Wednesday, January 24, 2007


FROM Bob Lauver
Every once in a while the stars align and things are truly amazing to behold. The Simmons family gave us cause to feel positive about the future of the PSO, generously giving and creating a framework for others to do their part….and today we received news that we’ll have a new music director in 2008….we got Manfred Honeck! I’ve written a couple of things about his weeks here with the PSO and I’m looking forward to many more posts about the effect this guy is going to have on us (I have joyfully high expectations). But that doesn’t come close to conveying the extent of the happiness that I’m feeling. About the only thing that comes close is the Snoopy dance (I confess I did my own little rendition of it when I was out of public view). Another thing that I’ll admit is I have a hard time focusing on good things because I fear they will disappear before I’m ready to let go, but for this news I will celebrate….openly and repeatedly.

After Maestro Honeck’s last visit here I went up to Bob Moir and said, “In my opinion we ought to be doing anything that we can to get him here.” I don’t think my perspective is any more valuable than anybody else’s, but if I saw him get a Music Directorship with another orchestra instead of us I would’ve wondered if my complacency had some role in it. I know that Honeck wouldn’t come here if he didn’t want to, but I give a huge amount of credit to Bob Moir and the great work he does for us day in and day out. That’s a guy who obviously loves his job…..and he’s great at it.

As I’ve said before, Maestro Honeck’s rehearsal style is really intense. He is in such command of the music in front of him that he doesn’t need a score even for the first rehearsal (except for Reza Vali's "The Being of Love" that he conducted with us). His demeanor on the podium is one of musical energy, enthusiasm, and respect. I remember a moment in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia when we had a rehearsal for the program we were about to play there. Honeck wasn’t convinced that we were playing our softest pianissimo. Instead of delivering a dismissive negative comment, he paused in silence and looked up toward the ceiling high above us. Then he asked if we heard the faintest buzzing coming from the lights up there (I think it was an e-flat). When he heard the murmur from the orchestra that meant “yes, we hear it” he responded, “Play softer than that”. The result was astounding. There’s nothing like the sound of an orchestra when everybody on stage understands the goal and plays an equal part in achieving it. The future holds many more of these experiences for us all, I hope everybody takes full advantage; it’s going to be a special time.

The announcement came suddenly as I’m sure things of such a sensitive nature need to. I traveled to the hall with two of my colleagues and we speculated as to what the announcement could be, and we all agreed that this would be the best possible reason to be coming in to Heinz Hall for special news. When the announcement was made there was a spontaneous shout and a standing ovation (which I dutifully recorded with my camcorder and hope to post on this blog soon). The applause went on and on until Maestro Honeck held up his hands and got everybody to be seated again. His first words were, “I’m so happy ladies and gentlemen that you react on my sign.” As funny as that was, it hits on one of the reasons that I think that this new relationship is going to be so special. This orchestra likes to work hard. We’re eager to be challenged and we don’t shy away from getting to the details of a work, and I think that Honeck is the perfect compliment for that work ethic.

I didn’t make it to the toast after the announcement in the Mozart room at Heinz Hall, the horn section had an outreach event scheduled that we needed to leave for. So here I am raising my glass………<>

PSO picks Austrian conductor as music director

From Post Gazette

By Andrew Druckenbrod

Less than a calendar year after debuting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conductor Manfred Honeck has been selected to lead it.

The PSO has hired the Austrian conductor as its music director, making it official last night at a board meeting, which Mr. Honeck attended.

Mr. Honeck, 48, will succeed the trio of conductors now providing artistic leadership for the orchestra. His three-year contract begins in fall 2008, when the contracts of conductors Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Marek Janowski expire. Terms were not disclosed.

"It is with great joy that I assume the post of music director of one of the world's finest orchestras," said Mr. Honeck yesterday in a statement. "It is no exaggeration to say that the orchestra and I got on like a house on fire. Right from our first encounter, I realized that with these highly professional and motivated musicians, it would be possible to convey a vivid message much needed in today's world of classical music."

Mr. Honeck will lead the orchestra in eight weeks of concerts in his first season, and 10 in subsequent seasons. He also will conduct several tours in Europe, including a return in 2010 to Vienna's famed Musikverein, the hall that gave him his start as a violinist years ago.

"In taking our time to assess the needs of the PSO, we have concluded that a strong, central leader is important to enhancing the artistic excellence of this orchestra," said Larry Tamburri, PSO president. "We have found that leader in Manfred Honeck, and we are exceedingly happy to welcome him."
"I think this is going to be great," said William Caballero, PSO principal horn player and a member of the search committee. Mr. Caballero points to Mr. Honeck's auspicious debut in May at Heinz Hall. "The chemistry was very evident between the orchestra and Honeck and the audience. From that point on, he stayed in the front of our mind."

He may have been on the minds of the Pittsburgh musicians, but Mr. Honeck is not a "name" conductor. But neither was Mariss Jansons, who until his departure in 2003 was the last person to hold the music director title.

"When we got Mariss, he was not known," former PSO head Gideon Toeplitz recalled recently. "I had to spell his name to people for quite a while."

That hire proved to be one of the best in PSO history, and the orchestra feels it again has caught lightning in a bottle.

Dick Simmons, chairman of the board of trustees and a major PSO benefactor, said, "In the 16 years I have been associated with this orchestra, I have never heard the overwhelming endorsement of a conductor by the musicians, and that includes some pretty high-level conductors."

Certainly Mr. Jansons is excited about the hire. "Manfred Honeck is a profound musician and a wonderful human being," he said. "He is a superb choice."

Rare is the review that doesn't praise the musicality and talent of Mr. Honeck. Under his baton, the PSO produced a thrilling sound but one that was attentive to musical detail. He seems to have the best of the traits of a showman and a musician.

After several appearances with the PSO, the musicians also said it was the way he communicated his ideas that was most impressive.

"He has the ability to be insistent on a result without being negative in any way," wrote Robert Lauver, PSO horn player, on his symphony blog on Nov. 23, after Honeck's most recent concert at Heinz Hall. "He speaks softly (on purpose, I believe) and requires the orchestra to be quiet and attentive to hear what he is saying. ... It takes a leader to pull that off with such grace."

The Washington Post called Mr. Honeck's conducting of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Centre its "Single Best Orchestral Concert in 2001."

In recent years, other critics have concurred in their praise. The Guardian called him "the model of good taste." The Times of London wrote: "The impressive thing about Honeck was not his showmanship but his subtlety." The New York Times praised Mr. Honeck for drawing "a lively, supple and elegant performance from all." And the Boston Herald wrote: "The Austrian-born conductor, making his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut ... impressed greatly with a rigorously intellectual program. He will be invited back."

Mr. Honeck recently relinquished his post at the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, allowing him to focus on the Stuttgart Opera, the PSO and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (where he will be principal guest conductor for the 2008-09 season). He also has held positions at the MDR Symphony Orchestra Leipzig and the Oslo Philharmonic.

Guest appearances have included Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Born in 1958 in the small town of Nenzing, in the mountainous region of Austria, Mr. Honeck knew he wanted to be a conductor at 13 while attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert.

"In this moment I got the inner vision that either I would be a member of the Philharmonic or get to be the conductor," he told the Post-Gazette in November.

After graduating from the Academy of Music in Vienna, he soon achieved both of those goals with that famed orchestra, first as a violinist, then as a violist, then as a guest conductor. His brother, Rainer, is concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Along the way, he studied with Claudio Abbado, performed under Leonard Bernstein and in general soaked up music from the many eminent conductors leading the Philharmonic.

"I call all of these conductors my teachers," he told the Post-Gazette.
Mr. Honeck grew up in a family of nine children, and he and his wife, Christiane, have six of their own, ages 5 to 25. They live in Altach, Austria.
While name value means little if the chemistry between music director and orchestra is scintillating, it does have an effect on touring. One of the biggest concerns among the PSO and industry pundits had been whether Mr. Honeck had the reputation to command European dates, since these are based on selling tickets and the personal connections of maestros. The PSO's administrators have stated that touring to the world's top stages is essential to being a world-class orchestra.

With a tour already confirmed to the holiest of classical music sites, the Musikverein, and others in the works (the BBC Proms likely among them), it appears these concerns have been at least partially met.

"In Europe, he is very much a rising star," Mr. Tamburri said. "We look forward with a lot of enthusiasm to introducing him to America."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Frugal with Froogle

Usually I don't buy CDs in bulk. The pleasure of finding treasurable CDs at reasonable price can only be obtained through patience and luck. In general, I don't mind those re-issued CDs. After all, it is the music I am looking for, not the cover or manufacturer.

But when CDs which are usually marked for more than 15 dollars are sold for a little bit more than THREE dollars, I have no intention to be frugal.

When I searched Thomas Quasthoff CDs from Froogle last week, I found out J&R were selling them for two dollars. After a few keywords search, I effortlessly found several other for two dollars each. I grabbed ten at one time, the bill said 31 dollars including 2-day UPS shipping when I checked out.

It turned out that J&R mispriced those CDs. When I went back after about two hours, those CDs went up to $12.99.

Somehow I regreted that I only got ten CDs, but the order probably would have been canceled if I had been more aggressive.

Thanks J&R for their keeping order through.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The fates of music halls

When we came back from Severance Hall to Downtown of Cleveland, fog rolled in from the lake like walls of one thousand veils. Suddenly, air became weighty. I could not only breathe but also feel or touch it. Every skyscraper faded away, bringing the roads, only the roads to the center of the consciousness.

Euclid Avenue, the once wealthiest avenue in American history, has become a bumpy road sparsely filled with rows of some newly-built condos and office buildings. Only eight mansions survived through the turbulent Hough Riot in 1966. Luckily, Severance Hall, at the other end of the road, survived through those nights with unrelenting fire alarms.

Severance Hall was built in 1931, only twelve years junior than the Cleveland Orchestra. Artur RodziƄski was the first conductor on the stage. But it was George Szell who left his mark permanently in the music hall. Even though unlike the other bigger cities such as New York and Chicago, Cleveland didn't have city blocks named after its legendary maestros, George Szell’s influence to Cleveland is tremendous not only because he brought the middle-west medium-sized industrial city a world-class orchestra with pedigree European blood, but also because he changed stage shell physically in order to improve acoustic result.

Although the exterior of Severance Hall was designed to complement to the Art Museum in neoclassical form, from the entrance lobby to the auditorium room, the style gradually transitions to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In 1958, when facing the trade-off between aesthetic beauty and acoustic integrity, George Szell sided with the latter, putting his famous “Szell shell” over the stage which visually confronted with Art Deco interior. Today those ugly modern Szell shells have been replaced by material both visually and acoustically satisfying. But most of all, the glory and the history of the architecture are preserved with the ever-growing orchestra. Concertgoers, when entering the grand main lobby and see the restored shimmering golden hall, will sure agree with Alburn’s assertion that “Severance Hall is one of those singular and complete triumphs which come to an American community infrequently, if ever”.

Pittsburgh was not that lucky.

In late August of 1994, Syria Mosque, the original home for Pittsburgh Symphony was demolished when a group of activists were still protesting in front of bulldozers. Among them Sen. Jim Ferlo spent a night in jail for his last effort. He almost won this brutal battle because the demolition permit was obtained only two hours before the building’s historical landmark nomination.

Although most agree that relocating the orchestra to culture district of downtown area is a wise move, it was surprising to know a building which cost $750,000 in 1916 would be torn down in modern time. It is true that Syria Mosque is huge and the sound is muffled in the over-sized music hall, but there was no reason that under scientific study such problems cannot be solved. If fact, Penn Theatre was scheduled to be demolished if Henry Heinz hadn’t stepped in and donated ten million dollars to preserve its Baroque and Rococo style and transformed it to Heinz Hall. The same money could have been used to hire Dr. Heinrich Keilholz, who directed the Heinz Hall transformation project, to improve Syria Mosque’s acoustics.

Syria Mosque saw the growth of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, from Fritz Reiner to William Steinberg, the latter, through decades, nurtured the orchestra to a world-class level. After the orchestra moved to Heinz Hall in 1971, Syria Mosque still held a lot of pop concerts and attracted vast amount of audience.

The raze of Syria Mosque can be regarded as a scandal resulted from shortsighted politician and ambitious University who has been seeking expanding ever since. Lorin Maazel, who graduated from University of Pittsburgh and was the music director in that turmoil period, saw the fall of the temple. To what extent his reaction was is hard to know, but in the same summer he declared that he would not renew his contract after 1996 season. A city that didn’t honor and treasure his glorious past can’t stand tall for its future.

More than 10 years after Syria Mosque was demolished, I walk by UPMC parking lot, where the temple used to be, almost everyday. Oakland, as the cultural and educational center to the city, has lost its architectural integrity and been disfigured by this ugliness of the land-wasting seas of parking lot.

More than 50 years ago, it was in the site of this parking lot that the unsurpassable Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos with Nathan Milstein were performed. It was a mono-recording. The sound captured reflects the amplitude of Syria Mosque vividly. Under Steinberg’s baton, there was a sense of pressing and forwarding, but the orchestra still kept its fluidity and flexibility. At the beginning of Beethoven violin concerto, timpani stretched far and deep and the reverberation of the string sections was held long like ocean waves. Then Milstein’s violin pierced through the stage, roaring in the air like an independent spirit, uninhibited.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hello, Mr. Fred Kirshnit, can you hear me now?

As a Pittsburgher, I feel surprised and proud at the same time when the title of Mr. Kirshnit's article "New York Drops Off the List Of ‘Big Five' Orchestras" grabbed my eyeball from Google search engine. What made the news special to me is not about NYPO, but actually PSO is now listed as one of the Big Five!

And the article was dated Dec 5, 2006! Still wet-inked!

Even when I talk with friends about current PSO, I try not to be too over-confident. It IS a great orchestra and can make marvelous music if it goes right.
But is it possible to even substitute NYPO?

I doubt.

Then after I followed the article, I was surprised to find out the author was still talking about Marriss Jansons. It is known to all that his leaving did not happen recently and also everyone agrees (though no one speak loud) that the trio-system is not the most successful way to manage an orchestra.
I begin to wonder who is Mr. Kirshnit and how many times he has been in Heinz Hall?

The latter question can be easily answered because he frequently quotes reviews from other critics as calibre measurement. I am wondering whether he has kept the records regarding the number of reviews, the authors, the dates and how positive they are. (The last one could be very difficult to quantify if it is possible.)

To compare performances of different orchestras by reading reviews from different critics, at different time and for different repertoire is totally ridiculous. Putting an orchestra into Big-Five list without listening to it in person is nonetheless irresponsible, even though the orchestra may mean a lot to Pittsburghers.

No wonder that Sibelius commented: "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Thought of Tower Record Liquidation

The fate of Tower Record (TR) is doomed from its root business ideal: deep catalogue; or its preference to variety contradicts to its dependency on profitability. Of course, there are some measures that could have been done, such as branching out online-business earlier and more aggressively, having sample-kiosks available earlier, etc; but there is no panacea for the ailing music retailer. When I stepped into TR branch in downtown Philadelphia one year ago, with myself the only customer in the classical section big enough to hold a ball, I knew its final due was coming.

When Russ Solomon began to sell records in his father’s Sacramento drugstore in 1960’s, what he saw was music passion and devotion in the baby boomer generation. What he didn’t see was the rising and the fall of music retailer business. At one time around mid-1990s, Solomon was named by Forbes as one of the richest men in USA, but TR’s declination came afterwards with hardly a pause. Ironically, the rising of TR lies on the same reason that it fell: locations, abundant staffing, and deep catalogue with imports and even out-of-print. But all these don’t matter any more when new business model was introduced by first online stores such as Amazon or eBay then later by iTune. There is no way to keep the same profit when retail stores hold the same exhaustive catalogue as a bunch of hard-drive disks in iTune server. Eventually the latter outsold TR in 2005, one year earlier than its final liquidation.

Sadly TR’s destination reflects somehow the same dire threat for classical industry. Music, as merchandise, is facing a new generation of consumers, a generation who are shaped by American Idol, youtube and the slim hard-drive called iPod. TR symbolizes a disappearing generation of pure-spirited music enthusiasts who value individualistic tastes and independent minds, and who enjoy involved ambience in social terms.