The Deacon's Bench

In a world known for divas and egos, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony is something altogether different: a committed Catholic who considers his talent a gift.

From the New York Times:

Many works in the classical music canon were written for the greater glory of God, but performers these days generally reflect little of that religious devotion.

Not in Pittsburgh.

Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, is a Roman Catholic who prays before every concert, sometimes in the company of fellow musicians, tries to attend Mass daily, makes no secret of a desire to perform in the Vatican and had a private chapel built in his home in Austria.

Mr. Honeck, 51, known mostly in Europe before taking over in Pittsburgh last year, made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut on Feb. 9 with performances of Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony. In a lengthy interview the next day that ranged over his views on Mahler, an artist’s role in society and his family history, he spoke openly of his religious beliefs. Catholicism permeates his life, and has an influence on both how he programs and how he conceives of music.

“It’s a guide,” he said of his religious conviction. “I’m an instrument, to make music better, to make my profession more honest. It allows me to be very deep in my soul. Therefore, the music probably comes very deep from that area of my soul.”

At the same time Mr. Honeck stressed that he did not bring a religious interpretation to bear on music generally, or impose his beliefs on the players. “As music director, you’re the music director, not a spiritual leader,” he said.

In the world of classical music truer words were never spoken. Like most of the performing arts, it is a highly secular realm, where the dogma surrounding the choral works of Bach, say, has far more to do with performance practice than piety. Prominent musicians present evidence of their high moral character not through religious display but fund-raising concerts.

“Virtually every conductor I’ve worked with — the worship has been of themselves,” Zachary Smith, a French horn player in the orchestra, said dryly.

Mr. Honeck stands well apart.

When he turned 50, his gift from his wife, Christiane, was to arrange for the dedication of 50 Masses around the world to him. The eldest of the couple’s six children is preparing for ordination to the priesthood. A priest who lives near Mr. Honeck’s home in Altach, a village in western Austria, acts as the family spiritual adviser, occasionally celebrating Mass at the house. Mr. Honeck signs off on e-mail messages with a “God bless you.”

Yet he wears his piety lightly. There is little sanctimony about him, and he spoke about his Catholic beliefs with some reserve.

Stories abound about his humility and charity — giving money to the homeless; inviting a snow-shoveling employee of Heinz Hall, the orchestra’s home, to lunch; speaking to every last member of a visiting group. He is sincere and approachable, with a sense of humor, orchestra members said.

“He treats every one with the same respect, from the janitor to Anne-Sophie Mutter, a soloist of great repute,” said Paul Silver, a violist. “He is a mensch.”

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