With hundreds of “Eroicas” available at the push of a thumb, who, indeed? What could there possibly be left to say?
Quite a lot, as it turns out, and Honeck is saying it with the Pittsburgh Symphony, long one of the finest American ensembles but just a few years past a bruising musicians’ strike. When the orchestra and Honeck, its music director since 2008, arrive in New York to perform Beethoven and Mahler at David Geffen Hall on May 19, five years since they last appeared in the city, they will arrive having built their reputation by recording the standard repertoire, formidably well.
“If I do it,” Honeck said recently in his office in Heinz Hall, the ornate former movie palace in Pittsburgh that houses the symphony, “I want to do it as good as I can do it.”
Good barely covers it. All eight of the releases that the Pittsburgh forces have brought out on Reference Recordings, with the aid of microphone whizzes from Soundmirror, come with the highest of recommendations. (Earlier recordings, primarily of Mahler, are now hard to find on a Japanese imprint, Exton.) Four have received nominations for the Grammy for best orchestral performance. One, of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, won in 2018.
There’s a properly idiomatic account of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony that comes with a clever suite from Janacek’s “Jenufa,” one of several operatic compilations that Honeck has conceived and had executed by composer Tomas Ille. Another, from Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” appears with a desolate Tchaikovsky Sixth. There’s a radiant, faithful take on Bruckner’s Fourth, which bodes well for that composer’s Ninth, due for release this fall. There are two sensationally powerful discs of Strauss, one of tone poems, the other of suites from “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Elektra.”
And yes, there’s a Beethoven Five, a Beethoven Seven and a Beethoven Three, easily the most enthralling and involving recordings of these most major of major symphonies I have heard in years. The 2015 coupling of the Fifth and Seventh seethes with ideas, transcending tedious debates about period practice to sound utterly fresh and free. The 2018 release of the “Eroica” is better still, showing off the orchestra’s spectacular playing, which marries deft refinement to forceful physicality.
Why are these recordings so breathtakingly good? Plenty of orchestras record, after all, and most record in the same way they do in Pittsburgh. They tape several concerts of the same program live, usually three or four. There’s a patching session to fix errors and correct details. Then there’s editing.
And in this conductor’s case, there’s more editing. Minute editing. Relentless editing.
“Even one note, it can annoy you for weeks,” Honeck said, laughing. “You ask our sound guys. They suffer.”
His fastidious preparation is reflected in the practical, how-to booklet notes that he writes for the recordings, thousands of words long and full of endless detail about the choices he has made. He writes his own bowings. He tinkers with the instrumentation. He reads deeply, and dreams up metaphors to sharpen the imagery.
It’s a technique that Honeck, born in Austria in 1958, learned from the very best. As a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic from 1986 to 1992, he played under a who’s-who of conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. He talked about historical performance with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and assisted Claudio Abbado. But one man stood out.
“The temptation,” Honeck said, “is for conductors to say, ‘Oh, it’s too soft, too loud, too quick, too slow.’ That’s four terms, and within 2 1/2 hours you hear these all the time. You can imagine, it’s boring. But Carlos Kleiber, he asked with every phrase we do, why do we do it? What is the context of the music? He brought pictures, images of that.”
Horn player Stephen Kostyniak, who serves as chairman of the Pittsburgh musicians’ committee, recalled an early appearance, in the period between Honeck turning down the Czech Philharmonic in favor of the Pittsburgh Symphony in January 2007 and when he formally took up the post in September 2008.
“We did ‘Ein Heldenleben’,” Kostyniak said. “He wanted one particular quintuplet rhythm a certain way, because in his mind it’s when Strauss’ wife slaps him and says, ‘Shut up!’”
Honeck, added Kostyniak, was “not one of the tyrants of old, but he’s very particular in what he wants, and he doesn’t mind taking the time out of rehearsal to really make sure that it’s there.”
Kleiber’s example does not stop with evocative imagery. Playing under that enigmatic, combustible genius taught Honeck that conducting is a bodily pursuit, a physical recreation of the sound you want. He painstakingly rehearses the shape and speed of the hand movements he will use to trace a phrase, and the body positions he will need to take up to win the right kind of emphasis. Although Honeck is by no means copying his precursor, a certain similarity of gesture is obvious to anyone who has spent too much time watching old Kleiber videos on YouTube.
“A violinist has the Oistrakh technique, or the Auer technique,” Honeck said. “We forget that conductors also have a technique. It’s not just 1-2-3-4. That’s like a fingering.”
“I found out that this technique brings you to much more refined music-making,” he added.
If Honeck concentrates mostly on the Austro-Germanic repertoire, as some critics worried when he seemed to be a candidate to replace Alan Gilbert as music director of the New York Philharmonic a few years ago, he is not dutifully conservative. In Pittsburgh, he has staged Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “St. John Passion,” and he has not entirely neglected new music. In conversation, he cited Mahler to the effect that “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire” — a quotation, aptly enough, that may not originally be of Mahler at all, but at least captures his spirit.
But can an orchestra based on tradition survive? Like most other orchestras, the Pittsburgh Symphony has been forced to confront its inherited business model, and since it last visited New York it has seen its fair share of labor strife. A year after Melia P. Tourangeau, the current president and chief executive, arrived in the summer of 2015, the musicians went on strike to defend themselves against cuts to wages and pensions. The strike took 55 days to resolve.
Tourangeau said that “the orchestra sacrificed quite a bit in this last contract: about $3.3 million in concessions, plus shutting down our defined-benefit plan and moving to a 401(k).”
The players have still not recovered the wage levels they lost, and will do so only in the final season of a contract that lasts until 2021. Legacy pension costs remain on the books; endowment draws are only slowly retreating from an unsustainable level; and earned revenue is trending down. Ticket sales, in other words, are a problem. But the orchestra’s sacrifices provided leverage in the community, and contributions have risen sharply. A deficit of $1.3 million in 2015-16 turned into a small surplus in the 2017-18 season, the first in a decade.
“When you look at the finances from an accrual basis,” Tourangeau said, “we’ve certainly turned the ship around.”
And just as at the Minnesota Orchestra, which rebuilt itself after a 16-month lockout that ended in 2014, Pittsburgh’s trouble has brought management, staff, players and audience closer together. Musicians now sit on every board committee, and they organize to greet patrons on their way into the hall before performances, and play brief chamber-music concerts after. Staff and trustees take part in initiatives that the musicians started while on strike, including helping communities underserved with both food and music in partnership with a local charity, 412 Food Rescue. This community-conscious approach was reflected in a televised concert that the orchestra mounted in response to the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last October.
“Now we have this culture of involvement and transparency that is new and good,” Kostyniak said. “It’s definitely more positive and forward-looking.”
Honeck stayed quiet during the strike, but said that he was two or three weeks away from speaking out when it ended, and would have done so if red lines about the size of the orchestra, the number of concerts it played and its ability to tour were crossed. Now, he said, “I feel that the climate is more positive.”
He demurred about what will happen in 2022, when the contract he extended in 2018 ends. But before then, there is more to record, starting with Beethoven’s Ninth and a new double concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff in June, followed by Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 next season. All of them, it’s fair to predict, will have that distinctive stamp on them, the sense of a familiar piece being rethought from the ground up.
“We conductors, we are personalities,” Honeck said. “I would hate it if every conductor must be similar. It’s actually the opposite. Let’s go for personality. Let’s go for a personal style.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.