Manfred Honeck

Europe in the genes, America in the heart

Manfred Honeck, chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, on the traditions and peculiarities of American orchestras.

In August, not one but three great American orchestras – from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cleveland – are giving guest performances in the Elbphilharmonie. Finally some trans-Atlantic visitors, after the long coronavirus drought! As well as looking forward to some amazing concert experiences, this is also a great chance to discover the specific peculiarities that are often attributed to US orchestras. But are they actually true? We asked the Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck, who has been music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2008.

Manfred Honeck, you have long been conducting orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic. Is there such a thing as the typical American orchestral sound?

In the past, people would probably have meant two things by that: incredible precision and loud brass. Like a machine, impressive but also a little cold. But I’ve become very careful about generalisations of this kind. Firstly, there have been huge developments: the sound of the Chicago Symphony, for example, has changed a lot under Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti. Secondly, the differences between the individual orchestras are just too great. In the USA it’s no different than in Europe – the Vienna Philharmonic sounds very different to the Berlin Philharmonic. That’s what makes it so exciting! And thirdly, there’s never one uniform sound: a Beethoven will always sound different to a Tchaikovsky.

How does the sound of an orchestra actually come about?

It’s shaped over years, or even decades, by the chief conductors and their personalities. Take my orchestra in Pittsburgh, for example: my direct predecessors were Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons, each of whom led the orchestra for eight years. I’ve been there for 14 years by now, and of course, I too try to realise my ideas. Those ideas arise from my background and my musical development in Vienna, from the traditions of Austrian folk music, Viennese Classicism, Romanticism and all the way to Gustav Mahler. How exactly do you play a ländler folk dance with its rhythmical freedoms? Mahler said: »The most important thing in music isn’t in the notes.« I see it as my mission to pass on this knowledge.

About Manfred Honeck

Manfred Honeck
Manfred Honeck © Felix Broede

It’s striking how American orchestras love to import conductors from Europe. Five conductors who were all born in Budapest played a huge part in the rise of the American classical music scene after the Second World War: Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, George Szell and Antal Doráti. Today, the chief conductors are called Riccardo Muti, Andris Nelsons, Franz Welser-Möst and Manfred Honeck.

Of course, Europe was the birthplace of classical music. And after the USA became constituted as a nation, there was a great need to promote art and to breathe life into it with advisors from the motherland of music. The best example is Antonín Dvořák, whom the New York Conservatory engaged as its director in 1892 – with the explicit task of creating an American music. Later, the two world wars led a number of European artists to emigrate to the USA, where they helped shape cultural life. However, the profound desire to dive deep and to truly understand the European musical tradition has endured to this day. And so I have the incredible luck to be working with outstandingly trained musicians who are both enthusiastic and incredibly eager to learn more.

Manfred Honeck mit dem Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra
Manfred Honeck mit dem Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra © Unbezeichnet

In this age of globalisation, do the members of your orchestra still mainly come from the US?

Yes, the vast majority of the musicians come from the US and studied here. However, many of them have European, South American or Asian roots.

Quite a few special traditions and characteristics have emerged over the years. For example, you have the »American« orchestra seating, where the string players are arranged in ascending order from left to right: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, double basses – in contrast to the »traditional German« seating…

…where the first and second violins sit opposite each other, with the cellos and violas between them. Which produces a kind of stereo effect, with the second violins coming through much more clearly. Every composer from the age of Viennese Classicism to the beginning of the 20th century wrote for this seating arrangement as a matter of course. That’s why I’ve introduced it in Pittsburgh for this repertoire. And that’s how we will perform in the Elbphilharmonie too. The American seating emerged in the 1920s, presumably with the advent of the record industry. When recording with a single microphone, it made more sense to have the high instruments on one side and the deep ones on the other. It’s also easier when the orchestra is arranged like the score. And when the first and second violins play the same voice in unison, it is, of course, much easier to play together when they’re sitting next to each other. Here we see the ideal of precision again, which became a higher priority in the age of sound recordings. But of course, we also take the specific acoustics of the respective concert hall into consideration when deciding on the seating arrangement.

American orchestra seating

American orchestra seating American orchestra seating © Shutterstock

German orchestra seating

German orchestra seating German orchestra seating © Shutterstock

There are similar differences with instruments: the German trumpet with rotary valves and the American trumpet with piston valves. Does this make such a big difference to the sound?

Oh yes, definitely. The German model sounds softer, more like a horn, while the American one is more brilliant. Piston valves are also better for blurring notes, like in jazz, when you want a slightly dirty sound. We’re flexible and simply use the type that’s most suitable in each case: the German model for Brahms and Bruckner, the American one for Stravinsky and Bernstein.

So you actually have the advantage of versatility, in contrast to European orchestras, where the American version is completely frowned upon.

Exactly, although an appreciation of the additional sound possibilities is also gradually developing in Europe. Incidentally, this is also true in jazz: the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis recently told me that he uses a range of different trumpets depending on the kind of sound he wants to produce.

The German vs. American trumpet

Matthias Höfs with a German trumpet

Matthias Höfs Matthias Höfs © Unbezeichnet

Louis Armstrong with an American trumpet

Louis Armstrong, 1953 Louis Armstrong, 1953 © Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Another difference: in Europe, the whole orchestra comes onto an empty stage together, to audience applause, at the start of the concert. In the USA, the musicians are usually already sitting on stage warming up, or they shuffle in one by one. Only the conductor gets to make a real entrance with applause, and perhaps also the concertmaster before that. Why is that?

Well, the concertmaster’s solo entrance underlines their special status in the orchestra, which dates back to a time when there were no conductors. There could be many reasons for the orchestra’s scattered entrance: many musicians want to work on their most difficult passages in the hall until the last minute. And for the woodwinds especially, it’s important that the instruments have time to adapt to the temperature in the concert hall, where it’s usually warmer than backstage.

That’s also true in Europe. But maybe there’s more air-conditioning backstage in the USA…

[Laughs] Yes, that’s certainly true! Ok, there is another reason, which I shouldn’t really tell you about. The key word here is »overtime«. In America, the orchestra trade unions are very powerful, and rehearsal and concert times are very precisely specified. If we go over those times by even a minute, it can quickly cost us a few thousand dollars in additional fees. So we save a few minutes by not having the orchestra make an entrance at the beginning – the concert can just start straight away. More time for the music.

It’s incredible what kind of prosaic concerns are involved.

Yes, although to me that doesn’t matter at all. For me, it’s important for artistic and human reasons that the musicians are happy. And if they like warming up on stage before the concert, then they should do that.

Final topic: the repertoire. Is it true that the boundary between classical music and film music, jazz and pop is much more porous in America than in Europe?

Oh yes. In Pittsburgh we even have a Principal Pops Conductor, a position currently held by the jazz trumpeter Byron Stripling.

Really? It’s impossible to imagine the Vienna Philharmonic doing that.

Absolutely. [Grins] I remember, when I was in Vienna, Leonard Bernstein conducting his »Divertimento«. Understanding his style was a huge adjustment for us. In Pittsburgh, our highest-profile long-standing Pops Conductor was Marvin Hamlisch, who composed the musical »A Chorus Line«, the theme song to the Bond film »The Spy Who Loved Me« and numerous songs for Barbra Streisand. The great John Williams conducted for us only recently. Our musicians play pop, jazz and film music fantastically well, and these kinds of forays are a tremendous enrichment for the sound culture and stylistic flexibility overall. Here too you see that the basis is profoundly European, but love for one’s own country and traditions is at least as important.

Interview: Clemens Matuschek, Version: 1.7.2022

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