Thursday, July 3, 2008

Beginning of an Era

From quite a while ago:


At the end of his first season as the Cleveland Orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Moest is still climbing musical mountains.
by Mark Satola

Franz Welser-Möst is a little bemused by people who are surprised that he walks to work. "I enjoy a lot of walking," says the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, relaxing at the end of his first full season in his new post.

"Sometimes I walk from Shaker Square to Severance Hall. It's about 40 minutes. But this is a city where everybody seems to drive. People ask me how can I do that." In truth, it's difficult to imagine this slender young Austrian clambering into an SUV and barreling down the precipice from the Heights. American car culture, with its near-militaristic obsession with four-wheeled equalizers, seems quite far from Welser-Möst's world.

"In Europe, I do a lot of hiking in the mountains," he says. "I couldn't live without mountains."

Over the years, Welser-Möst has had to contend with many a mountain, figurative as well as literal. His first encounter with international fame, a six-year tenure as music director of the London Philharmonic, placed an Everest of disapprobation in his path. Dubbed "Frankly Worse Than Most" by the cruel wags that are all too legion in Albion, the then-29 year old Welser-Möst fought against balky orchestra players and a press that seemed more interested in being insulted that an Austrian of his tender age should be in charge of the band that Thomas Beecham forged in 1932, than in assessing the quality of his performances.

Welser-Möst, it must be admitted, did not help matters, sacking high-ranking players and a well-liked choral director soon after his arrival. The problem was partly one of management style: Austrian autocracy versus British self-governance.

His subsequent flight from London was not universally cheered by the musical establishment there -- he turned down offers to take over the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra upon leaving the Philharmonic -- but it was a full four years before he set foot in London again.

During that time, the young conductor earned the directorship of the Zurich Opera, a position he held from 1996 to 2002. It was there, and in concerts conducted in Vienna and Berlin, that Welser-Möst redefined his artistic identity, finding in the crucible of opera the refining fires that had tempered so many of the legendary conductors of the last century, including the Cleveland Orchestra's musical director from 1946 to 1970, George Szell, himself a thoroughgoing autocrat of titanic proportions. (Old-timers may recall that the players nicknamed Szell "Dr. Cyclops," after the 1940s horror film villain played by the clinically sinister Albert Dekker.)

Opera, it seems, was good for Welser-Möst. The European press voiced consistently high praise for his performances in the opera house and the concert hall, with special hosannas for his readings of Beethoven's mighty Missa Solemnis (Vienna, November 2002), Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt (Zurich, April 2003) and Franz Schmidt's The Book of Seven Seals, a vast oratorio that has become his signature piece, in performances from London to Cleveland.

He guest conducted in Cleveland quite a few times during this period, and it was no secret that a lot of Cleveland Orchestra players liked working under him. His clear baton ("best hands in the business," one player commented) was especially valued, as was his collaborative leadership style, a lesson perhaps learned in the stormy London days.

When Christoph von Dohnányi announced his retirement from the music directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra, effective at the end of the 2001-2002 season, he himself put the Musical Arts Association's search committee on the trail of Welser-Möst. The young conductor was selected as Dohnányi's successor a full three years before the actual passing of the baton, an unusual period of transition that allowed for a nearly seamless transfer of power. One need only look to the fairly rough time that Simon Rattle has had in Berlin, succeeding the esteemed Claudio Abbado with precious little prep time.

Even with three get-acquainted seasons, Welser-Möst's first year at Severance was not exactly an uninterrupted cakewalk, as orchestra and conductor sought to forge a style exemplary of their collective personalities. And then there was the issue of the local press -- while Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra were acclaimed on tour, local performances came in for an unusual amount of criticism from Cleveland's only daily newspaper.

Given the highs and lows of Welser-Möst's last decade and a half as one of the world's leading conductors, hiking up Cedar Hill at the end of a work day must seem easy as pie.

DESPITE THE HEAVY damage from American and British bombers, much of Welser-Most's hometown of Linz has survived, including the historic church of St. Florian, where Bruckner was organist and choral director for decades. The picturesque grotto railway, constructed in 1898 and Europe's steepest mountain railway track, also survived the war; it continues to this day its 16-minute ascent of the garden-terraced Pöstlingberg, the high hill overlooking the city.

Welser-Möst's talent manifested itself early. He studied primarily at Munich's Hochschule für Musik, and at age 19 became a finalist in the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition, an honor that led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Austrian Youth Orchestra. Following director's posts in the hinterlands of Winterthur and Norrköping, Welser-Möst made his first appearance as a guest conductor with the London Philharmonic in 1986, following that by taking the Phil on a European tour. His American debut, in 1990, was with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

After the tumultuous years of the 1990s, Welser-Möst seems to have matured in remarkable ways, not only as an artist, but also as a citizen of the world. His commitment to helping others was acknowledged in 1995 when the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles honored him for his support of the Hartheim Institute, a home for the disabled in Linz. This spring, Case Western Reserve University chimed in with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

In Cleveland, Welser-Möst has made himself an active participant in the life of the community. "Right when I came, we took care to form really close links with the Cleveland Institute of Music, as well as Oberlin," he says. "It's not only that musicians from the orchestra teach at these places, when the music director shows up, it creates a relationship.

"That's an investment in the future," he says. "We have a duty for the entire business, to take care of the entire tradition. If we invest in people now, we won't just be keeping even, we'll be ahead. That's the future."

Welser-Möst's interests go beyond cultivation of conservatory students, to bringing music to a wide range of kids of all ages. "I think Sting's comment about music for kids is apt," he says. "It's scientifically proven that children who are exposed to classical music have a higher percentage of learning capacity. It trains the brain, and they discover new ways of thinking, which leads to more success in other areas."

His own early years as an artist taught him the importance of working with the next generation. He was particularly fortunate to work with two of the most important, if widely disparate, conductors of the 20th century, Herbert von Karajan and Sergiu Celibidache.
"I knew Karajan during the last 10 years of his life," he says, "and got to watch a lot of his rehearsals. He was a genius in organizing everything, and was highly disciplined. And at the same time, he was absolutely obsessed with beauty."

Like Karajan, Welser-Möst is hugely successful as an opera conductor, though opera is just a part of his repertoire. "Karajan was very much an opera man," he notes. "I once asked him why singers liked working with him so much. He told me that it was because he gave them the freedom to do exactly what he wanted them to do."

As a public figure, Celibidache was about as different from Karajan as it was possible to be. Where Karajan was very much an international sophisticate, piloting his own jet, embracing every new technological development in recording and obsessively committing performances to CD and video, Celibidache was a somewhat reclusive man who shunned the recording studio, believing that only in live performance could the real essence of a composer's vision be achieved. His concerts acquired an aura of legend, all the more so because they were transitory experiences (though lately EMI has released airchecks from broadcast concerts conducted by Celibidache).

"From 1980 to 1984 I was in Munich," Welser-Möst says, "and I went to a lot of his rehearsals. Celibidache had an analytic sense for all the pieces he conducted, and a thorough knowledge of how you work with an orchestra. He was just a brilliant man."

It seems that Welser-Möst's own artistic identity is imbued with the best elements of both his idols. His performances in Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as recordings with such bands as the Salzburg Camerata Academica, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and his semi-nemeses, the London Philharmonic, reveal a conductor who is fully alert to every detail of the score, sometimes at the expense of edge-of-the-seat excitement, but always with beauty, balance and, in the case of the Cleveland Orchestra, a blossoming new sound that is different from anything they've done before. The orchestra's recent performance of Sibelius's Symphony No. 4 in A minor, for instance, was awash in deep tone colors that seemed to subdue the gilded walls of Severance Hall.

"That was a very dark concert," says Scott Haigh. And yet the orchestra was never actually instructed to underscore the symphony's ominous sound world. "Welser-Möst gives you a very clear idea of what passages mean to him, but he says almost nothing about intonation." The fact that the players were all on the same timbral page testifies to the level of intuitive communication that already exists between conductor and players.

Welser-Möst sees his mission in Cleveland as varifold. He's curtailed his appearances in Europe, the better to focus on his work here, and has thrown himself into the life of the city, to an extent that previous music directors did not. He conducted the 2003 Martin Luther King concert at Severance Hall, participated fully in the hall's "Day of Music," and conducted the orchestra's annual July 4th concert on Public Square. All of these are duties that were previously left to resident and assistant conductors.

Musically, he is explicitly committed to the Cleveland Orchestra, and management has responded with an unprecedented extension of his contract, through 2012, a move that pleased many, horrified a few, and generally surprised all, including Welser-Möst himself. There had been talk of his being offered the directorship of the Vienna Opera in 2007, but as he put it, "I'd never had an offer, so why should I think about it?"

For now, Welser-Möst is right where he wants to be. "My role is to maintain the integrity of the orchestra," he says. "Everyone has noticed that the sound of the orchestra has changed a lot just in the first season. They always played perfectly, but now they're all breathing."

"I feel we can learn a lot," says Lisa Boyko. "Some things Franz would like to do musically, we're not used to doing. We didn't get it exactly right. It needs to gel a little more. But I think it's going to be totally amazing, unlike anything we have done in the past."

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, July 2, 2003.