Manfred Honeck happy to fill in with the CSO

Felix Broede

The last year has been hectic for Austrian-born conductor Manfred Honeck.

Though he is quick to acknowledge the tragic devastation wrought by the  coronavirus pandemic, the resulting shutdown put him in even higher demand. After being sidelined like nearly all performing artists since March 2020, he saw many of his conducting dates quickly begin to return. He then found himself inundated with requests from European orchestras, which returned to action months before those in the United States, to step in for conductors unable to fulfill their engagements for COVID-19-related reasons.

“Surprisingly and strangely enough,” he said, “I had more to do than I would have normally.”

Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, remains extremely busy this fall. So busy, in fact, that he had just one week open between the start of the season and the end of December, and it happened to fall at a propitious time for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In August, American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent successful surgery. Follow-up therapy necessitated his canceling all his appearances through October, including two sets of concerts with the CSO, Oct. 21-23 and Oct. 28-30.

James Conlon was able to cover the first set of concerts, and Honeck’s open week meant that he could substitute for the second. “This week was possible,” he said, “and I was asking myself: Can I do it? Should I do it? Because every week is occupied until the new year. But because it is Chicago, and I love the orchestra enormously, I thought: ‘It’s all right. It’s good to go to Chicago and see my friends.’ ”

To facilitate the change, CSO officials agreed to alter the program, because Honeck didn't have time in his schedule to learn or relearn some of the originally planned works.

Remaining is the program’s original centerpiece: the 100th anniversary of the world premiere of what is now a standard of the keyboard repertory, Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26. With the CSO, Prokofiev himself played the solo part for the debut, which was led by then-music director Frederick Stock. (Pianist Denis Matsuev will join the orchestra for these performances.)

“It’s a fantastic, great piece,” Honeck said. “When I did it for the first time, I was so impressed. It’s expressive and still has this rhythmical excitement and brilliance, which Prokofiev stands for. It’s an orchestral challenge and for the piano as well. I’m very excited to do this, knowing that this piece was very special to Chicago. This is something, isn’t it?”

Looking for a short work to add to the program, Honeck proposed Jessie Montgomery’s Coincident Dances (2017), which he had already prepared for a subsequent program with another orchestra. “Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, it turned that Jessie is composer-in-residence in Chicago," he said. "I did not know this.”

Indeed, Montgomery was named in April as the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, a position that began July 1 and continues through June 2024. Coincident Dances was commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta and premiered by that ensemble in 2017.

Rounding out the program is the addition of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished), which Honeck calls a “key piece” from the early Romantic era. He questions its sobriquet, which did not come from the composer. While the nickname states the obvious — that the piece is incomplete — it says nothing about the work's content.

Honeck believes the symphony is closely connected to the lieder or art songs, for which Schubert is celebrated, with the work's rich statement of melodies connected to Austrian folk music. At the same time, it offers a fresh, colorful approach to orchestration, including an imaginative use of the trombone.

He points out that this two-movement work was composed in 1822 before the rise of Wagner, Bruckner or Mahler, and Schubert had already “opened the world” to these composers. “It is an amazing thing,” Honeck said. “Beethoven was still alive, and it was not a long time ago that Mozart and Haydn had passed away. So it was still the Viennese Classical era, but he opened the door with this symphony.”   

At Pittsburgh, where he recently launched his 14th season, he just agreed to extend his contract through 2027-28, making him one of the longest-tenured artistic leaders of any of this nation’s major orchestras. “I’m a little bit impressed and depressed,” Honeck, 63, said with a chuckle. “When I started in 2008, I was one of these middle-aged conductors, and now, after 14 years, I’m one of the oldest conductors.”

Between his work in Pittsburgh and his guest conducting, Honeck will not have a break for months, but he is not complaining. “It looks a little like I’m crazy, but I must also say that conducting and making music is sometimes like an elixir," he said. "Connecting with music is so wonderful and brings me a lot of fantastic energy.” 

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