Arts & Culture » Music

Guest conductor gets dynamic response

by Philip Campbell

Conductor Manfred Honeck appeared with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Felix Broede
Conductor Manfred Honeck appeared with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Felix Broede  

Guest conductors are keeping the podium covered at Davies Symphony Hall this month as Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas works with his other family at the New World Symphony in Miami. Conductor Manfred Honeck kept the home fires blazing last week with a concert featuring the long-awaited San Francisco Symphony debut of cellist Truls Mork.

Current Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck returned to DSH after his own impressive local debut in 2017, when he partnered with baritone Matthias Goerne for Shostakovich's dark Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and rounded the weighty concert off with Tchaikovsky's stirring Fifth Symphony.

Pittsburgh has extended Honeck's contract through the 2021-22 season, so he has most likely fallen out of the running to replace MTT (last season 2019-20), but one doesn't sense a need for auditioning skills in him anyway.

He stands out in the competition with years of varied experience: playing in the Vienna Philharmonic as a musician himself, working as an assistant to the great Claudio Abbado and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, and maintaining years of successful guest conducting assignments with musical institutions ranging from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

He certainly gets a dynamic response from our own musicians. Using a seating plan (divided strings upfront and bass balance to the rear) that works brilliantly with the quirky acoustics of Davies, and which highlights the strengths of each section of the orchestra, Honeck recently fashioned a perfect supporting backdrop for cellist Mork's bravura turn in Prokofiev's difficult Sinfonia concertante, and a thrilling ambience for Dvorak's invigorating Symphony No. 8. Even an interruption between movements of the Dvorak caused by feedback from a hearing aid (SFS CEO Mark Hanson to the rescue with a diplomatic appeal from his own seat) couldn't stop Honeck's energetic course of action.

The first half of the bill was devoted to Mork and his astonishing collaboration with Honeck and the SFS on Prokofiev's problematic Sinfonia concertante. Originally a Cello Concerto, the work was revised by the composer for the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich, but it proved a mixed upgrading — stronger showcase, weaker composition.

The final edition is full of trademark Prokofiev tang, witty melodies, yearning introspection, and heart-stopping challenges for the cellist, but it seldom gels in performance. It takes a strong interpretive stance from both conductor and soloist to make a satisfactorily coherent statement.

Norwegian virtuoso Truls Mork comes to San Francisco after already establishing an internationally acclaimed career and making a protracted comeback from a serious illness that left him unable to play. Thankfully there were no visible signs of wear and tear as he powered through the grueling requirements of Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante (1950).

Honeck and the intelligently placed orchestral musicians backed him with a warmth and concentration that sympathetically enforced the clarity of his intensely focused playing. It was a revelatory experience. Sergei and "Slava" would have joined in the sincere standing ovation.

Hearing aid glitches surmounted, Honeck turned the second half of the bill into another tour de force with a roof-raising romp through Dvorak's Bohemian dance-inspired Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

Trumpeter Mark Inouye set the seal on the dazzling rendition as he started the final movement with a diamond-sharp fanfare. The entire orchestra had a chance to shine, too. The positioning of the players augmented the bloom and sweetness of the ensemble, and Honeck's control still allowed them plenty of room to move.

This week, October 18-20, Pablo Heras-Casado returns with Spanish-themed music written by French composers, including Ravel's famous "Bolero." Spanish pianist Javier Perianes performs Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3.

sfsymphony.org

Conductor Manfred Honeck appeared with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Felix Broede

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