The ovations, the acclaim in Europe that help keep the music playing in Pittsburgh
Backstage at a concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, a gaggle of dignitaries including that region’s U.S. Consul General congregated outside a white dressing room door. The scene repeated a few days later backstage in Dusseldorf, this time with several Pennsylvania state representatives as well as the German city’s mayor. And again, in Salzburg, Austria. Then again days later in Dresden.
Those grouped by the doors whispered excitedly, impatiently, waiting for the evening’s star to emerge.
In only the time it took to wipe his brow and change from a tuxedo to a more casual suit, Manfred Honeck, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, would throw wide the door and receive his guests — basking in a post-concert glow and accepting the praise heaped upon his ensemble by VIPs, politicians and cultural leaders throughout Europe.
Cameras and smiles flashed, jokes were cracked and dozens of hands shaken.
“Leo! Leo must be in the photo,” the conductor called at one point backstage at Hamburg’s glamorous Elbphilharmonie concert hall, a bit like classical music’s Yankee Stadium, pulling a symphony staffer’s young son into a photo with numerous officials.
Only minutes before, Mr. Honeck had been onstage directing the orchestra with flicks of a baton and waves of his hands — his musicians responding flawlessly. At the end of each concert, listeners roared their approval, demanding five, six, seven ovations.
This isn’t typical for European audiences. In Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, the audiences are generally enthusiastic. In Europe, the Austrian conductor and his Pittsburgh orchestra are rock stars.
Over the course of three weeks of their recent tour, the musicians earned ovation after ovation, rave review after rave review in Germany, Slovenia and Austria, during a biennial expedition undertaken by top American orchestras to develop international reputations and prove their mettle in the historic home of classical music.
The orchestra’s members enjoy treatment on these trips more in line with sports teams or pop stars than classical musicians (although the gatherings lean more to champagne receptions and hotel bar soirees than wild bacchanals).
And at center stage, front, in each concert is Mr. Honeck, the most public face of the orchestra, its coach and its leader.
It’s good to be king.
In Salzburg, Mr. Honeck is at home on the podium. He conducts Mahler’s first symphony from memory, fluttering his hands softly at times and brandishing his baton commandingly at others, drawing larger-than-life bursts of character and musical color from his orchestra time and again.
It’s old news that CEO wages have skyrocketed in recent decades, with salaries at the top of a for-profit company set at hundreds of times higher than a typical employee. The divide is not as dramatic at arts organizations, but salaries have risen far faster for top positions than for their employees.
At the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with its roughly $30 million budget, base salary for a musician is just over $100,000. Mr. Honeck, meanwhile, makes close to $1 million. (The exact amount varies by year and how many concerts he’s conducting and other factors.) He’s also provided a suite at the Fairmont hotel Downtown when he’s in Pittsburgh as well as transportation.
On a recent charter flight for the orchestra from Essen, Germany, to Salzburg, Austria, Mr. Honeck was one of the first to board the plane. On tour, he often stays in separate hotels and travels separately from his musicians, but not always.
Walking down the gate in a crisp blue suit and open collar, he chatted in German with a family member on his Apple earbuds wired into an old iPhone — no fancy Bluetooth devices here — discussing which Salzburg restaurant would be best for a family lunch.
He spent the remainder of the flight staring at the countryside below and chatting about former mentors, uber famous classical conductors like Leonard “Lenny” Bernstein (“He helped give me the courage to switch to conducting, actually”) and Herbert von Karajan (“He had such bad feet, but he wouldn’t let anyone help him…”).
For music directors like Mr. Honeck, these trips are an essential component of an orchestra’s self-image and its recruitment strategy. They also provide an opportunity for orchestra staff to meet behind the scenes with agents peddling potential guest conductors as well as soloists and composers.
In the conducting field — the small pool of high-level conductors qualified to lead a group of 100-plus musicians — there’s jockeying and back-channeling year to year for better positions and better orchestras.
This can have huge implications on an organization’s bottom line, as conductors with larger reputations tend to help secure larger donations.
Conducting jobs don’t promise a lot of job security. The roles are independent contracting positions that last only a few years — one reason that conductors are managed by representatives, much like any other free agent looking for hire. And a good agent drives a tough bargain. Ancillary factors, like European tours, can matter a great deal in contract negotiations.
Mr. Honeck worked previously at the Zurich Opera House, the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He started with Pittsburgh in 2008, and there were rumors in recent years that the 64-year-old star might be poached by the larger and better-paying Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Chicago’s budget is around $73 million and it pays its conductor closer to $2 million.
The surprise last year came when Mr. Honeck extended his contract with Pittsburgh through 2028 — with provisions guaranteeing that the orchestra would continue touring while he was with them. He says choosing an orchestra isn’t about the money.
“For me, personally, it’s a simple answer,” he said at a breakfast in the dignified Duquesne Club, Downtown, a couple of days before the recent tour. “If you have artistic integrity, then artistic quality must be number one in your decision. It’s not about the money.”
He pauses a moment, considering a spoonful of oatmeal.
“Of course, money’s always important.”
In his dressing room in Dresden, Mr. Honeck welcomed and warmly thanked the concert hall’s staff, making sure to have a personal moment with everyone he could, smiling and chatting, still energized from a thrilling performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony minutes before.
He’s networking, too — he and his orchestra must be invited to perform in such places.
The fact that touring is part of the discussion in a conductor’s contract indicates that building these independent contractors’ brands on a global scale is also a big deal. Orchestras aren’t averse to making such guarantees because most see it as building their own brand as well.
“Tours were this big benchmark that orchestras differentiated themselves with, right along with their base and how long their season is,” said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra consultant.
“If they went on tour, did they go to Europe? And if they went to Europe, do you mean Spain or do you mean Germany? It’s all a kind of caste system.”
There’s disagreement in the field about how these trips benefit a home city. Industry figures argue that the orchestra serves as ambassador abroad and that this can have positive downstream effects for cities.
“From 26 years of helping plan tours in Pittsburgh, there was very little benefit enjoyed by any of the home audience by the Pittsburgh Symphony playing a concert in London and getting a great review,” said Robert Moir, a former vice president of artistic planning at the PSO who now works as an independent contractor, though he is still based in Pittsburgh.
The PSO’s recent tour cost about $2.5 million, some of it funded by corporate sponsors.
“Yes, the hometown pride thing is a good talking point, but in all those years, I never saw it, and it became increasingly hard to get the corporate community behind orchestra touring,” Mr. Moir said.
What isn’t disputed is the key role that the trips play in holding onto talent like Mr. Honeck.
In the recent visit to Salzburg, Mr. Honeck still acts like the excited kid in his local candy shop. After being driven from the airport to his hotel, he wanders the city streets, snapping photos in front of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s house for the umpteenth time and explaining the differences between two rival companies’ versions of authentic Mozart chocolates. (He prefers the blue ones, which only last a couple of days due to the delicacy of the chocolate.)
“I bought Christiane a ring here,” he said of his wife, glancing at one shop in a narrow passageway.
“She had no choice — she had to like it,” he joked.
“If you have artistic integrity, then artistic quality must be number one in your decision. It’s not about the money. … Of course, money’s always important.”
Sometimes, while negotiating employment contracts, orchestras will insert an exclusivity clause to keep their “maestro” from conducting other American orchestras to keep their brand undiluted.
“We did the opposite with Honeck,” Mr. Moir said. “We wanted his star to rise, and as such he had many successful engagements with the other top orchestras.”
Mr. Moir said that when Mr. Honeck arrived, the Pittsburgh Symphony had a larger industry reputation than he did. After more than 14 years under his baton, the Pittsburgh orchestra has earned a pair of Grammy Awards and numerous nominations, plus national and international buzz for its recordings. (The revenue from the recordings is negligible, but the industry prestige is not.)
Mr. Honeck and the PSO are rarely mentioned separately, now.
Meanwhile, the tours are still essential — especially to him personally.
“For music directors particularly, yeah, they want to be visible on a world stage,” said Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a national service organization. “Obviously, for Manfred Honeck, going to Vienna with his orchestra is a matter of deep pride to him. That’s the heartland.”
Mr. Honeck launched his own career as a musician in Vienna decades ago, first as a violinist, then a violist and finally transitioning to conducting. Touring is a way to return home and share his success. Perhaps it’s also a point of pride: He tends to choose Austrian music by Mahler and Strauss when he brings his orchestra to Vienna and Salzburg.
In 2022, Mr. Woods said that only America’s top orchestras are touring because of the economic difficulty (read: price tag). There are even some indications that American orchestras are moving past the benchmark of touring. But for European conductors like Mr. Honeck, it’s still the gold standard.
“I’ll come back to the Steelers: We want to have fantastic players, and the team wins if we have great players and good strategy,” he said. “You can stay at home and play as good as you can and that’s it. But when the Steelers play against the best teams of the United States, that’s something that attracts people.”
The next most visible position after Mr. Honeck’s is the concertmaster — the first chair of the first violin section.
First chair may have been merely something to rub in during high school orchestra, but in the cutthroat world of professional classical music, the difference between principal and section player can amount to tens of thousands of dollars of salary, as well as recognition and prestige.
Pittsburgh’s concertmaster slot has remained open for years as the orchestra patiently searched for exactly the right fit, the person who best understood its culture and aspirations. The previous concertmaster’s salary hovered around $300,000, according to public documents.
Aside from the money and status, why did David McCarroll, the guy who finally got the job, accept the offer from Pittsburgh? Well …
“Touring is a very important component of why I was attracted to this orchestra,” said Mr. McCarroll, sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Essen, Germany, still basking in the glow from a performance of Mahler’s first symphony in Dusseldorf that brought down the house the night before.
Appointed as Pittsburgh concertmaster in the spring, Mr. McCarroll had spent the past seven years playing in the Vienna Piano Trio. He said the opportunity to tour in Europe — and to be welcomed with such fervor — is something that defines a top caliber orchestra.
“I know these audiences,” he said. “The reaction to the symphony is not typical. This is not usual, it’s not normal.”
Who wouldn’t want a job where they got that kind of acclaim? Even if you have to leave your hometown to actually get it.
“We’re famous everywhere else except Pittsburgh,” said Bill Caballero, the orchestra’s principal French horn player. “We go to these places and they go crazy for us.”
Mr. Caballero, whose compensation is in the vicinity of $285,000 a year, according to the symphony’s public documents, has been with the orchestra since 1989. He has been approached by other orchestras, though the Pittsburgh Symphony was able to renegotiate and keep him.
He called the extension of Mr. Honeck’s contract “unusual,” as it’ll bring the conductor’s tenure with the PSO to 20 years — a very long time for a conductor to stay with a single orchestra.
Other members of the orchestra, especially newer players, also said the tours are a key part of what drew them to audition for the Pittsburgh Symphony and to take the job, even if they had positions of comparable salary elsewhere.
Room where it happens
Years ago, Mr. Honeck received a personal letter from superstar violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter, a longtime friend and also a soloist on the orchestra’s latest tour. She asked him to listen to a teenage violinist; being “discovered” by a top conductor can help a young career take wing.
After Mr. Honeck and Mary Persin, the orchestra’s vice president of artistic planning, heard Noa Wildschut play, they were impressed enough to invite her to perform with the symphony in Pittsburgh. In 2017, the 16-year-old violinist joined the PSO for a special Thanksgiving concert.
Ms. Persin is Mr. Honeck’s right-hand woman. While he was waving his arms and asking brass to play softer or for more precision from the strings in overseas rehearsals, she was often meeting with artists and agents in backstage rooms.
“It’s important to Manfred and I to identify new talent, so the tours are an opportunity to start that conversation,” Ms. Persin said.
It’s also important to identify guest conductors, as Mr. Honeck only conducts a little over half of the concert season with the orchestra. The remaining spots are occupied by guests.
“Guest conducting per week can be much more lucrative than a salary,” said Lawrence “Larry” Loh, a former resident conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony who is now music director of an orchestra in Syracuse, N.Y.
Mr. Loh’s career includes a mix of touring and salaried engagements.
“Travel is paid, and the fees are really great,” he said.
Where’s the ‘exchange’?
So the Pittsburgh Symphony travels to Europe frequently, as it has promised its conductor it would. Do European or other American orchestras come here, too? Here’s a story about that, and, yes, it’s a recruiting story.
The Pittsburgh orchestra used to have a fund to present great orchestras from the U.S. and Europe in concert in the 1990s, later discontinued for economic reasons. Besides hosting orchestras from Cleveland and Chicago, Pittsburgh welcomed the Oslo Philharmonic with its then-music director Maris Jansons.
This was no coincidence — the Pittsburgh Symphony had its eye on poaching Jansons to be its music director. As soon as the concert ended, Mr. Moir said the PSO whisked Jansons away, wining and dining him on top of Mount Washington at the home of a board member with several Pittsburgh Symphony musicians in attendance.
Later, Jansons would accept the post of Pittsburgh’s music director and served from 1997-2004.
Jeremy Reynolds: email@example.com or 412-263-1634; twitter: @Reynolds_PG. His work at the Post-Gazette is supported in part by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.