Manfred Honeck/Photo: Chris Lee, courtesy New York Philharmonic

On Friday afternoon, the New York Philharmonic’s concert began with a chestnut: the Poet and Peasant Overture, by Franz von Suppé. This used to be a staple of our concert life. It was known and loved by all. Then it fell out of fashion, deemed terribly uncool.

Good for the Philharmonic for bringing it back. (The orchestra had not performed it since 1990.) It will long outlive its critics. It already has.

The orchestra began the overture almost together. The subsequent brass choir was serviceable, if not very pretty. Eileen Moon, the cello, played her solo nicely. This solo reminds many of us Americans of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” Later, the overture had tremendous precision and life. Sheer musical life. It was exhilarating.

On the podium was Manfred Honeck, the Austrian who is Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Some people wanted him to be the next music director of the New York Phil.; these same people tended to favor Jaap van Zweden also. It is Van Zweden who will be coming here soon.

After the overture, we had a concerto. This concert followed the overture-concerto-symphony pattern. It is a pattern that has not really been improved on. The concerto was that for oboe by Richard Strauss. It was suggested to him, you remember, by an American corporal who came to his door at the end of the war. He was John de Lancie, who had been the principal oboe of Honeck’s current orchestra, the PSO.

This concerto is a rather chatty affair, reminding me of the composer’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. The soloist with the Philharmonic was the Philharmonic’s principal, Liang Wang.

He made a handsome sound. He breathed forever. His dynamics were apt, and so was his phrasing. In the last movement, he made an exceptionally pure sound, causing me to think, “Ah, there’s Strauss, writing for another of his sopranos.”

If I had one wish for Wang, it would be that he were more pliant, more “bendy”—more like taffy with that stick. I would wish for greater, more seamless legato. But what a fine player Wang is.

Honeck conducted the concerto with keen intelligence. And the string warmth he drew from the orchestra in the slow movement was astounding. Was this the New York Phil. or the Vienna Phil.? It was the former.

By the way, Honeck once belonged to the Vienna Philharmonic, and his brother Rainer still does, as a concertmaster.

A second by the way: In my “New York Chronicle” last month, I reviewed an oboe recital. I had never done that before. At the end, I wrote,

Here is a slightly rude question: The oboe is an important sound, and an important instrument, in an orchestra. You would not want to do without it in, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (first movement). But do you want to hear it all night long, as soloist? Is the oboe more of a complementary instrument than a soloistic one? Possibly, yes.

After reading that, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail. He plays in an orchestra. He wrote, “You know what we say about the difference between an oboe and an English horn, don’t you?” (An English horn is a big oboe.) “English horn takes longer to burn.”


The symphony after intermission was by Beethoven, his Sixth, the “Pastoral.” The first measures were perfect. Absolutely perfect. The music throughout this movement was nimble and streamlined. It was a little fast for my taste—sort of “period” fast—but Honeck and the orchestra pulled it off. The conductor went in for little surges, which, again, were not to my taste. I found them too pronounced. But I stress, this is a matter of taste.

And what was that sound from the orchestra? It was very familiar, and very good: Wang’s oboe.

The second movement (Scene by the Brook) was lovely. Inarguable. Same with the Merry Gathering of Country Folk. The anticipation of the storm was superbly executed. And when the storm came, it, too, was superbly executed. It told a story while remaining crisp and Classical. And the final movement breathed the peace it should.

In short, this was the Beethoven Sixth. A real Sixth. Every note was musical. Manfred Honeck seems incapable of committing anything unmusical. The New York Philharmonic played like a first-rate orchestra. It played like its reputation, certainly its publicity.

Let me add that the orchestra sounded rich, beautiful, and marvelous in this hall, David Geffen (formerly Avery Fisher), whose acoustics are supposed to be impossible. They are gutting it, starting over, apparently. Even if the hall becomes the best in the world, musicians will still have to know what they’re doing.

Two more things, please. Not that I care, but the pieces on the program sort of matched: the Viennese operetta overture, the Viennesey oboe concerto, and the rustic Beethoven symphony. Those who care about matching in programming must have been pleased.

Last, I believe that Jaap van Zweden will be a very successful music director of the New York Philharmonic. But if he chews out the players one too many times, and is asked to leave, can Honeck come, please?

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