The silence was louder than a tympani as Manfred Honeck talked to the eighth period orchestra class at Mt. Lebanon High School.
“Take the whole bow, like you are World Master,” the soft-spoken, Austrian-born conductor told the violinists. “That’s a little too shy. A whole bow for the upbeat.”
Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2008, was making his first appearance at the high school, to the delight of school orchestra director Robert Vogel. The class, working in a converted former conference room while their new quarters are being renovated, included violins, violas, cellos and basses. As they worked on various movements from Leos Janacek’s Suite for Strings, Honeck explained the Czechoslovakian composer’s style, asking the cellists to play “like they have guitars and are wearing sunglasses,” then explained a change in mood: “I would really like to have the sadness. Feel it with me.”
He told the students about the PSO’s recent trip to Europe and his job as principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. When he was in Prague, musicians who were poor would gather at restaurants to play for tourists. The diners at his table tipped a little bit and the musicians played a little louder. They tipped again and the musicians came even closer. “They wanted to eat my Wiener Schnitzel!” He then turned to the students. “Play like I have put in twenty dollars already!”
Students were tight lipped, asking no questions after several offers during class, but as soon as it was over, they lined the halls to take pictures, get autographs and ask questions. “Get inside the music. Understand the music and you will love the music,” Honeck told them. “I cannot imagine to have another life than conducting.”