Manfred Honeck returns for four sets of PSO concerts
New American music takes center stage at Heinz Hall this week when music director Manfred Honeck returns with enthusiasm to lead a program that includes none of his beloved Viennese repertoire.
The music director will be working with the orchestra continuously from now through the second week of June, leading four sets of concerts at Heinz Hall, separated evenly by a nearly three-week European tour.
Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Thursday through Saturday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Richard Danielpour’s “Rocking the Cradle,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Valentina Lisitsa as soloist and Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps” (The Rite of Spring).
Danielpour will be on hand for and probably speak at the local premiere of his “Rocking the Cradle,” a two-movement symphony that was first performed on March 22 by the Baltimore Symphony led by Juanjo Mena.
The performances will conclude Danielpour’s tenure as the symphony’s composer of the year. It’s not a Johnny-come-lately relationship because the orchestra made a brilliant recording of Danielpour’s music in 1996 under David Zinman for Sony Classical.
Honeck believes it’s important that Danielpour is the symphony’s composer of the year. “I think he’s a great composer and ‘Rocking the Cradle’ is an important work in his oeuvre.”
The conductor says that while the title “sounds very calm and nice, he wrote it for all who oppose tyranny. It has a story, like an opera, which is a little bit more message than normal instrumental music.”
He loves the music’s rhythmicality and imaginative, sensitive orchestration.
“It’s very beautiful, with wonderful pastels and a French transparency, though it’s not a copy,” Honeck says. “In the excited final section, he knows he doesn’t have to end loudly, so it ends peacefully.”
The symphony will return to Stravinsky’s super influential masterpiece “The Rite of Spring” to conclude the concert. Written in 1913, it is a ballet score about pagan rituals associated with spring, culminating in the sacrifice of a virgin. Musically, it turns the corner on romanticism and inspired one of the main steams in 20th century music.
Although Honeck first encountered “The Rite of Spring” via recordings, he says his listening was “without purpose. I really got to know the piece in the Vienna Philharmonic. I really got into it.”
He played it under Seiji Ozawa and Zubin Mehta but says he scarcely had a chance to look at the conductors.
“It was not a repertory piece of the Vienna Philharmonic and is still a challenge for the orchestra,” Honeck says. “All American orchestras play this piece. It’s absolutely amazing how fantastically American musicians are trained.”
As Honeck has conducted “Sacre” with different orchestras he has becomes less interested in the technical matters that made the score notoriously difficult for previous generations of musicians — such as high-speed changes of meter and writing at the extremes of instrumental ranges.
A chorale in the violas represents a wise old priest, he says. When the high E flat clarinet plays with low alto flute, representing a mother and daughter, he wants the alto flute to lead — which is a difficult balance to achieve.
“There are so many beautiful colors in it which I think can be a surprise. If everything is technically perfect and together it can be amazing,” Honeck says. “But it will be even more amazing to tell the story with a picture of sound.”
‘Rite of Spring’
Presented by: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor
When: 1:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown