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Photo courtesy BSO

LENOX -- In retrospect, Manfred Honeck was glad his father made him learn to play the zither.

As a boy of 9 in the small town of Nenzing in western Austria, the conductor recalls, he was taking violin lessons, learning to be precise and rhythmic. The village zither teacher couldn’t care less. He couldn’t read music.

Being "a little bit arrogant" at that age, Honeck protested that he was being asked to do things that weren’t in the printed music. The teacher told him just play the music -- it’s what’s behind the notes that counts, not the notes themselves.

So Honeck played polkas, waltzes, minuets and other folk airs with a villager’s musical instincts. When he first heard a Mahler symphony, at age 14 in Berlin, he was shocked -- first by the "volume of sound and the power and energy." But also, he says, he was surprised to hear things he had played on his zither.

That was the early education of a Mahler conductor.

It is Mahler’s monumental Second, "Resurrection," Symphony that Honeck will conduct at Tanglewood Saturday night. Soprano Camilla Tilling and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly will join the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the concert-length work.

In his Tanglewood debut, Honeck will do two BSO programs, replacing Christoph von Dohnanyi. Tonight, Honeck leads a Beethoven-Mozart Mendelssohn program with Paul Lewis as piano soloist.


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Now the director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck has written a penetrating essay about the Mahler Second for the Pittsburgh program book. In it, he says the Second expresses Mahler’s "great yearning for answers regarding the sense of life and death as well as the question of the afterlife."

By phone from his home in Altach, also in western Austria, Honeck expanded on the idea.

All of Mahler’s nine symphonies, songs and the symphonic "Song of the Earth," he said, are concerned with "the conflict and the question, what happens, how do we live here?" Out of such thoughts, he added, "Mahler could create a picture about the society, about the way the people lived in the time in the music."

As Honeck spoke, his six children and four grandchildren were gathering for a family get-together. He speaks fluent English with an Austrian accent.

Honeck, 55, studied violin in Vienna and played in the Vienna Philharmonic and the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, the company that Mahler directed for 10 years. Honeck went on to direct European orchestras and the Stuttgart Opera before going to Pittsburgh in 2008.

He found another early affinity with Mahler. Mahler grew up in the small town of Kalischt in Bohemia. In Honeck’s hometown, he was immersed in a similar milieu and the music -- among it he cites funeral marches and dances -- that came with the milieu.

Mahler was born a Jew but converted to Catholicism to keep his job in Vienna. Honeck, a devout Catholic, hears no sectarian message in the symphonic promise of resurrection. He noted that Jews and Christians lived close together in Kalischt, and Mahler’s music embraces both traditions.

"He took all the music which happened at that time into his composing world," Honeck said.

Death and resurrection became a perennial theme. Later in life, Honeck pointed out, Mahler’s personal troubles -- the infidelity of his wife Alma, the early death of his daughter Maria, the forced resignation from the Vienna Opera, and the heart problems that caused his death at 50 -- gave the theme a deeper turn.

On a cheerier note, the conductor noted that his brother Rainer, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, will join him in Pittsburgh in April as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto. It’s a first in America for the brothers.

Boston had better watch out. Berlin has its eye on Andris Nelsons.

In a report from Tanglewood on Nelsons’ opening weekend, the German TV-radio network Deutsche Welle suggested that Nelsons, whose BSO contract runs until 2019, might also be the successor to Simon Rattle when he retires as director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018.

"America is not alone for him," declared the headline over the anonymous dispatch, posted (in German) on the network’s website. Though Nelsons likes the "creamy" sound of the BSO, he also likes the dark, more intense sound of the Berliners, the report said. Much in demand in Europe, he has guest-conducted the Philharmonic many times.

Still beating the drums, the writer recounted an interview with the BSO’s incoming director:

"He explains that the question of Boston or Berlin has not yet been settled, since the succession to Simon Rattle will be clarified in the next year. Yet he will exclude nothing. Two orchestras on two continents, why not?"

BSO management might have an answer to that.