Pittsburgh SO, Celebrating 120th, Honors Directors

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Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony pose for a group portrait on stage at Heinz Hall in 2014. Photo: Michael Sahaida
The Pittsburgh Symphony and music director Manfred Honek pose for a group portrait onstage at Heinz Hall in 2014.
(Photo by Michael Sahaida)
By Robert Croan

PITTSBURGH — “We need not be ashamed to take this orchestra to New York….It is the best orchestra, with the exception of possibly the Boston Symphony, in the United States.” These words are taken from a quote by Andrew Carnegie in the Pittsburgh Post (not yet the Post-Gazette) on Nov. 18, 1899, when the Pittsburgh Orchestra, as it was called then, was only three years old and its music director was Victor Herbert.

The opening concert, on Feb. 27, 1896, had taken place in the city’s Carnegie Music Hall under the baton of Frederick Archer, a British musician better known locally as an organist, who brought in members of the Boston Symphony to supplement and support the local players. The Pittsburgh Orchestra had 50 players, a small number by today’s standards but quite ambitious for a city of Pittsburgh’s size at that time.

Victor Herbert was the Pittsburgh Symphony's first official music director.
Victor Herbert was the Pittsburgh Orchestra’s first official music director.

This week, on the 120th anniversary (to the day) of that occasion, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will play a special concert under its current music director, Manfred Honeck, in the original venue, which is still used as a concert hall.

For its 100th anniversary, in 1996, the orchestra — with its music director at the time, Lorin Maazel — recreated the opening concert in Carnegie Music Hall. The original program began with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony (paying homage to benefactor Carnegie, who was a Scotsman) and ended with Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi. Concerts were longer in those days: the orchestra also played a Rigaudon from Rameau’s Dardanus, Saint-Saëns’ Marche héroïque, and Massenet’s Scenes pittoresques. In addition, soprano Emma Juch sang Beethoven’s concert aria “Ah perfido!” and Liszt’s lied “Die Lorelei.”

This year, under Honeck, the orchestra will feature three soloists from its ranks — French hornist William Caballero, trumpeter George Vosburgh, and tubist Craig Knox — in a movement from a concerto written for them in 2011 by past music director André Previn. Guest artist Jennifer Koh will play a segment from Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Most of the works on the program have some significance in the orchestra’s history.

While Maazel chose to repeat the entire opening program, Honeck is offering only one piece from that occasion, the little march by Saint-Saëns. He is including, however, the 13-minute Dedication March by Pittsburgh native Adolph Martin Foerster and the Festival March by Herbert. Foerster’s work was rejected by Archer for the opening concert. He is said to have been an unpleasant man who denigrated American composers and dismissed Foerster, saying, “Of course, he is not a Saint-Saëns.” Foerster’s music did find its way into the Pittsburgh Orchestra’s repertory later on. Herbert was popular from the start as a conductor, classical composer, and composer of the operettas that were to make his name a household word.

Manfred Honeck, the orchestra's current music director. (Felix Broede)
Manfred Honeck, the orchestra’s current music director. (Felix Broede)

This week’s program includes excerpts from works that were on the first concerts of three past music directors: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (William Steinberg), Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (Maazel), and Bernstein’s Divertimento for Orchestra (Mariss Jansons). There is also Johann Strauss’ “Artist’s Life” Waltz, which had been associated with Herbert, who played in Strauss’ own orchestra in Vienna, and with subsequent conductors who like to include the piece in their holiday concerts.

Herbert was the orchestra’s first official music director, a post he held from 1898 to 1904. Emil Paur followed, remaining until 1910, when the upcoming season was canceled for insufficient funds. The orchestra was disbanded until 1926, when it was relocated to Oakland’s Syria Mosque. Antonio Modarelli was named music director in 1930, remaining until 1937. Fritz Reiner took over from 1938-48. Among other things, Reiner was the first music director to hire female musicians, beginning in 1942. It was under Reiner that Maazel first conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony as a 13-year-old prodigy in 1944 and played in the violin section (1948-52).

The conductor who had the longest tenure as music director was Steinberg (1952-76). In September 1971, the orchestra moved from Syria Mosque to Heinz Hall, a remodeled former movie palace, downtown.

Previn replaced Steinberg in 1976, his attraction including his relative youth and credentials from the worlds of Hollywood and jazz. At first, Previn was praised for cleaning up the orchestra’s sound, which had deteriorated in Steinberg’s last years due to his ill health. Previn’s connections to popular music, however, were a mixed blessing, and he was at times accused of being a lightweight. There was also friction between Previn and management.

Lorin Maazel played in the orchestra in the 1940s and later served as music director.
Lorin Maazel served as music director from 1988 to 1996.

In 1984, Previn left precipitously after acrimonious disagreements with the board and then manager Marshall Turkin. Maazel was hired as an interim “musical adviser,” eventually serving as music director from 1988 to 1996. Maazel further improved the quality of the playing and cemented the orchestra’s reputation as a world-class ensemble. There was a smooth transition when Maazel was succeeded by Jansons, who stayed from 1997-2004. Jansons maintained the orchestra’s quality and reputation, but expressed disappointment that, even with the orchestra’s high repute, it was hard to fill Heinz Hall for week-to-week subscription concerts.

On Jansons’ departure, there was no immediate successor in sight, and the board appointed a triumvirate of conductors — Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Marek Janowski — to bridge the gap. This lasted until Honeck was appointed music director, starting in 2008.

Honeck, whose contract has since been extended to 2020, was one of the recent top contenders for the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic that went to Jaap van Zweden. The Austrian-born conductor has proved popular with players and audiences alike, although audience building remains a problem in this city.

Honeck, 58, had played in orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, under past Pittsburgh music directors Previn, Maazel, and Jansons. Although he is European by training and temperament, he has brought a degree of enthusiasm and civic pride to the local orchestra that was not always evident in past directors. Honeck’s own words, quoted in a history of the orchestra by Hax McCullough and Mary Brignano, echo the sentiments expressed above by its earliest benefactor, Carnegie: “My wish is…for people in Pittsburgh to recognize that the Pittsburgh Symphony is one of the best orchestras in the United States and of the world.”

Robert Croan is senior editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

William Steinberg, the orchestra's longest-serving music director, conducted on tour in Baalbek in 1964.
William Steinberg, the orchestra’s longest-serving music director, conducting on tour in Baalbek in 1964.