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Pittsburgh's New Emperor in Washington: Manfred Honeck's DC-Debut with his new Orchestra

Chee-Yun The National Symphony Orchestra’s series of concerts this week might have gone even more unnoticed with its nameless protagonists and unexciting programming. Verdi’s La forza del destino overture, Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony are not exactly barnstormers; not the kind of programming that kindles fervor in regular concert-goers.

Chee-Yun, the violinist, is just another pretty face / face-less Asian fiddler (as a visiting professor at the University of Indiana there is a Slatkin-link, though); Manfred Honeck would be completely unknown in these parts of town had he not just been named the new music director at Pittsburgh, one of the best orchestras of the country.

This ends the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s misguided and expectedly failed experiment of having three roving conductors at the helm… as if three B-list conductors together might amount to the name recognition, status, or quality musical leadership that one A-list maestro might. (The overrated Artistic Advisor Andrew “Not Colin” Davis, the steady, reliable, reliably unexciting Principal Guest Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, and the underrated, insider-beloved and unfortunately titled “Endowed Guest Conductor Chair” Marek Janowski made up this troika that was allowed to waste precious years of distinct musical direction after one of the best conductors in the world, Mariss Jansons, stepped down in 2004.)

Now Manfred Honeck, who immediately reminds of Franz Welser-Möst (Cleveland’s mildly controversial custodian of quality music-making) in nationality, background, and even looks, will hopefully continue where the sublime Latvian left off. His performance in Washington on Thursday was not as telling about where he might take the bigger orchestra to the north… Verdi’s overture was driven, muscular, determined, and compact but surely not overly polished.

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P.I.Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.5,
M.Honeck / Pittsburgh

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A Lasting First Impression (Washington Post, February 3)
Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto meanwhile is the kind of piece that allows you to judge soloist or conductor no more than the merits of a great chef who serves you grits. And sure enough, it was all good, as good as grits can presumably be. On a violin that produced a huge, whiskey-roughed tone (not very clean when she tried very hard) she applied extraordinary energy to a concerto that you need not (or cannot) say much in, musically, and can therefore use all the energy it gets. She showed a studied intensity, possessing wonderful harmonics, and a showy, indiscriminate vibrato that served the concerto well enough to make it sugary, pleasant, if entirely indistinct.

A musical shot of insulin would have been appropriate for the second half. Instead: Tchaikovsky “Five”; itself sufficient to induce symphony-diabetes. As it was, the Tchaikovsky turned out to be the finest performance: Deliberate, heaving like a dying beast, with dark clouds before the musical story-telling picks up with brighter, more animated rhythms. Slowly awaking was the second movement, much like film music, in the best sense. The finale, finally, was not too weighty, not choked by its own portentousness and even light and foot-tappingly moving forward during the Allegro vivace.

Today's performance will take place at 1.30PM, the performance on Saturday at 8PM.