GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back as we open our spring season with my guest, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg.
He is the leader of one of the most unique musical institutions in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic. Its members are actually employees of the Austrian government working in the orchestra of the State Opera. But the Opera's most talented musicians moonlight as a self-governing symphonic orchestra, playing ten subscription concerts each year for which one has to wait ten years to become a subscriber. They have no music director; there are no union rules. And witnessing their unique string sound and their unbridled intensity is a palpable experience. To many, the Vienna Philharmonic is simply the best orchestra in the world. But it is not without controversy and today we'll explore all of this with my guest who is the President of the Orchestra. Clemens Hellsberg, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
CLEMENS HELLSBERG: Thank you. I feel welcomed and I feel honored because this title, “Mad About Music,” that describes also my life.
KAPLAN: We’re sitting here in Carnegie Hall where the orchestra has just completed three concerts. Now Carnegie and Vienna’s Musikverein where you normally perform are both acoustical miracles -- legendary for their sound. But as a performer, what can you say about the difference in their sounds?
HELLSBERG: I must say, if you play the same program in Musikverein and then here in Carnegie Hall, it’s so interesting, and especially this time. It was for me, in a way, exciting, to hear that some pieces would work in a way here even better. It was the Berlioz in particular.
KAPLAN: Can you describe it a bit more specifically? You say it worked “better”. What does that mean? That certain notes were clearer?
HELLSBERG: Ja. It was clearer, it was easier, that one section could hear better the other section. So, the Musikverein has a phenomenal acoustic, and it supports you -- it’s unbelievable. But the support for some pieces, and in some passages, creates some problems, because it’s so –
KAPLAN: You mean it blends everything so smoothly that you sometimes lose clarity?
KAPLAN: Now your conductor for these Carnegie concerts was Valery Gergiev, and he’s also been a guest on “Mad About Music”, just like you. Now, when he was here, he said something rather provocative: that if musicians were really honest, the way he put it, they would admit that only a small portion of what they do is really good. Now, at the end of a concert, I’m sure you are your own toughest critic, so I ask you how many of the performances – when you have finished them do you say to yourself, this was really, really good? And here I ask you, by the way, not about the orchestra, but your own playing.
HELLSBERG: My personal feeling, how I feel how I was. And it makes no sense not to be honest. And I know pretty well what did not work in this performance as I wanted it. So then you have to think about what were the reasons? Did I practice too less? Did I practice the wrong thing? Or, was there an irritation from outside, from another section. That I’m really satisfied with myself -- if it’s ten percent of the concerts, then I would be glad.
KAPLAN: You know, I was at those concerts, and Carnegie’s audience seemed to me at least very concentrated. Does the audience response make a difference?
HELLSBERG: Ja, most concert visitors do not know how responsible they are for the success of a concert, that there is an interaction because, really you feel it if you enter a stage, you can feel the interest of the audience.
KAPLAN: Fascinating. All right, let’s then listen to some of the music you picked for today. And I see your first selection is Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony -- his final symphony.
HELLSBERG: I would like to start with this piece, due to two reasons. One is that this record was made with Leonard Bernstein, and he was one of the great personalities in the history of our orchestra. We owe him many, many hours of madness of music. He always could convince us with his enthusiasm. I would love to dedicate this movement to my personal memory of Leonard Bernstein. And the other reason is that this movement, this last movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony is Mozart, who is for me the greatest of all, but Mozart at his very best. Because this movement is from many points of view fascinating, it is not only the inspiration, it is not only the brilliance, the virtuosity, but it is also from the composition, it is so complicated. The counterpoint is so complicated that even Johann Sebastian Bach could have been proud if he would have written this piece, this last movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 -- the “Jupiter”. The Vienna Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. The first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. Now as you picked this recording in part to showcase the conductor, I think we should talk about conductors, because the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the very few orchestras that has no music director -- not even a principle conductor -- only guest conductors.
HELLSBERG: Ja, this system with the guest conductors, it has a huge advantage because it enables us to stay in permanent contact with the great musical personalities of the time. I think it is ideal for the orchestra, because for a musician, I am convinced it is so important to be confronted with different points of view. And for example, if we play a Mozart symphony in the same week or in the same month, once we did even on the same day, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Riccardo Muti. You hear, you feel, you think different about Mozart than you would have done before.
KAPLAN: Now, in addition to the regular conductors, those you always work with, you do add new ones and how quickly do you know if one of those is going to work out?
HELLSBERG: I would say, it’s the same as it is in life. We know that love at first sight in fact exists. It’s the same with an orchestra and a conductor. Other relations need time -- are developing over years and years. And some relations would not happen. Now, it’s important to know that it must not be the failure of one of the parties, of the orchestra or of the conductor. But if both speak a completely different musical language, then it makes no sense to collaborate, from both sides.
KAPLAN: But what does that mean when you say “speak a completely different musical language”?
HELLSBERG: Our orchestra is always interested in conserving or producing a specific sound. And a conductor who cannot work or does not like this sound, and you feel it, whether one is convinced that this is the sound I want, the one that the orchestra plays, he must not say this. But if you feel that one does not understand, or feels in another way, then it makes no sense for both parties.
KAPLAN: I see. Well, one time where it seems you almost don’t need a conductor is for what is surely your most famous concert, and that’s your annual New Year’s event, where you play very familiar, mostly Johann Strauss type music and I see you have chosen to play today a work from your 2008 concert.
HELLSBERG: For this selection, I’ve chosen not a Strauss, a member of the Strauss family, but Josef Lanner - especially the Hofball-Tänze. It has a very brilliant introduction. But then, the first waltz, it could be from Franz Schubert, and it has Vienna -- it demonstrates Vienna at its very best. I mean, this is - this combination of joy and sorrow at the same moment, and with the same melody. Also this striving for, in a very romantic and a little bit pessimistic way, striving for a better world. And I’m sure, because we must imagine when this music was written, we say always in German, we say: die gute alte Zeit, the good old times. These were not good times. If you look at the social situations and the monarchy - that was not ideal. So I’m convinced that it was an idealistic picture even at this time. But nowadays, it reminds us on an ideal which is immortal and that means, and the Hofball-Tänze for me, describes this feeling perfectly well, this means striving for infinity.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Josef Lanner’s Hofball-Tänze Waltz, the Vienna Philharmonic at their 2008 New Year’s concert under the baton of Georges Prêtre, broadcast live to an audience of perhaps 25 million music lovers in more than 50 countries. A selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music” and a man who played in the violin section of that concert, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. When we return, we’ll discuss how the Vienna Philharmonic is doing in living up to its pledge to treat women equally with men in selecting new members of the orchestra.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music”, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. We were talking earlier about the tricky relationship between conductors and the Vienna Philharmonic. And here I should disclose for our listeners that I have conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. And at that time one of your colleagues told me that what you really look for in a conductor is someone who can bring fresh ideas -- truly fresh ideas. But is it still possible to bring fresh ideas to masterpieces say of Brahms or Mozart without distorting the composer’s intentions?
HELLSBERG: It is amazing, but it is a matter of fact that it is possible. And I think that each masterpiece has to be discovered by each generation, and therefore, it is a matter of fact that great personalities bring a new aspect, even in pieces which you have played a hundred times before.
KAPLAN: All right then. True confession: from whom did you learn the most? What conductor?
HELLSBERG: It was always fascinating to listen to Carlos Kleiber, and his enormous fantasy, ja? Sometimes bizarre, even, weird. But you had always the feeling he is very close to the brain or to the heart of the composer. He could describe this world. Also excellent in describing his own imaginations was Karajan. He could explain pretty well what he wanted, when, for example when he said a tremolo and he wanted it to be played very fast, and very shocking in a way. Then, he used to say, sometimes he said “did you ever stand with bare feet on a nest of vesps?”
KAPLAN: You mean “wasps” I think.
HELLSBERG: Ja. And when they get furious, and that was what he meant, in this way we have to play, and then you can imagine what he means, and it will sound!
KAPLAN: You know, I find that very interesting that you say that because what most conductors always hear from orchestras is: don’t talk too much, you must be able to show what you want. In any case the problem of conductors has no bearing on your next selection which is conductor-free: chamber music, and in this case, Schubert.
HELLSBERG: That’s fantastic that this piece will be played because it is Alfred Brendel who plays the slow movement of the quintet, the “Trout”. Alfred Brendel works with our orchestra since more than fifty years, more than half a century. He is honorary member and whenever he comes, then you feel the stage is different, the orchestra is a different one, the hall is a different one. Schubert I think is one of the great composers who is the most misunderstood in the history of music. And many people do not realize that he was permanently walking between two worlds: hopeless, and sometimes a glimpse of hope, but always back and forth. And, in this second movement I think this demonstrates what I try to express with very poor words, God thanks, we can not express it - it has nothing to do with my problems with the English language, I would have the same problems in German. We cannot really describe feelings, or we cannot describe another world. Schubert can.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the second movement of Schubert’s piano quintet in A-major – the “Trout” Quintet. Performed by members of the Cleveland Quartet with Alfred Brendel on the piano. Music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. And now we turn to a topic that you probably are tired of talking about but no trip by the Vienna Philharmonic to New York would be complete without someone asking for a progress report, a report on how you are doing in meeting your commitment to include women as full members of the orchestra.
HELLSBERG: Ja, we have, in 1997, when we decided and with a clear majority, that women have the same chances that means they can apply for auditions. It is for us absolutely clear, it is only an artistic question whether one becomes engaged or not. Since this time female players apply for the auditions. It’s clear that it’s different – there are more for violin and flute than for tuba and trombone. And in the meantime, we have six women engaged.
KAPLAN: You say six, and indeed I noticed there were six women on the stage at Carnegie Hall for the March concerts, but are these six women really full members? I thought there were fewer than that.
HELLSBERG: Everybody has to serve at least for three years as member of the Vienna State Opera orchestra before one can apply for membership in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. And now we have several women in between of this three years. Next year more will be full members. For example, I personally, I played the concerts here in New York on the same stand with one of our female colleagues, she is not yet member of the orchestra, but next year at this time, she will be already.
KAPLAN: I see, but just for the record, at the moment how many women are actually members? Full members?
HELLSBERG: Full members of the orchestra association? At the moment are two.
KAPLAN: You know, I am reminded of something President John Kennedy once said that “Sincerity is always subject to proof”. Now if in eleven years only two women have become full members, it surely raises a question of sincerity. What confidence do you have that the situation will improve over the next few years?
HELLSBERG: If we look at the figures, let’s say, at the music university in Vienna or in Salzburg, in Austria some instruments some woodwinds especially, more than seventy percent of the students are female. So, it’s clear that percentage of winners of auditions will one day be the same as the figures of the students are.
KAPLAN: Are you really saying that there might be seventy percent women in the woodwinds one day?
HELLSBERG: In some instruments, it might happen.
KAPLAN: Well that would be a rather wild scenario for the Vienna Philharmonic, and speaking of wild, provides a perfect transition to the next section of our show which is called the “wildcard”. Here you have a chance to pick some music outside of classical music or opera. So what did you bring us today?
HELLSBERG: This is an experience which was a very, surprising, I wouldn’t say a key point in my life, but it was an amazing experience. My father was music teacher, and I learned violin, and it wouldn’t have been possible, my father never would have agreed or allowed that we would listen to pop music. And then one time I was invited by a classmate of mine, and when I entered this house, suddenly I heard some music which I never heard before. And it was less the music itself but it was the way this guy was singing, and I was in a way touched because I liked the voice, and I liked the way he sang. And, it was Elvis. And then I learned how famous Elvis was. I never had heard before of him - even heard his name. And then suddenly I was listening to his singing and I must say that was a great experience.
KAPLAN: Elvis Presley singing “All Shook Up”, the “wildcard” selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. When we return, we’ll talk about how Leonard Bernstein was “all shook up” when he came to the orchestra to conduct Mahler.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. You know, you were talking before about Leonard Bernstein and I’d like to return to him. Because “All Shook Up” might also be a good title for what happened when Bernstein first came to your orchestra to conduct Mahler. He was shocked by what he regarded as the orchestra’s lack of understanding of Mahler’s music. He actually scolded the orchestra saying “This is your music and you don’t have the slightest idea how to play it” or something like that. This was captured on television in any case and is now part of history. You remember that I suppose.
HELLSBERG: Ja. I was not yet member of the orchestra when he started the Mahler cycle.
KAPLAN: But you’ve heard the story.
HELLSBERG: Ja, it’s clear and I played them in later years, I played with him several Mahler symphonies. It is not so easy as it seems. If you look at the figures, in the time after Mahler’s death the orchestra continued playing Mahler.
KAPLAN: No, no. I don’t think Bernstein was making the point that you never played it, but rather that you didn’t know how to play it.
HELLSBERG: Now we come to this, what for me, it has an inner reason in that it is to relate what we talked before. Bernstein brought a completely new input into this music. He saw it from a very different point of view, as for example Bruno Walter did. And I think what Bernstein wanted, because we must not forget, if you don’t play these pieces regularly, then they are very difficult, or many of them are really difficult. And in combination with this enormous intensity, this enthusiasm, which Bernstein asked for, or demanded, that was for the colleagues, especially for the elder colleagues, that was a new world. Bernstein was completely right saying, “that’s your music.” But it was – it is right, it was our music, but combined with his spirit.
KAPLAN: I like that: your music – his spirit. But, let’s talk about your own musical spirit. Now you’re someone who sits in the violin section, and as you know, you’re required to blend in, to avoid ever sticking out. That’s why when I invited you to appear on the show, you recall, I asked you to include on your list an example of you playing soloistically and I see you’ve brought us a Bach Concerto today.
HELLSBERG: When I was talking about Elvis that was such a surprise. Much earlier, for me, one of the greatest experiences of my life was when I started practicing or studying this Bach E major Violin Concerto. It was especially the slow movement. Even as a child, I was eleven or twelve years when I started to study it. It was for me, I couldn’t explain at this moment, but I remember very well it brought me from the first bar in another world, and I was in a way puzzled. I didn’t know what would happen with me. I did not understand what it really is. But I knew it must be something incredible and something very, very special. And I have, God thanks, the same feelings, also, nowadays, forty-five years later, exactly the same feelings every time when I play or listen to the second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major.
KAPLAN: An excerpt of the second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, performed by a quintet of members from the Vienna Philharmonic, and as soloist, my guest today on “Mad About Music”, violinist and Vienna Philharmonic President, Clemens Hellsberg. While we’re talking about your being in the limelight as a soloist, I understand that the orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Rolex have just entered into a new arrangement where starting next year they’re going to be your principle sponsor. Does that mean we can look forward to seeing the orchestra on television all adorned in Rolexes?
HELLSBERG: No, that will be done in a completely other way. Rolex has a very significant line of advertisements. You can be sure that we will not play with Rolexes on the wrists and every violinist has to demonstrate this.
KAPLAN: I was thinking more like Lang Lang and Renée Fleming – that we would see your picture in magazines.
HELLSBERG: No, no, the orchestra -- a picture of the orchestra.
KAPLAN: All right, we now come then to your final selection, which was a revolutionary piece when it was composed, Strauss’s Salome.
HELLSBERG: I wanted to bring one record of our orchestra as an opera orchestra and Richard Strauss was an honorary member of our orchestra, he conducted about eighty concerts. He was four or five years director of the Vienna State Opera. This performance - this record was made in 1977. Herbert von Karajan was the conductor, he was laureate conductor of our orchestra. We had a relationship also, more than – it was fifty-five years. He was no doubt one of the fascinating conductors of his time, and one of the spectacular productions was this Salome, not only because it was the first and only time that he conducted - that he performed Salome with us, a piece which is our repertoire, but he brought a new singer, and nobody knew her in Vienna, and in Salzburg, and she was a sensation. And this was Hildegard Behrens. She was convincing not only by singing, but she really was Salome.
KAPLAN: The riveting conclusion of Richard Strauss’s Salome, with the Vienna Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan, with the title role sung by Hildegard Behrens -- this the final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. So at the end, of course, Salome dies which brings me to a very personal question. As someone who is so close to music and has talked today about how it touches you in such a personal way, I wonder if you’ve thought about the music you’d want played at your own funeral.
HELLSBERG: There are two pieces, which I would maybe like most. One is the slow movement of Mozart’s C Major piano concerto, K. 467; and the other is Tchaikovsky’s panorama of his ballet, Sleeping Beauty. That would be the pieces.
KAPLAN: Beautiful music. I had a feeling you had thought about that question. All right, let’s talk about a happier subject and turn to the evolving role of the orchestra, your orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic. Now during the past few years the orchestra has been taking on what one might call humanitarian initiatives. What is behind this?
HELLSBERG: I think that we have the obligation, each artist, who is a true artist, has to provide one of the most important things for this planet, where so many people live in poverty, in misery, a planet which is destroyed by wars, by hatred, by environmental problems, that we give those people one thing, and this is hope.
KAPLAN: How does the orchestra do that?
HELLSBERG: To focus on some always another humanitarian project. It is not possible for us; we cannot do spectacular things, but to give a certain number of people the feeling that they are not alone. That somebody is thinking of them, and if it’s the Vienna Philharmonic in this case. I was really not only surprised, I was happy when I learned that in 2005, that the WHO, the World Health Organization, appointed us to become Goodwill Ambassadors, because it’s not only a huge organization, it is an organization of the United Nations. It is a great honor for the orchestra, but it is also a confirmation that our way was the right one.
KAPLAN: Well, with that we now approach the end of the show and a final question which is something I ask all my guests. I call this section “fantasyland” and it requires a true confession on your part - no escape. So here’s the question: if you were not a violinist and you could be a star in any aspect of music – a conductor, an opera singer, play the French horn – what would your fantasy be?
KAPLAN: And what kind of a singer would you be? One of lieder, opera? And would you want to be a tenor, baritone, bass?
HELLSBERG: Opera. Um, it makes for me no difference, because for example it would be for me as attractive and as fascinating to sing for example, Hans Sachs.
HELLSBERG: Ja - with his enormous wisdom. But it would be also attractive to sing the Falstaff, who has a completely different point of view of the life. Or to sing the Tamino in The Magic Flute. So that would be no difference, but the human voice.
KAPLAN: You would be a very flexible singer - singing all roles. HELLSBERG: I would love to do it - that’s everything.
KAPLAN: Clemens Hellsberg, you’ve been a fascinating guest, taking us inside the Vienna Philharmonic and providing us with a glimpse of the power music exerts on your own life. Many thanks for appearing today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”.