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Pittsburgh Symphony opener highlights unique works

| Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Manfred Honeck conducts the PIttsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck conducts the PIttsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Baritone Thomas Hampson
Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Baritone Thomas Hampson Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Pittsburgh Symphony principal horn William Caballero
Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Pittsburgh Symphony principal horn William Caballero Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck returns charged up to begin the season.

Yes, he had a very nice vacation in August with his whole family, including grandchildren. But artistic anticipation is the spur that will draw on those freshened reserves.

“I found the orchestra from the beginning on extremely inspired,” Honeck says. “It's wonderful to see how it keeps its identity and artistic standards.”

He notes his affection for the orchestra is shared by many of the world's greatest musicians. “When we finished our first run through of the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto with Yo-Yo (Ma), he stood up and said to the musicians, ‘You are amazing.' ”

Honeck will conduct the opening concerts of the BNY Mellon concert season Friday to Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The first half is by Richard Strauss: his Horn Concerto No. 1 played by principal horn William Caballero, and four Orchestral Songs performed by baritone Thomas Hampson. Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) completes the program.

Expect to see extra microphones over the stage because the Strauss concerto and Dvorak symphony will be recorded for commercial release.

Honeck is looking forward to performing again with Hampson, who was magnificent in February performances of Dvorak's Biblical Songs and Johannes Brahms “A German Requiem.”

“I've known him for a long time. He's a great friend and a great interpreter,” the conductor says.

The songs Hampson will sing are new to Honeck.

“I've done Strauss songs until now only with female voices. They are wonderful pieces. Now, I'll be in a new land, a little bit,” Honeck says. “As you know, I am a very great Mahler fan and most of the songs Mahler wrote I prefer with male voices because of the timbre and color of the words.”

Many music lovers know of Strauss' love for the female voice, especially because of his most famous opera “Der Rosenkavalier” with its three leading ladies. Hampson adds that, when Strauss toured America before World War I, he usually played piano at concerts for two singers — Elena Gerhardt or his wife, Pauline.

“In fact, I think he's just an extremely talented lyric writer. He wrote more songs over a longer time than most people realize,” Hampson says. “He loved the male voice, voices period, and felt passionate about writing songs. His songs in his early period were meant for any and all voices. He wrote beautiful melodies in beautiful contexts in complex forms.”

The entire 19th century was a golden age for German art songs, from Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann to Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Mahler and Strauss. Most were for voice and piano, occasionally with an extra instrument such as clarinet, horn or viola, but songs for singer and orchestra were Mahler's natural voice.

“The orchestral song was a side genre on either side of the (turn to the 20th century),” Hampson says. “It became a very popular idea of performing something other than opera arias at orchestral concerts. (In addition,) various instruments can be different colors to the differing emotional landscapes of songs.”

“Notturno,” the longest of the Strauss songs Hampson will sing, is set to a poem by Richard Dehmel. It is a “chilling vision of a dream-like encounter with Death, whose grieving song is cast upon ‘the breath of his violin,' ” according to the symphony's program notes.

“It is a magnificent piece by the same poet as audiences know because of ‘Erwartung'' by Arnold Schoenberg,” the singer says. At the same time Strauss was writing Notturno, Schoenberg was writing his string sextet inspired by Dehmel's poem “Verklate Nacht” (Transfigured Night).

The singer has made a special study of Dehmel's poems and, sometimes, performs Dehmel programs with different composer's settings of his texts.

“He embodies in so many different ways that people were trying to be explicit about emotion and social awareness at this very volatile end of one century and the beginning of the next — and the end of the world as it was known in World War I,” Hampson says.

“He was a very much fin-de-siecle dreamer and embraced the expressionist school and even secessionist school of swinging-door realities. Some we live, some we dream, some of death. The protagonist only becomes clear wandering through landscapes that maybe never existed,” the singer says.

“I'm thrilled to come back to work with Manfred again,” he says. “Our friendship is well documented, and I'm thrilled about this orchestra. I can hardly wait.”

Hampson met the orchestra's new concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgey in February when they performed Dvorak's Biblical Songs, which features eloquent violin solos.

“We're going to have such fun in ‘Notturno,' ” he says with gleeful anticipation.

The concert will open with the Horn Concerto No. 1 by Richard Strauss, written in 1882-83 and his earliest work in the active repertoire. The composer's father, Franz Strauss, was one of the great horn players of his day, famous for having the agility of a clarinetist.

‘I have been playing it, or trying to play it, since I was in the 10th grade,” Caballero says. “It was the first full concerto I worked on.”

Over the years, he has amassed a large collection of recordings of the popular concerto, and thinks they all have something to offer.

Yet, as he was building his career as an orchestral player, he didn't play the concerto for nearly 27 years. Since returning to the concerto with the Westmoreland Symphony in 2005, he's played it with several other orchestras, most recently in fall 2011 in Montenegro with conductor Ronald Zollman.

Honeck and Caballero have spent hours on the phone to discuss interpretation, singing passages to illustrate their points. They had both the score and a facsimile of the composer's manuscript piano reduction before them. The hornist says they were as focused on feel, direction and dynamics as on tempo, per se.

“The thing about Honeck that I like is that he actually gave some great ideas,” Caballero says. “Then, after a couple of other discussions, we were changing things even more. I'm extremely appreciative of that, something we can offer together.”

In addition to Heinz Hall concerts, Hampson will give a public master class with Pittsburgh Opera resident artists starting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the opera's headquarters in the Strip District. Admission is free but an reservation is required before 4 p.m. Wednesday at 412-281-0912, ext. 0.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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