All-Russian program for Manfred Honeck’s SF Symphony debut

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck © Felix Broede

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck makes his debut with the San Francisco Symphony this week, in a program of two works – by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. The Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Opus 145 – with baritone Matthias Goerne – is a first for the Symphony, and it’s followed by a work which must surely rate as one of the most magnificent interpretations in the Symphony’s repertoire – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 in E minor, Opus 64.

Maestro Honeck has been Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since the 2008-09 season, a collaboration that is lauded both at home and internationally. Conductor and Orchestra regularly perform in major international capitals and festivals, such as the BBC Proms, Musikfest Berlin, Lucerne Festival, Rheingau Musik Festival, Beethovenfest Bonn, Grafenegg Festival, and at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.  They also have a close relationship with the Musikverein in Vienna.

Following a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No 7 at the Kennedy Center in 2009, the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the “exquisitely nuanced performance” delivered by Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony, adding that they “drove through this manic music with intoxicating energy and tremendous climax…. It was a Pittsburgh Symphony performance that will long be remembered.”

As a guest conductor, Honeck has appeared with some of the world’s leading orchestras – in London, Europe and in the United States, and he is a regular guest at the Verbier Festival. His operatic guest appearances include those with Semperoper Dresden, Komische Oper Berlin, Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Royal Opera of Copenhagen, the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg and the Salzburg Festival.

German baritone Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve

Between January and June this year, German baritone Matthias Goerne will have made 60 appearances at some of the most prestigious concert venues and opera houses in Europe, Asia and the United States. No wonder that he’s regarded as one of the most versatile and sought-after artists of his genre.

Highlights of his engagements this year include his role debut as Wanderer in Wagner’s Siegfried, with the Hong Kong Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden, Schubert’s song cycles with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in Brussels and Paris, and a tour with Freiburg Baroque Orchestra which took in Göteborg, Berlin, Istanbul, Moscow and Rotterdam, and performances at the Vienna State Opera as Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde. A six-week US tour included appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Dallas and Chicago symphonies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, and this appearance with the San Francisco Symphony.  Matthias Goerne’s season also includes a tour with Daniel Harding and the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, and the title role in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in a new production by South-African artist William Kentridge at the Salzburg Festival.

Dmitri Shostakovich © Deutsche Fotothek via Wikimedia Commons

The Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti is a musical work based on eleven poems by Michelangelo which trace the life and work of the great Renaissance artist, and which brought to the composer’s mind subjects which he described as “Wisdom, Love, Creation, Death and Immortality” (James M Keller).

Having spent more than 23 years falling in and out of favor with the Soviet authorities, Dmitri Shostakovich waited until well after Stalin’s death before he either wrote or published a number of works – some of which he’d kept hidden in a desk drawer – which he wouldn’t have risked writing or publishing until he felt it safe to do so. One of these later compositions was the Verses of Michelangelo which Shostakovich wrote in 1974, towards the end of his life. They were taken from a volume of poems given to him by a friend, and translated into Russian by Avram Efros.

Tchaikovsky – by Nikolai Dimitriyevich Kuznetsov (1850 – 1929) via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the popularity of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony today, the composer himself was said to have had both positive and negative feelings about it, although by the time he’d finished the Symphony, he seemed to have come round to the view that it had, after all, “turned out well”. Although the critics at its first two performances were hostile, from the point of view of the audience Tchaikovsky need not have worried. The Symphony was met with great enthusiasm, and the composer – according to biographer Anthony Holden – “was given the rare honour of a triple fanfare from the orchestra, and presented onstage with a scroll admitting him to honorary membership of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society.” It takes its place among his finest works – as history has proved.

Manfred Honeck leads the San Francisco Symphony in works by Shostakovich – with baritone Matthias Goerne – and by Tchaikovsky, at Davies Symphony Hall from May 25 to 27. For more details and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

San Francisco Symphony program notes –
by James M Keller: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarrotti
by Michael Steinberg: Tchaikovsky Symphony No 5
A biography, Tchaikovsky, by Anthony Holden – published by Bantam Press

Artists’ websites:

Manfred Honeck

Matthias Goerne


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