Manfred Honeck conducts ‘Bernstein in Pittsburgh’

October 3, 2018
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Manfred Honeck

Although Leonard Bernstein was a world-wide musical genius, in America he is most associated with New York City because of the Broadway shows he wrote and his long tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

But Pittsburgh played an important role early in his career. He was 25 when he conducted the world premiere of his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) at the Syria Mosque in Oakland, an opportunity made possible because the symphony’s music director Fritz Reiner had been his conducting teacher at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He continued to appear with the Pittsburgh Symphony for several more years, as both pianist and conductor and especially during the 1949-50 season when he was working on his Symphony No. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”).

Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a tribute to Leonard Bernstein for the centennial of his birth, Oct. 6 and 7 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program consists entirely of music Bernstein conducted here: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) and Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite.

Bernstein was last in Pittsburgh in September 1984 for the 40th anniversary of the premiere of “Jeremiah.” That was the phase of his career when Honeck was getting to know him. Bernstein had a long and beautiful association with the Vienna Philharmonic, including the years when Honeck was a member of that orchestra. Bernstein spent time with Honeck, encouraging his ambition to be a conductor.

Honeck says the word he most associated with Bernstein was father, “which might surprise you. But he had everything a father would do. He really cared about you, whether you were an emperor or the simplest person in the world. He was one of those great personalities who made fantastic music and had enormous charisma as a conductor, but he was really a father (figure), the best compliment I could have for someone.”

Bernstein addressed a big topic in his first symphony, the crisis of faith he felt characterized the 20th century. The first movement, “Prophesy,” reflects Jeremiah’s warnings that the corruption of the priests and the people would bring destruction to Israel. The second movement, “Profanation,” gives the sense of the prophesy being fulfilled in the pillage of Jerusalem. The last movement, “Lamentations” features mezzo-soprano singing words of Jeremiah.

“I really like this piece,” says Honeck. “It has a symphonic voice. The climax for me is ‘Lamentations,’ one of the most emotional pieces Bernstein wrote. Bernstein showed as a young man his inner side and his understanding of what music can do with words and their message.”

The remainder of the program features repertoire in which Bernstein particularly excelled. He was deeply drawn to Beethoven’s socially conscious opera “Fidelio,” for which Leonore Overture No. 3 is one of four overtures written for different versions of the opera. He was hailed as “perhaps the greatest Haydn interpreter of all” by the foremost Haydn authority of his time.

As for Stravinsky, the composer was asked after attending a Bernstein performance of his music in the early 1960s what he thought of it. Stravinsky was notoriously tough on conductors, but for Bernstein’s performance he had just one word - “Wow!”

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