Dvořák, Honegger, Gershwin
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra remains in great sound. On the podium tonight, Manfred Honeck, the Austrian-born conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who previously played violin in the Vienna Philharmonic, made a triumphant return to the Musikverein.
Honeck flipped the order of the pieces around from the traditional concert design, starting with the symphony, then a concerto, and concluding with a shorter rousing work, placing the three works in strict chronological order of composition. Dvořák’s Symphony #8 opened the program, Honeck giving it an especially dramatic reading, nursing the melodic lines while bringing out quite a bit more tension than normal while contrasting those lines against each other. The orchestra responded with lush resonances, but although they clearly understood what he wanted they must not have rehearsed fully with him (this despite having performed the same program at a concert last night), as evidenced by a number of missed cues or failures to release notes together. Honeck is a very diminutive person, and so it also could be that they simply had trouble seeing him, although he did wave his arms around above his head as if to signal “I’m over here!!!”
The concert’s mood changed completely after the break. Indeed, I heard no connection at all between the two halves. Honegger’s Cello Concerto and Gershwin’s American in Paris clearly went together – works conceived in Paris by a Swiss and an American, respectively (although Gershwin apparently finished writing his work in Vienna) but having little thematically to do with Dvořák’s Czech folksong-inspired symphony. Honegger’s concerto married the Swiss composer’s interest in baroque and classical-era composers with the 1920s Parisian jazz idiom, especially catchy in the first movement’s variation on what sounded quite familiar – indeed, although the program notes did not identify it, it sounded peculiarly like a work by Weber better known through variations in a different style later written by Hindemith. The young German cellist Maximilian Hornung carried off these lively and invocative juxtapositions well, blending back into the orchestra where necessary and then emerging with the next thoughtful phrase.
Gershwin’s American in Paris brought the concert to a triumphant conclusion, the audience absorbed by its humorous orchestration. The 1930s car horns especially provoked broad smiles, not only from the public but from the percussionists tasked with bringing the city to life. They clearly had fun with this. During the applause, Honeck awarded them a sectional bow, but they did not see him waving at them, so he climbed up onto a higher platform and waved again, still without success. The brass passed along the message and they got their bow in the end. Poor Honeck, who conducted well, clearly needs a much higher conducting platform to remain in the orchestra’s line of vision.