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TMI and the cult of personality

1 Robert Levine

The other New York Times piece to which I referred in the last post was on Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and focused to a remarkable extent on his religious beliefs:

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.

True enough. But is the fact that Honeck is unusual in being openly religious really an appropriate topic for a long article?

I don’t see why. It seems almost as inappropriate a topic as his views on, say, abortion - which the writer elicits anyway:

Like many prominent conductors Mr. Honeck avoids politics. While he said, when asked, that he strongly opposes abortion, he added that he would not advocate that stand openly.

“My purpose in Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh is to make music and to make this great orchestra play as well as possible,” he said. “This issue, abortion, is not at all included in making music.”

Absolutely right. So why was it asked?

This, on the other hand, is rather interesting:

The one ripple of discomfort comes from Mr. Honeck’s practice of praying in his dressing room with some orchestra members before concerts.

Some musicians, including Jews in the orchestra, “were made uncomfortable by it” to varying degrees, said Louis Lev, a violinist. Mr. Lev, who is Jewish, said he was not one of them, however.

“The bulk of the relationship is onstage,” he said. “He’s not bringing it out there.”
The heart of the concern is that musicians might feel forced to take part to stay in favor, or to worry about Mr. Honeck’s disapproval if they don’t pray with him. There has been no evidence of that, members said, including those who questioned the group prayers.

…Mr. Honeck said he has always prayed privately before concerts, sometimes joined by priest friends. Orchestra members invited him to join them, he said, but he stopped the practice of praying with the musicians about three weeks ago.

“I realized that it might have been for some people a little bit uncomfortable,” he said.

I’d describe that as a good call for at least two reasons. The first is that anything that looks like a clique around a music director is damaging to orchestral morale and solidarity. The second, and more important, is that access to a supervisor on the basis of religion certainly raises a hint of potential discrimination on the basis of belief.

But the bigger point remains. There’s lots about Honeck that’s interesting (including the fact that he spent eight years in the Vienna Phil as a violist). But, unless he’s really interested in proselytizing - and it doesn’t appear that he is - his religious beliefs ought not to be a subject for an article on him as a music director.

One more point needs to be made. The article’s author writes that “like most of the performing arts, [classical music] 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.” But that’s because classical music performance is, among other things, a workplace. In a nation founded on the basis of religious tolerance, isn’t that both a good and a necessary thing?


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  1. Comment by Nicole Stacy
    December 30, 2019 at 12:23 AM

    As a Catholic I find the newsmedia have a love-hate fixation with the Church, which only reflects a larger culture. They love you if — after thorough investigation — you are inconspicuous, inoffensive and polite. Part of me says Honeck’s sensitivity is a good thing. The other part says if you haven’t pissed enough people off in your day, you may not be doing it right.