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Pittsburgh and Tchaikovsky

For American orchestras, these are changing and bewildering times – and will become moreso if Congress sees fit to de-fund the nation’s invaluable arts endowments (whose functions are little known or understood by the public at large).
A lingering conventional wisdom prioritizes a “big five” symphonic constellation: the orchestras of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. This hoary rubric has never been more misleading.
To glean the stature of the Pittsburgh Symphony, one would have to glean its reputation in Europe, where its tours are greeted with appropriate amazement. Its players radiate pride and commitment. The wind and brass principals are exceptional. The ensemble bristles with energy, yet maintains a burnished hue. I can’t imagine that the US boasts a superior concert orchestra in the year 2011.
How this happened is a good question. The city itself is sufficiently small that an orchestra can “show the culture of the community,” fulfilling Theodore Thomas’s brave credo from the pioneer days of American symphonic culture. And Pittsurgh is a handsome city, handsomely populated by a prosperous middle class. Heinz Hall is a warm and welcoming home; the acoustics are terrific everywhere, front to back; the orchestra can also hear itself onstage. Of its music directors, Fritz Reiner (1938-48) instilled discipline (just listen to his Pittsburgh recordings). The long tenure of William Steinberg (1952-76), who lived in town and befriended the community, was a quarter-century anchor. Loren Maazel (1984-96) is credited with raising the playing level. During the tenure of Mariss Jansons (1997-2004), the excellence of the orchestra somehow remained a well-kept secret; it failed to attract national attention. (Did Jansons influentially champion new or unfamiliar repertoire? Did the orchestra influentially explore new formats or functions?)
The current music director, Manfred Honeck, was named in 2007. Like the Minnesota Orchestra when it opted for Osmo Vanska, like the Dallas Symphony when it chose Jaap van Zweden, Pittsburgh was not seduced by a great name and instead chose a great talent. Honeck grew up in rural Austria and later played in the Vienna Philharmonic – a devout Roman Catholic, he absorbed both humility and tradition. Now 52, he singularly combines Germanic lineage, intense attention to detail, and a human face.
The climax of the orchestra’s recent Tchaikovsky festival was an unforgettable reading of the Fifth Symphony in which Honeck clinched this work’s elusive darkness-to-light trajectory. It says everything that the finale, which can easily sound hollow, is Honeck’s favorite movement, and the one he indelibly personalizes. No other conductor in my experience makes the theme so much a hymn, so little a march, or finds as many ecclesiastical resonances – Russian bells and choirs. And Honeck equally embraces the rustic strains – excitedly finding balalaikas, a polka, a csardas, all of which contribute to a condition of unmediated elation. Where in the closing pages Tchaikovsky writes “Molto meno mosso” (i.e., slow down a lot), Honeck just keeps going, flying towards the pounding final chords.
In this context, the fire and virtuosity of the orchestra become necessary but incidental virtues. Honeck and his players deliver a blistering first movement coda (in rehearsal, he exhorted the cellos to play “like Shostakovich”) – a brisk and gritty death march. In the waltz, at the fastest possible clip, the strings spit out their flying sixteenth notes. Bill Caballero’s third movement horn solo mellifluously spans a spectacular dynamic range. So does Michael Rusinek’s solo clarinet.
None of this seems lost on the Heinz Hall audience. Post-performance, every night, Honeck shared thoughts about Tchaikovsky interpretation for half an hour and more. Even after saying good-night, he walked to the lip of the stage and bent forward to shake hands and talk patiently with those unready to leave. In New York, it remains the norm for Philharmonic subscribers to turn their backs on the bowing musicians, hurrying up the aisles, coats in hand, chatting about who knows what.

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