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In a Menu of Delights, Third Course Is the Charm

05.06.09
Alisa Weilerstein
Washington Post

Manfred Honeck, the conductor, knows exactly what he wants. From the moment he walks onstage, he exudes a healthy competence, from his trim, elegant figure to his crisp gestures on the podium.

Not that he can't be emphatic, or physical, or even bend at the waist to get the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he is in his first season as music director, to make the sound he is looking for. And not that he can't explore the down-and-dirty side of the music. Indeed, he avoids prettiness and polish. The playing is vital, exuberant, rough. But it's not rough by accident. He has thought about why he wants it to be rough. The orchestra is happy to go along.

Honeck's impressive concert with the Pittsburgh on Monday night at the Kennedy Center -- the first joint out-of-town appearance of his official tenure, and a foretaste of a tour to China later this month -- was like the three bowls of porridge in "Goldilocks": not quite enough, too much, just right. The whole concert was on such a high level, however, that these judgments were those of a demanding gourmand: Goldilocks would happily have eaten up all three dishes.

The program was as elegantly balanced as Honeck himself: It looked restrained and not very contemporary, but the way he played it, it wasn't. It opened with Strauss's "Tod und Verklärung," a youthful depiction of death limned in the darkest and most dramatic strokes of late 19th-century romanticism; continued with Haydn's First Cello Concerto, an object of well-crafted Classical equipoise; and concluded with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which Honeck understood from its lyrical head to its rustic (dancing) toes, and which was consequently a tour de force.

"Tod und Verklärung" -- "Death and Transfiguration" -- continues Honeck's Strauss focus with the orchestra (their recently issued first recording together is of Strauss's later tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" -- "A Hero's Life"). But the flashy piece (it depicts an artist on his deathbed, finally achieving greatness once he attains the Beyond) seemed a little callow for Honeck, who appears to be too smart a conductor merely to wallow in the obvious beauties of the music. Rather than bring out the singing theme that flows through the artist's childhood memories, he nearly engulfed it in the inner voices around it, the brass surging up over the strings -- only to restore perfect balance in a stately but not overemphasized resolution. The reading was filled with wonderful details; its "not enough" lay in a slightly over-deliberate approach -- including big, held pauses at the beginning and end -- when this slightly cheap but glorious music may profit more from being taken simply at face value.

The Haydn would actually have been "too much" only for real Classical purists: The richness of the reduced orchestra, under Honeck's light firm touch, and the throaty depths of Alisa Weilerstein's cello, sounded pretty great. Weilerstein, 26, can discard the qualifier "rising" from her "star" status at this point; her combination of Botticelli mien (her concert gowns this week strongly resemble Flora's) and powerhouse sound is just about irresistible. Sometimes her hyper-expressive playing carried her tone a hair off pitch in the second movement, and the rapid scrabbling of the third movement grew nearly manic, but she never lost command, not only of her playing but of a range of colors within it, both gritty and pretty, all pitched at high emotion.

But the Beethoven was the triumph: Pungent, earthy and glorious, it was vital rather than elegant. Here, Honeck's thoughtfulness about the music helped him reach a striking interpretation. The bite of trumpets tempered the mellow strings when the orchestra launched into the first movement's main theme; the conductor calmed the players' neurotic preoccupation with the second-movement theme into something more relaxed with a smoothing motion of his hands; and in the third movement, the alternating explosions of full sound and the quiet passages for a few voices were all blended smoothly into a single, even line without sacrificing distinctness of timbre. For all the urbanity of the Pittsburgh's strings, the winds and brass dominated the evening; and rhythm, and percussion, were the driving force in the symphony as a whole, down to the final movement, which was all about the beat. It was exuberant, in-your-face Beethoven, and it was greeted with actual whoops when the music was over.