Heinz Hall for the premiere of “Silent Spring” when Honeck conducted it in 2012, and mentioned to me at intermission how much he appreciated the performance.

The four-section, 18-minute piece was inspired by Western Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson’s famous book “Silent Spring,” which memorably called attention to the effects of chemicals on our environment.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a rite of passage for every serious violin student. Its combination of romantic songfulness with prodigious virtuoso display call for gorgeous tone, introspection as well as soaring romantic sentiment, and the utmost agility. The Pittsburgh Symphony’s soloist has moved far beyond his student potential to become one of the world’s leading violinists.

Brahms was a prolific composer in his youth, but didn’t write his Symphony No. 1 until he was 43 because he was intimidated by the work of Ludwig van Beethoven, as were most composers of his time. He wrote only four symphonies, but each is a staple of orchestral repertoire everywhere.

The composer was in his early 50s when he wrote his final symphony. It has a feeling of the eternal, as do many of Brahms’ pieces. Brahms never wrote an opera, but around the time he wrote his Fourth Symphony he was reading Greek plays by Sophocles in a friend’s German translation.

The start of the symphony “has to be extremely tender and lyric, without too much accents because they will come anyway,” says Honeck. It is one of the most beautiful beginnings to any symphony he knows. He notes that the real meaning of this musical idea becomes clear later on in the movement, as though a curtain has been lifted, when it comes back in full power.

The conductor is especially attuned to the idiomatically dark-colored Brahmsian sound because of his decade of experience playing in the Vienna Philharmonic, where it was nurtured by Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber.

The monumental finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is a theme and variations which cover an immense range of terrain. Honeck remembers with particular fondness the spirit with which principal flute Lorna McGhee played her big solo in the finale on the way to the tragic coda.

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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