The music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is not one to pass up a cookie.
“My donors know I am Austrian. They like to buy me mementos,” he said, passing a tin of Austrian sweets around a room in Heinz Hall during a recording session.
He looks crestfallen when someone tries to decline. “But this is more important than work!” he insisted.
Mr. Honeck is celebrating his 10th anniversary as music director of the PSO. That’s 10 years of world premieres, European tours, a labor strike, collaborative projects with Music for the Spirit and other Pittsburgh institutions, internationally acclaimed recordings and this year, a pair of Grammy awards.
But aside from his accolades and musical stardom, he’s got a bit of a sweet tooth. And he likes Starbucks. A lot.
“I like the coffee,” he said, happily noting that American espressos (his standard fare is a double espresso) come in larger cups than in Europe.
“I enjoy watching the people and families in the mornings in the Market Square.”
Born in the small town of Nenzing, Austria, in 1958, Mr. Honeck’s career rise was meteoric. He graduated from the Academy of Music in Vienna, performing both as a violinist and violist. (It’s difficult though not uncommon for a musician to master both instruments.) He performed with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as a violist and later was a guest conductor.
He studied conducting with the likes of Claudio Abbado and Leonard Bernstein, and after a period of conducting youth orchestras in the 1980s, made the leap to the big time in 1991 with the Zurich Opera. After leading the Oslo Philharmonic, Swedish Radio Orchestra, Leipzig MDR Symphony Orchestra and others, Mr. Honeck began his tenure with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008.
At the time, he said to the Post-Gazette: “It is no exaggeration to say that the orchestra and I got on like a house on fire.”
Ten years later, for his work with the PSO as well as his international efforts, the International Classical Music Awards selected Mr. Honeck as the 2017 Artist of the Year, an accolade indicative of the maestro’s success on the international stage.
One of nine children himself, Mr. Honeck and his wife, Christiane, have six children and several grandchildren. His family still lives in Altach, Austria, near the Swiss border. For 10 years and counting, the conductor has stayed in a corner suite at the Fairmont Hotel Downtown whenever he has business in Pittsburgh, which is often.
“I always wanted to use the gym here, so I used to bring my sports shoes with me,” he said. “But I just have no time, so eventually I gave up.”
The Fairmont’s front desk agents and waitstaff at its Fl.2 restaurant greet Mr. Honeck with a familiar “Hello Maestro!” when he passes through. He’s fond of Fl.2’s Arnold Palmers and recommends the rotisserie chicken salad, though he politely yet firmly makes known his distaste for pomegranate seeds.
Before lunch, Mr. Honeck says grace — no muss, no fuss — then talks about the time he conducted the Christmas Mass for the pope. He noted that Christmas is usually a time reserved for family.
When the Honecks visit Pittsburgh, he takes his family to Steelers games, museums, and when the children were younger, Kennywood. They go for long drives to see the countryside, and on one such drive, detoured to see the Amish.
“Amusement parks are nothing new, but visiting the Amish was amazing to experience,” Mr. Honeck said. “We had to see if it was really true if they drive not cars but horses. And they were there. It was fascinating to see the families. We went to an Amish shop and I was impressed. The quality of the food was so good — a little expensive but so good.”
After a decade here he’s a familiar figure around the city, and he speaks kindly with anyone, from fellow diners at the Duquesne Club to drifters that sometimes hang out near Heinz Hall.
Catholic to the core, Mr. Honeck attends morning Mass every day he’s in town at St. Mary of Mercy Church on Stanwix Street, Downtown. He also prays before each performance with a small group of musicians, some Catholic, some not.
“He sits toward the back and off to the side,” said Monsignor Ronald Lengwin, a vicar for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese who’s known Mr. Honeck since his earliest visits to he city. “That’s the way he lives his life, really. He’s an inspired but humble man of very deep faith.”
The rest of Mr. Honeck’s day, often scheduled down to the minute, is filled with rehearsals and meetings with musician committees, interviews to promote PSO concerts, board lunches, quick caffeine fixes across the street from Heinz Hall at Starbucks, and of course, conducting the PSO.
He’s worked out a deal with Vallozzi’s Pittsburgh, the Italian restaurant on Fifth Avenue, so that they stay open until 11 p.m. on concert nights for Mr. Honeck and a few guests.
“He likes his beer warm,” said owner Julian Valozzi.
Mr. Honeck generally orders Stella Artois or Full Pint’s White Lightning, and he always orders tiramisu.
“He’s not a life-of-the-party-kind-of guy, but he’s good company,” Mr. Valozzi said.
The maestro also likes the food at the Duquesne Club, Peter Allen’s and Pizzaiolo Primo on Market Square. (He prefers the outdoor seating as it gets a bit loud inside.)
“I like to watch people. I like to see how they live here,” he said.
People often recognize Mr. Honeck and come up to chat on his coffee runs, even more so since the orchestra’s Grammy win.
Conductor on fire
According to Anne Martindale Williams, principal cello of the PSO since 1979, Mr. Honeck sticks to his roots and emphasizes a Viennese style in his conducting.
“He focuses on the overall pulse rather than micromanaging rhythm,” she said. “Each music director has brought success differently, but Manfred’s really not a typical maestro. He’s very concerned with our well-being.”
Mr. Honeck is reserved but energetic, soft-spoken in conversation but a steely commander on the podium. He’s praised worldwide for his interpretations of Mahler, Beethoven, Strauss and Bruckner, but he’s often cast as a traditionalist in terms of programming new repertoire.
In a rehearsal last fall, he demonstrated his trademark attention to detail, coaxing life out of every phrase and note, asking for adjustments to everything from the violinist’s bow speed (“pull the bow more quickly, like you are starting a fire”), to the dynamics and articulation in the winds (“It’s important to play piano only here, and not too heavy. The legato is very important here.”).
“His programming may be traditional, but he knows how to take an old warhorse and create something refreshing,” said Ed Stephan, a Beaver County native and former principal timpanist of the PSO.
“There’s nothing typical about him. I remember leaving rehearsals feeling as though my pants were on fire,” said Mr. Stephan, now principal timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Honeck’s contract expires at the end of the PSO’s next season, in 2020. While it’s too soon to predict, it’s possible that there will be a new leader for the city’s cultural crown jewel. In the meantime, the orchestra is set to release several more recordings, some of which might become Grammy contenders.
In an early morning recording editing session, Mr. Honeck asked a technician if it would be possible to edit out the sound of him stomping his feet enthusiastically while conducting.
When the technician responded in the negative, Mr. Honeck smiled and brandished his tin of Austrian cookies: “How about now?!”
Jeremy Reynolds: email@example.com or 412-263-1634; twitter: @Reynolds_PG. Mr. Reynolds’ work at the Post-Gazette is supported by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.