An Impressive Display of Quiet Strength

Honeck conducted a program of Strauss, Webern and Beethoven.
Honeck conducted a program of Strauss, Webern and Beethoven. (By Toshiyuki Urano -- Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Via Associated Press)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

On paper, the current program of the National Symphony Orchestra looked like a whole lot of lushness: the outpourings of the youngish Richard Strauss ("Ein Heldenleben") and the very young Anton Webern (the efflorescent late-romantic "Im Sommerwind") framing Beethoven's first piano concerto. It could have been cloying; that it wasn't, last night, was thanks to Manfred Honeck's bracing conducting.

The next music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck is one of a number of mid-career conductors with fine reputations in Europe and little name recognition in America who aspire to be a force in this country's musical life. His name sometimes is mentioned together with that of Jaap van Zweden, who will take over in Dallas, and even Franz Welser-Moest, music director of the august Cleveland Orchestra, as more or less unfamiliar 40-somethings with possibly significant roles to play.

On Thursday, Honeck appeared a Kapellmeister in the best sense, that is, an orchestra leader with a fine pair of ears and a thorough grounding in the score who is more interested in exploring details than in flashy showmanship. No faking here: His signature was not crashing fortes but breathtakingly quiet pianissimos, and there is certainly no place to hide behind a pianissimo. The Webern not only grew out of silence but also maintained it; while many orchestras tend to default to mezzo-forte, Honeck evidently is able to sustain long passages of mezzo-piano. He brought to the music a sense of hair-trigger precision that the orchestra wasn't always able fully to respond to; the horns, in particular, were audibly taxed by trying to keep as quiet as he wanted them.

"Im Sommerwind" is one of those late-romantic works that represent the misspent youth of the Second Viennese School. Found in Webern's papers after his death and not premiered until 1962, its overblown tonality hardly gives a foretaste of the spare, 12-tone miniatures that represent the composer's mature output. Interestingly, Honeck identified the spirit of Webern like the silver lining in this beautiful cloud. His reading delved into the score and found within it the silences, the spotlights on different timbres and textures, the moments of individuality, making something quirky and intimate out of what is usually a lavish quarter-hour of music.

The Beethoven opened with the same precision and dynamic shading; but it was in this piece that the orchestra felt most mushy, like a slightly fallen souffle, as it failed fully to respond. Honeck was also an interesting partner for the soloist, Ingrid Fliter, the 34-year-old Argentine pianist who has drawn much attention and many rapturous reviews since becoming the fifth winner of the prestigious Gilmore Award in 2006. Fliter marched onstage with the same open, rapid directness she brought to her playing: a loud fluid force and slight sense of messiness (there were a number of minor but striking stumbles) that sometimes made Honeck's carefulness read as restraint by contrast. While an impressive musician, she seemed slightly uncentered.

"Ein Heldenleben" is a ne plus ultra of big orchestral pieces, its massive forces used in a large-scale glorification of the artist's life. Shocking in its day, it is now all too often only pleasing to the ear. Honeck pulled out the stops and showed that he can deal well with big sound, ruling the massed forces of the fourth-movement battle scene. And yet even here the most interesting parts involved individuals spotlighted against the crowd. This was particularly clear in the third movement, "The Hero's Helpmate," a portrait of Strauss's wife, Pauline, that involves an extended violin solo: Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, gave a wonderfully nuanced picture, now lyrical, now a little strident, now digging into the low notes, creating a well-rounded image of the notoriously difficult Pauline. The final movement returns to this figure, joining solo violin and brass, and despite the emphatic conclusion from the full orchestra, it seemed to be the individuals who had the last word.

The performance will be repeated today and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

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