Richard Wagner Parsifal [excerpt from the Prelude to Act I]. Berlin Philharmonic. Daniel Barenboim. Teldec 4509-97910-2.
Franz Schubert Mass in G-major, “Gloria”. Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Vienna State Opera Chorus. Claudio Abbado. Barbara Bonney. Andreas Schmidt. DG 435 486-2.
Giuseppe Verdi Don Carlo [excerpt]. Berlin Philharmonic. Herbert von Karajan. José Carreras. Piero Cappuccilli. EMI Classics B000TDDHQW.
Joseph Frankel “Yiddish Blues” [excerpt]. Klezmer Conservatory Band. Vanguard Records VCD 79450.
Olivier Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony “Joie du sang des étoiles“ [excerpt]. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Riccardo Chailly. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano. Takashi Harada, ondes martenot. Decca 436 626-2.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Così fan tutte [excerpt from Act I]. Philharmonia Orchestra. Herbert von Karajan. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman, Rolando Panerai, Leopold Simoneau, Sesto Bruscantini. EMI 72435671382.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” with my guest the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst.
He was only 29 when he was tapped to be the Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. After six years on that podium he moved to the opera world heading the Zurich Opera where over an eight year period that concluded in 2008 he conducted more than 50 premieres. While still in Zurich in 2002 he received a simultaneous appointment here in America as the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra with a contract that goes all the way to 2018 – a highly unusual length in the profession. Finally this season he added the Vienna State Opera to his portfolio for what must be a special homecoming for this very Austrian maestro. Franz Welser-Möst, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
FRANZ WELSER-MÖST: Thank you very much for having me; it’s a joy.
KAPLAN: Now, sitting here in the elegant Vienna State Opera, where you have just recently been appointed Music Director, along with the Director, Dominique Meyer. I wonder what can we look forward to in terms of new artistic initiatives that might be different from the last regime?
WELSER-MÖST: I think two really significant things. One is that, you know, decades, decades ago, this house had an enormous tradition in Mozart. I’m actually, as music director I’m going to do three new productions in my first two years of the three Da Ponte operas by Mozart, so trying to get back some of that tradition into the, if you want, artistic veins of the house. And the other thing, which to my big surprise in a way, which has been lacking is Janáček. Janáček, you know, was born not far from here and sort of the musical language is real in the blood of the Vienna Philharmonic. I heard a couple of months ago Pierre Boulez doing the Glagolitic Mass over in the Musikverein, and it was again a proof for me that this is music sort of really written somehow for the Vienna Philharmonic. So over the course of the next couple of years, I’m going to do myself three new productions of Janáček operas, which never have been performed here in this house.
KAPLAN: I see. Now, under the regime before yours, I think it’s clear that the director of the house really made most of the artistic decisions. Now, under the new arrangement, how do you share the decisions about what will be played, who will conduct, what guests are invited, soloists? How is that going to work?
WELSER-MÖST: When it comes to my own performances, new productions and repertoire performances, none of the singers or directors can be engaged against my will. In all the other performances, I’m sort of the first, if you want, first musical advisor to the director, Dominique Meyer. And, you know, contracts are contracts and paper is paper, you have to live such a relationship, and we’ll see how that is going to turn out.
KAPLAN: Now when you talk about quality of the singers and of their performances, one area that often gets talked about with the Vienna State Opera is the notion of no rehearsal performances. I met a conductor once who told me he had conducted almost 150 performances here, at the State Opera, and had only had four rehearsals. How does this idea of no rehearsals square with the highest possible quality?
WELSER-MÖST: That might seem sort of a logic contradiction, but it’s not. The house plays more than 50 different operas every season, so it’s actually expected from a member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra to know the repertoire, and very often it’s actually the shortcoming of the craftsmanship of conductors, which asks them for more rehearsals, and why should the orchestra musicians do these rehearsals so the conductor learns the piece? If they have a competent conductor in front of them, they can do an unbelievable amount without rehearsals. And certain pieces which they play every year, something like Parsifal, Rosenkavalier, they are pieces they really own. Very often they play them better without rehearsals because they pay more attention. The first time I conducted here was in ’87, I was the assistant to Claudio Abbado for one season, when he was music director here, and then there was this long gap. And then I conducted again, I stepped in, without any rehearsal, doing Tristan, and, you know, of course with rehearsals I would have done certain things differently, but the excitement of that night, I will never forget, and also it seems that the audience and the orchestra hasn’t forgotten that.
KAPLAN: Well, I think you made a very good point of all this, but I think we come back to some music now, and I see the first item on your list is Wagner’s Parsifal.
WELSER-MÖST: Parsifal is a piece which is not only close to my heart, and has been for a long time, but there is also a personal attachment to it. In 1992, which was a very stormy year for me, very difficult year; in Upper Austria, where I come from, there are a lot of beautiful monasteries, and I had an old friend there. I talked on the phone, a monk, and he said, “Why don’t you come for a week and just hide from this world?” And I went there, and I met somebody there, who was really a soul mate. That never happened to me before or after, but I met a person and it was like I knew that person already for a long time. He was a highly interesting man; he died much too early in ‘97 at the age of 62. He was a director of Sotheby’s, and at the age of 50 he decided to become a monk. And I remember endless talks we had about Parsifal. He was an intellectual, but also a very sensitive man, and extremely well educated, and I learned a lot about the theological side of Parsifal from him, so that’s why I have these sort of very beautiful memories of those endless nights we talked about Parsifal.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Prelude of Wagner’s Parsifal, the Berlin Philharmonic led by Daniel Barenboim, the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Vienna State Opera and the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst. Next month New Yorker’s can hear the Cleveland Orchestra led by Franz Welser-Möst when they return to Carnegie Hall on February 5th and 6th to perform works by Debussy, Strauss, Wagner and a few others. All right, let’s talk about you as a conductor – and this maybe a little difficult as a question because it requires a certain, shall we say, self-analysis. And when we talk about famous conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein say, we think of extreme emotions, or for Herbert von Karajan, it might be perfection of sound, Pierre Boulez a kind of clinical transparency. So – how would you characterize your own approach to conducting?
WELSER-MÖST: As you said, that’s difficult - but I know what I want to achieve with an orchestra, and maybe I can describe it that way. I like transparency; I like to hear the notes, every note which the composer has written. At the same time, I always have been a singers’ freak, and so also from an orchestra I like a singing sound. And if I would try to sort of look a little bit at the bigger picture, I don’t go that much for sort of emotion by emotion. I like always the bigger philosophical picture of something. And, so if you want to describe it in ancient Greek mythology, I’m not so much going for Dionysus, I’m rather going for Apollo; which means, that shows also in other interests I have, which I think is reflected then also in my music-making. Today, I read more philosophy and great literature, like Goethe or Schiller, that tells me more about Beethoven than one of those theoretical books. What I and the Cleveland Orchestra had to get used to was that I like in rehearsals to give them the bigger picture so if we play a Beethoven Five, I want the musicians to know what the piece means, and not just execute notes in a highly professional and almost perfect way. Perfection I say almost because I think perfection does not exist.
KAPLAN: Well, I know when we had one of your colleagues on the show, Valery Gergiev, I asked him a similar type question, and one of the points he made was, what is the point of the orchestra inviting me, Gergiev, unless they get something which they’re not going to get from anyone else. And, in relation to our conversation, it reminds me of something that you said, and I don’t know if I have this exactly right, so you’ll correct me if I don’t. Someone had asked you about putting your stamp on the Cleveland Orchestra, of course the main orchestra you conduct in America, and you said something about “they know what they’re doing and I try not to get in their way.” It might have been a misquote or a shortened quote, but you get the idea. Gergiev is saying, “when I leave they have to know they never would have played it that way unless I was here,” and you’re quote is saying, “Cleveland is such a great orchestra, maybe I don’t have to direct them so much.” I don’t know if I had that quote right or not.
WELSER-MÖST: The quote is not incorrect, but it very easily gets misunderstood. What I meant with that was that they are technically on such a high level that I don’t have to micro-manage everything. That’s what I meant when I said that. You know, if you try to be original, you won’t be original, that’s I think quite true about anything in life, it sort of becomes for me a little comic. When you try to be modern - modern very easily turns into a fashion - and we do have fashions although when we look at interpreters I can see certain fashions, and I try to stay away -
KAPLAN: Like playing Baroque music very fast…
WELSER-MÖST: Exactly or what really gets me going this sort of fashion that everything ‘til 1850, let’s say, you play on the tympani with wooden sticks, which is historic nonsense. Because you can go back to Handel and you see comments there that he experimented already with felt around the wooden sticks and so on, so to say “everything till 1850 was played with wooden sticks,” that’s what I call a fashion.
KAPLAN: I see. All right. Let’s fashionably return to your music list and I see Schubert is coming up.
WELSER-MÖST: You know, when I was a kid, a youngster, I wanted to become a violinist. And I had great training, and my dream was to maybe make it into the second violins of the Vienna Philharmonic, that was a young man’s dream. And then I was 18, and, a little over 18, and on November 19, of ‘78, we celebrated the 150th year of death of Schubert. It was a crisp, cold November Sunday, and I played on the violin Schubert G Major Mass in a church service, and in the evening I was supposed to play the Trout Quintet in a little town in Upper Austria called Steier, where Schubert actually had a summer vacation, where he started to write the Trout Quintet. And on the way there, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, exactly also when Schubert died, I had this car accident, and after that I was not capable, out of my injuries, of playing the violin to an extent that I could have made a professional career, so I turned to conducting. And even was, I was first in intensive care, when I was taken to hospital and after a couple of days in intensive care, I was taken into normal care and they gave me a radio, and I turned it on and there was Schubert G Major Mass, the same piece I played before the accident. So there is a sort of funny attachment to Schubert which has followed me my whole life.
KAPLAN: “Gloria” from Schubert’s Mass in G-major, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with soloists Barbara Bonney and Andreas Schmidt and Claudio Abbado on the podium -- music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra in America and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. When we return we’ll explore the tricky relationship between the conductor and the orchestra.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. All right, let’s talk about the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. Always a tricky one, right? And I’d like to ask you a question and I’ve asked this to every conductor who’s been on the show, by the way. When the relationship goes bad, as it sometimes can, what is it that the conductor has done that might contribute to that?
WELSER-MÖST: It’s actually very simple. If the musicians get the feeling that the purpose served is not the music, it’s basically an ego question.
KAPLAN: How does it show up?
WELSER-MÖST: If they have the feeling the conductor is doing something just for his own good, glory, whatever, and the music gets left behind, and the musicians get treated, the better the orchestra is the more you get that, and the musicians get the feeling that they are not valued and respected the right way.
KAPLAN: I have to ask you to be a little more specific because you talk about the conductor doing something for himself. What would that be?
WELSER-MÖST: It starts in rehearsal. Don’t use the word “I.” “I need this, I need that;” that already gets a little sour reaction from musicians. The music requires something, you know. And also like, it’s one of my favorite topics, conductors in concerts not using a score, I’ve noticed that with orchestra musicians, that when they get the feeling conductors conduct without a score just out of show reasons, showing off… KAPLAN: Showing off. You know, someone asked Sir Georg Solti once, “Maestro, you’re such a famous conductor, why do you never conduct by memory?” And he said, “because I can read the music.” Speaking of music, we should move on now to your next piece which is Verdi.
WELSER-MÖST: I had the privilege to get to know Herbert von Karajan a little bit, watching him, almost nobody was allowed into his rehearsals. I was; he apparently liked me. And I do remember him conducting the Verdi Requiem and also Don Carlo, which was one of his favorite pieces, and there are certain moments, I will never forget the way he got the orchestra to blend with voices, which was just sensational, and for me he was really one of the great Verdi conductors.
KAPLAN: The “Friendship Duet” in Verdi’s Don Carlo, the Berlin Philharmonic, with soloists José Carreras and Piero Cappuccilli and Herbert von Karajan on the podium, music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. Now one more self-assessment type question for you as a conductor: if you had to audition for a job, and surely you’ll never do this again in your life, but still it’s a good question, and you had to pick a piece that would most showcase your skills as a conductor, what would come to mind?
WELSER-MÖST: Very interesting question and highly unexpected. But the first piece which went through my mind is Schubert’s great C Major.
KAPLAN: And can you say why you think you’ve got a great grip on that versus something else, which you also have a good grip on, but this one would just show you in good stead.
WELSER-MÖST: It’s actually, like all of Schubert’s music, it’s very much a chamber music piece, but it’s long, you need a good sense of architecture, and Schubert, as we know, is sort of a Lieder composer, you need also a really good, beautiful singing sound. Schubert’s great C Major sometimes sounds like misunderstood early Bruckner symphony. I think that’s a wrong approach. You also, if you tackle it with, you know, like the drive of a Beethoven symphony, you also don’t succeed. It’s a piece, which I think has a sort of brings the best out of me in a way when it comes to how I grew up and all that tradition.
KAPLAN: But in general, are there any, for example, any major works you have not yet conducted?
WELSER-MÖST: You will be surprised, yes, there are. And it’s funny how these things sometimes work. Symphonie fantastique is a piece I have never conducted. And there is a reason. Everywhere where I was music director with a symphony orchestra, guest conductors would say, “oh yeah, you know, I want to do Symphonie fantastique,” so I always said, it’s more important that this conductor comes than me doing Symphonie fantastique. So, I never got to it.
KAPLAN: That’s quite amazing. Aside from Symphonie fantastique, what other major works have escaped your baton?
WELSER-MÖST: In the opera world still a few. Tosca and Otello, are the two ones on my list, which I hope that I still will do some day.
KAPLAN: I see. Before we move on to your music list again, you said something which prompts me to ask a question I normally would not ask someone of your age. But a lot of people on the show are much older than you, and I always ask them, but have you ever thought about music you want played at your funeral? Too young to think about that probably, but who knows?
WELSER-MÖST: That’s very true. You know, I just lost recently a friend through a tragic accident who was only 40, so you absolutely never know. The composer who is really closest to my heart is Franz Schubert, and if I would die tomorrow, I would ask Simon Keenlyside to sing a few Schubert songs at my funeral.
KAPLAN: Well, that’s a rather specific response. All right, then let’s come back to your music list, and we now come to that part of the show we call the “wildcard,” where you have a chance to pick a piece of music that’s not opera, it’s not classical music, it can be anything, it can be rock, jazz. So, what would yours be?
WELSER-MÖST: For me, music always is rooted in folk music. And it was not before I came to America that I got some wonderful Jewish friends, specifically two, one I call my “Jewish Mom,” she was my manager for 25 years, Edna Landau, and she is still a very close friend, and the other one, who is like a brother to me, is the principal trombone of the Philadelphia orchestra, Nitzan Haroz. Through him, actually, I got to know of Klezmer music. I always have been interested in folk music of different countries, and I love the sort of the sadness, the melancholy in it, that sort of speaks to me enormously.
KAPLAN: “Yiddish Blues” performed by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the “wildcard” selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. When we return, we’ll talk about the critics and how much they matter to a conductor.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. Now, we should talk about critics. When Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic, he rarely got a good review from the chief critic of The New York Times, and for a while you faced the same problem in Cleveland. Now, Georg Solti was famous for telling conductors, “look, don’t read the reviews, because if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones.” Every conductor, no matter how talented gets good and bad reviews. But does it matter to you what the critics say?
WELSER-MÖST: I have to agree with Solti, you know. If you read them, you know, you have to take them however they turn out to be. Of course there are reviews, where sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t. In this city, in Vienna, you have to know what’s going on in the press, because to be in the leading team of the Vienna State Opera is a highly political job, and the media plays a big role in that. But, there have been reviews which I felt hurt, emotionally, personally hurt, because they were vicious, and personal, and that goes against my sort of basic human philosophy. But in the end I have come more and more to the point of view that, especially today, we all know that the print media loses terrain, loses importance. And I got into social media. I’m fascinated by the contact with young people, and that’s their way of communicating, Facebook, Twitter, all that. And I, you know, I don’t resent that, I actually try to embrace that. And I have been actually more annoyed by interviews or stories where I get misquoted and misinterpreted, and that’s why I’m interested in Facebook and Twitter, because it’s very immediate, and because sometimes people have done that on purpose, and, you know, I think that’s wrong-doing, but it happens quite often.
KAPLAN: Well, I’m sure it does, and it happens to many people. All right, we should move on then, and I see next on your list is Mr. Messiaen.
WELSER-MÖST: I come, as I said before, I come from Upper Austria, and Anton Bruckner’s music is, I grew up with that, it’s close to my heart. And Messiaen is sort of in a way the Bruckner of the 20th century, very Catholic, religious composer, but very inventive and for me Bruckner was also, especially when you look at his first versions of the symphonies, highly inventive and very modern and wasn’t always understood the right way at his time. Messiaen, for me, has the same fascination, and for me just the story of Turangalîla Symphony, the way it got written, is so amazing for me. You know, Koussevitzky commissioned Messiaen, and said you can write whatever you want to, and was thinking of, you know, maybe a 15, 20 minute piece, and there comes Messiaen back with this enormous piece of 75 minutes, where he basically tries to put the entire world into it, like Wagner did with his Ring cycle. You know, you have the dance of the stars in there, and everything. He tried to create a concept of the world, in a way. And I love it that Koussevitzky gave the score to his assistant, Leonard Bernstein, and said, “You do it, I can’t conduct that.” And I do remember, when I did it for the first time, in Cleveland, I was a little scared because it’s a highly complex and difficult score, but Turangalîla Symphony is for me just a masterpiece.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with soloist Jean Yves Thibaudet, on the piano, and Takashi Harada on the ondes martenot all led by Riccardo Chailly and a selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. Now these are two very major musical institutions, and obviously a lot of time is required, not only for you to do your conducting there, but also planning, thinking, community work. How much room is left for guest conducting?
WELSER-MÖST: That has already been over the last years close to zero.
KAPLAN: Really? No guest conducting?
WELSER-MÖST: Hardly any. Basically, now it has been in the last couple of years occasionally the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the future now, it’s over the next five years, I have got every other year a week with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, that’s it. And there is a very simple reason: both jobs are demanding, need my full attention, and there is also other life. And I, since ’95, I’ve a rule, and I’ve not broken it yet, 12 weeks a year I don’t conduct.
KAPLAN: Well, that’s highly unusual, highly unusual, especially for a young person like you who is supposed to be ambitious, but I’m sure it’s good for recharging the cells, which most people don’t do.
WELSER-MÖST: Yes, actually, I’ve said it before, I love reading. I want to keep educating myself, and I think it does the music-making also some good if you, you know… I have thousands of books and I haven’t read all of them, most of them, but not all of them, and there is something called nature, I love hiking in the summer as well as in the winter, and these are things I wouldn’t miss. And, most important, I have a wife I love, I have friends, and I mentioned two of them already on this program. Human relationships also need time. I have another rule, which is every day, at least half an hour of the day, is just for myself, and if it’s the daily yoga I do, or if it’s just reading a little bit, but otherwise you sort of lose touch with yourself.
KAPLAN: Very healthy attitude, I think, I don’t know too many people who’ve been able to do it. Let’s come to your final work then, which is Mozart.
WELSER-MÖST: Mozart is for many people sort of the god of our music history, and for over 30 years now, Così fan tutte has been my all-time favorite opera. But there is reason for it. I have come to my personal philosophy that one of the most important pieces, important parts of life is actually loving other people, and there is no other piece in the opera history which tells us more about that interesting, funny feeling called love. There is this little Recitativo, a quintet, where the two ladies, together with the cynical Don Alfonso, say farewell to the lovers of the ladies, and, only Mozart can do that. Time stops there, and even though it’s a comical situation, the deeper feelings are so true and real, and I don’t know any other composer who can achieve at the same time both ends of the spectrum. So, Così fan tutte is a big lecture for life.
KAPLAN: A moving quintet from Act I of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the Philharmonia Orchestra with soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman, Rolando Panerai, Léopold Simoneau and Sesto Bruscantini, with Herbert von Karajan on the podium. The final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Music Director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst. Let’s now look a bit into the future. For someone who is only 50, you’ve had quite a distinguished career already, a lot of experience: you’ve been the Music Director of two major orchestras and two major opera houses. You’ve won many awards and honors. So as you look into the future, what is left for you to accomplish?
WELSER-MÖST: You asked me already about what should be played at my funeral. So, my motto is carpe diem, use the moment, use the day as it comes, you don’t know if it’s going to be your last. So, as we know from school, time consists of moments, and you just have to treasure the moment, use it. And I think talent, which for me is god-given, is actually an obligation, and it calls for you to do something with it, and so I don’t think here I am, having two of the most prestigious and best, if you want, jobs in our music world, so I don’t think in career terms, the normal career terms, it’s really trying day in and day out to give it the best shot.
KAPLAN: Very good answer, very good answer. All right, last question. This question I ask everybody on the show. I call it “Fantasyland,” and it’s this question; and in your case we have to rule a few things out because you’re already so successful as a conductor. The question is, in your fantasy, if you could be a superstar in any aspect of classical music or opera, other than being a conductor, what would your fantasy be? To be an opera singer? To be a composer? To play the French horn? What would it be?
WELSER-MÖST: Singer. Definitely.
KAPLAN: And what would you like to be in terms of voice? Would you like to be a tenor?
WELSER-MÖST: No, that’s too crazy for me. No, I would love to be a baritone. I would love to be able to be a great Posa in Don Carlo for instance or be able to sing the Count in Figaro or Don Giovanni that would be the dream.
KAPLAN: All right, Franz Welser-Möst, you’ve been a fascinating guest, taking us inside the world of conducting, inside the world of you. We wish you great success as you assume your new position as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera and continue as Music Director in Cleveland. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer