Manfred Honeck received his musical training at the Academy of Music in Vienna. First, he was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera as a viola player. Later he became the assistant conductor of Claudio Abbado, from that point on, he became more and more successful and turned out to be a well-known conductor all over the world. He has served as the music director of several orchestras, today he is the leading conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He is also proud of being the father of six children and the grandfather of eight grandchildren. At the end of April, he is conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra three times at the Liszt Academy, Budapest.
How do you prepare for your concerts with the Budapest Festival Orchestra?
Manfred Honeck: I have conducted these musical pieces many times, so the preparation is rather about refreshing my knowledge and memories. However, I am very curious about working together with musicians I do not know. Each and every performance is a challenge for me. Whenever I step on stage, I intend to create something new, even if we are playing a frequently-played musical piece.
Have you ever heard the BFO playing?
M.H.: Until now, I only heard of them, but I didn’t meet them. But everything I know about this orchestra is pretty good and inspiring, so I am very excited about our project. Those who know and have already conducted the BFO is really enthusiastic about them. I am always full of energy when I meet an ensemble I haven’t conducted before. I can’t wait to meet them! Not to speak of the programme of the concert, since Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky is one of my favourites.
If we take a closer look at the programme, it is hard to find a connection between the musical pieces of Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Mozart. Is it good or bad from the aspect of the concert’s success?
M.H.: For me the most important aspect is whether the music is good or not. It might be the case the other conductors think differently. At the same time, you are right that it is nice to find some connection between the different pieces of the repertoire. When I think of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony, it is clear that the motif of faith is a central idea in it. The composer himself said that the introducing idea, on which he built up the whole work is faith or destiny which always stands in our way when we are seeking for happiness. This concert opens with the overture of Verdi’s opera “La forza del destino”. This seems to be a very strong connection for me. On top of all this, both Verdi and Tchaikovsky adored Mozart which is understandable, especially in the lives of opera composers. Between the overture and the symphony, we can listen to Mozart’s piano concerto in C major, which was the special wish of my friend Leif Ove Andsnes, as we never performed it together, although it is very close and important to him and to me as well. This was the very first musical piece of my conducting career, so I will never forget it. When I am listening to Leif Ove playing it with such grace and air, I think this is the most beautiful piano piece ever written.
Mozart composed a considerable number of piano concertos within two years, in the same period when The Marriage of Figaro was written. Does the atmosphere or mood of this opera effect this specific concerto?
M.H.: This might be the case. As for operas, there are many similarities in the works of Mozart and Verdi. I can feel something like this in the second movement of the piano concerto which is wonderful and overwhelming. Poetic, harmonious, light and serious at the same time.
As you mentioned it before, you have worked together with Leif Ove Andsnes several times. Where did you meet?
M. H.: Of course, we know each other very well and we really like working together. I met him in Norway when I was a guest conductor at the Oslo Philharmonics. He already was an internationally acclaimed pianist and got many invitations from all over the world. I was lucky enough to enjoy many of his wonderful performances and I conducted many concerts with his playing the solo. Leif Ove is an international star today.
You started your musical career as a violinist.
M.H.: Yes, I played the violin for a long time, then I switched to the viola, which was very close to me, but finally conducting turned out to be the most important form of making music.
Why did you choose the baton instead of the viola?
M.H.: Because I realised that by playing only one instrument, I cannot contribute to the success of the concert as much as I wish to. Of course, it is wonderful to play the piano, the flute or the cello, but if you want to create something grandiose, the most colourful instrument is the whole orchestra.
As a conductor you feel that you can play all the instruments at the same time?
M.H.: Exactly! That’s what I feel. I try to place myself into the movements of the musicians and if I succeed, we can create unbelievable things together. Therefore, I will never regret that I left my viola for the sake of the baton. But it is true that my experiences with my instrument helps me a lot in conducting and feeling what the musicians feel.
You won many awards all around the world. This proves that it was worth changing.
M.H.: Yes, this really seems to be a good feedback. As I get older and the members of the orchestra are always younger, I feel more and more that I found my place. You know, conductors live long, sometimes too long…I am just joking (he is laughing), but that’s why I think that I am lucky because this way I get closer and closer to understand and enjoy the core of music. Because each time you give a concert you grow with it. So, if you see that the one conducting Beethoven or Tchaikovsky has silver hair, most probably it will be a good performance.