Vienna Philharmonic

Franz Welser-Möst

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Jeff Spurgeon: On this concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall Live, we're hearing one of the world's best orchestras, and a monumental work they will perform for you. The Vienna Philharmonic has brought Gustav Mahler's final completed symphony, his No. 9, to this concert at Carnegie Hall. Backstage at Carnegie Hall, I'm Jeff Spurgeon alongside John Schaefer.

John Schaefer: And a very crowded backstage it is because Mahler's Symphony No. 9 requires something on the order of a hundred musicians to perform it. And it is, Jeff, as you say, a monumental work. The Vienna Philharmonic, they are not strangers to Carnegie Hall, but this really is an event. The orchestra is known for their distinctive sound. Now, every orchestra likes to say they have a distinctive sound. But in this case, they genuinely do, especially because some of the wind instruments are pretty much unique to Vienna. So they do have a sound that is quite unusual. They also have a long history with a who's who of composers and conductors over the last two centuries, including Gustav Mahler.

Jeff Spurgeon: And unlike most orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic doesn't have a permanent music director. They work with guest conductors all the time. Riccardo Muti, Kirill Petrenko, Zubin Mehta are all on the roster to perform with Vienna in, in the coming months. The conductor of today's performance is a native of Austria himself, Franz Welser-Möst.

And we should mention too that it's going to be a couple of minutes before the music starts because there's just one work on this program, the Mahler 9th, and they aren't going to seat anybody who comes late. So they're going to delay the start of the concert by a few minutes.

So out on stage right now at Carnegie, no musicians, about a hundred chairs, seven or eight double basses, a contrabassoon, a couple of harps, six or seven timpani, No people right now, and what you hear backstage is the Vienna Philharmonic, and all of these players look remarkably relaxed. They're just hanging out. They could be waiting for a cab or just beginning to get together instead of getting ready to take us on this incredible journey with conductor Franz Welser-Möst, a native of Austria, and Welser-Möst told us about his connection to the Vienna Philharmonic and what makes a concert like this so distinctive.

Franz Welser-Möst: Doing Mahler 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic, I've done it once before with them, is special because they know the idiom, the musical dialect. You know, like here when you have a Ländler, like the second movement, that's dance music, Viennese, Austrian dance music, and to do that with an orchestra who knows how to do that is just a joy.

Jeff Spurgeon: That Ländler that Welser-Möst refers to is in the, in the second movement. We'll talk about that and some other dances that are happening in this symphony in just a bit.

John Schaefer: Yeah, but the symphony does take up the whole concert today. It's about 90 minutes long, and when asked how he prepares for a piece of this magnitude, Welser-Möst said he looked back to the advice of a famous conducting predecessor.

Franz Welser-Möst: Karajan, Herbert von Karajan once said a very wise statement he made, he said, you know, as a conductor, you have to take the view of a bird overlooking everything. So we know time is relative. You have to know exactly how you want to pace that journey. And, and then you're in the moment, and you don't think anymore, Oh my God, I still have 35 minutes to go. I'm still 20 minutes. It's not a marathon. It's just a symphony, you know. And, and of course it's expansive, but at the same time, we also know if a performance is good, time flies.

John Schaefer: There are also moments during a good performance of Mahler's Ninth where time just seems to stand still, especially at the end of some of these movements.

But first a little more about the piece itself. There are four movements to Mahler's Ninth. It starts with an Andante and then moves into the second movement that Welser-Möst referenced earlier, which includes that traditional Austrian dance, the Ländler, and a waltz. And Franz Welser-Möst explained what the difference is between those.

Franz Welser-Möst: There are two kind of Ländlers, a sort of a rough one, and then, then a very sentimental and even slower one, and that is it. That's a waltz, so you have to know actually with the first type of Ländler, you play the downbeat heavy and the second and the third one a little lighter and later. With the Waltz you have to play the second beat early.

You know, these are these tiny little differences. But, these differences give the character to, to the music.

John Schaefer: The third movement of Mahler's Ninth is called Rondo-Burleske, and it has a special dedication to Mahler's critics, as Welser-Möst explains.

Franz Welser-Möst: Mahler himself said about that movement that he dedicates it to his critics "To his brothers in Apollo," which means other composers. And basically, forgive me for my language, he tried to show the middle finger to his colleagues. And it's, it's angry. But there is then this one passage in the last third of the movement, where it's an outlook towards the last movement where it's serene and, and solemn and soft but everything else is, I think, highly neurotic music.

John Schaefer: And that leaves us with the final movement, the Adagio, the very end of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Welser-Möst describes it as going into silence, and he told us what he means about that phrase.

Franz Welser-Möst: From one pause to the next, he sort of lets the music die. He writes then also at the end, morendo, which means dying, and it goes into total silence. The best you can do is really making the orchestra die. Softer and softer, so you, as a listener, you can't tell anymore are they still playing or not. And that's what I refer to when, you know, it goes into silence.

Jeff Spurgeon: Conductor Franz Welser-Möst with some thoughts on this Mahler 9th we're about to hear. Now, one of the ways that we can look at this symphony is from the idea of Mahler looking at death. He had been diagnosed with a heart condition, he was under a lot of stress, he was working at the time he composed this, with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. And he was still grieving the death of his daughter a few years before. So he was thinking a lot about mortality, and in fact, the Ninth quotes a fragment from one of his Kindertotenlieder, the songs on the death of children.

John Schaefer: On the other hand, Mahler was always sort of facing death. In his, in his works.

Jeff Spurgeon: And, and his life was very full at this moment in spite of the stresses. [Right]. He was planning other compositions, he had other things going. So, it's correct, I think, to look at this Mahler 9th as, as a view of death, but as you say, he'd done that before. [Yeah]. And, and it wasn't the only place that he was in his life, was looking at the Grim Reaper all the time.

John Schaefer: And, you know, at this point it might be useful to just bring up the superstition of the Ninth Symphony. [Yes]. That Mahler was aware of the many composers who had written a Symphony No. 9 and then passed away. [Right]. And he tried to get around that by writing Das Lied von der Erde and calling that a symphony and then immediately beginning the Symphony No. 10. But he was, if he was tempting fate, fate came and got him because he did not live actually to see the first performance of this piece, let alone conclude the Symphony No. 10.

Jeff Spurgeon: And as you are hearing now, the Vienna Philharmonic has entered the Carnegie Hall stage from both wings on, on both sides. So they're all out there in their formal white ties and black coats and getting seated and the concertmaster Albena Danailova. The first woman concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic is in that role today. The orchestra has four concertmasters on its roster, but today it is Miss Danailova, Bulgarian violinist, who's been in that position now for about 15 years at the Vienna Philharmonic.

And so we are, as you hear, hearing the musicians do a little final bit of tuning up, and then we will see the conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, appear. And we're going to take this great journey into, as Mahler said, a symphony that contain, should contain all the world. And in this one it does, and maybe looks beyond that too. And so, I didn't even see him, he was sitting right beside me.

John Schaefer: Yes. Listening, listening to every word you said.

Jeff Spurgeon: Oh dear. Franz Welser-Möst, he just stood up and walked out, and so there he goes out on stage.

Oh, I hope you're ready for this exciting journey. It's going to be an amazing experience. The Mahler 9th with the Vienna Philharmonic. Very warm greeting from a sold out house here at Carnegie Hall. 2, 800 people joining you, listening to this broadcast of the Mahler Symphony No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst from Carnegie Hall Live.


John Schaefer: That was the Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler, his last completed symphony, played live here at Carnegie Hall by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

Austrian composer, his music interpreted by this sterling ensemble based in Vienna, Austria, Vienna. And led by a conductor who is a native of Austria. And so this was about as authoritative a performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 9 as you could hope for. Musicians all speaking the same dialect, if you will.

Franz Welser-Möst accepting the applause of the sold-out crowd here at Carnegie Hall. After a symphony, Jeff Spurgeon, that takes us through a rollercoaster of emotions and sounds.

Jeff Spurgeon: Well, and as Franz Welser-Möst told us in speaking about the symphony, some of this music is neurotic. There are all kinds of moods that go through this. And it was after he finished the Ninth Symphony that Mahler underwent analysis by Sigmund Freud. [Right]. And managed to tell Freud that after a terrible fight between his parents, Mahler, as a boy, remembered running into the street and he heard a barrel organ playing a popular tune. And as Jack Sullivan writes in the notes for this program in the Playbill at Carnegie Hall, "forever afterward, for Mahler, tragedy and banality were united in his imagination, forging an aesthetic he could not escape." And I think that's a wonderful explanation of some of what we hear in Mahler. The, the excess perhaps of a Scherzo Burleske, and then these rich and glorious moments for the strings and the whole orchestra of such tenderness and such depth and power, all in the same work, embracing the world as Mahler said a symphony should do.

John Schaefer: And even in the second movement, with those folksy Austrian dances, the Ländler and the Waltzes, even in that movement there is a kind of complex emotional tenor that is struck. There's, there's a hint of bittersweet, of sadness, even, in those dances.

Jeff Spurgeon: It is one of the great things that Mahler is able to do is to communicate what seem to be contrary emotions in the same moment. And I think you've just explained that beautifully.

Now on stage, Franz Welser-Möst, that cheer that you heard for him was, was for him just a moment ago. Now all the members of the Vienna Philharmonic are joining in the applause for this conductor and for some of their colleagues. Welser-Möst back on the podium with congratulatory handshakes to the concertmaster and assistant concertmaster, all the orchestra. Welser-Möst now facing the audience. Those cheers that you're hearing are from this Carnegie Hall audience for this orchestra and conductor after three days of performances here in New York City. This is the last of their three-day stop in the city.

John Schaefer: And it is part of a series of concerts that Carnegie Hall is presenting this season called Dancing on the Precipice, the Fall of the Weimar Republic. Now, this work was debuted in 1911, before World War I and the Weimar Republic. However one of the things Mahler was dealing with while he was writing the Ninth Symphony, in addition to the health problems that we mentioned, and the incredible workload he had taken on here in New York with the New York Phil and the Met Opera, was a situation back home in Vienna where he was essentially kicked out of an orchestra for reasons that were kind of suffused with antisemitism, which was on the rise in Europe and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. And when Mahler, who was from a Jewish family, died, and and people were thinking, oh, well, his music will live on. In the 1930s, after the fall of the Weimar Republic, this music was declared Entartete Musik, degenerate music, by the Nazis. So although it, it did not actually occur during the Weimar Republic, it is a cautionary tale of what went before, and what came after.

Jeff Spurgeon: It fell under that shadow, and very powerfully so.

Once again, back on stage, Franz Welser-Möst, standing beside the members of the Vienna Philharmonic with the applause from this Carnegie Hall audience, which is enthusiastic because of the work that they just played, but this is also, as I say, a tribute after three performances.

And now, with the house lights coming back and the orchestra stepping off stage, we are very privileged to welcome Franz Welser-Möst to the microphone. Congratulations on this performance, Maestro.

Franz Welser-Möst: Thank you.

Jeff Spurgeon: What do you feel after a performance of the Ninth, and how dare do you let go? How dare do you let yourself be close to the emotions of this work?

Franz Welser-Möst: I feel exhausted. . . That's all, that's all I can say. You know, it's such a big journey for everyone and you know, we, we tried really in rehearsals to deep, to dive deep into what it means really.

Jeff Spurgeon: You spent a lot of time with the rehearsal, with the orchestra in rehearsal just this afternoon, and you spoke to them a lot. What were you. What were you talking to them about?

Franz Welser-Möst: You know, it's basically how do you express a musical idea. And very much comes with specific sounds. And of course you have to adjust. We played it in Vienna, that's a different acoustic, so, you know, you have to balance certain things differently. But the most important thing is how do you convey a message of the composer during different colors or through different colors and sounds.

John Schaefer: So the last time that we spoke was when you were here with the Cleveland Orchestra. If you had played this performance, this piece with the Cleveland Orchestra, how different would that have been for you? And perhaps for us as listeners?

Franz Welser-Möst: Very different. But you know, I always say like, you know, if you, if you take a famous pianist and the famous violinist, and they play together. It's take and give. That's what music is about. And thank God, the Cleveland Orchestra, as a collective, has a different personality than the Vienna Philharmonic and the other way around. And that's, you know, in a world where everything gets globalized and everything sounds more and more the same, I, I think it's wonderful that you have an orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic, which really nurtures its tradition and certain specifics which are Viennese, you know, the, the famous word schlamperei, but it has to be ingenious, the schlamperei.

Jeff Spurgeon: That's a wonderful way to put it.

John Schaefer: So the, the winds are, are, they have a distinct kind of tone to them.

Franz Welser-Möst: Yeah, but it, you know, it's not just that it's Viennese horns via horns we use in, in Cleveland or the Viennese oboe versus the French oboe. It's not just that, it's certain rhythmical tiny little nuances which give the Viennese sound a certain swing. That's the only way I can describe it.

John Schaefer: Well, they speak the same language that Mahler spoke.

Franz Welser-Möst: Yes, that's very true for most of them. You know, it has become very international, but the point being that a language you can learn. And so you know, they just, everyone who comes in, they're Russian people from Ukraine, from, from Venezuela, from here, from there, but they all have to learn the Viennese dialect.

Jeff Spurgeon: You're a Perspectives artist at Carnegie Hall this year, and also this concert is one of the, of the presentations in the Dancing on the Precipice, Fall of the Weimar Republic series. You've, you've played an important role in that series this year, and I'm wondering what this exploration has brought to you, as you've thought about these programs and presented some of these programs and talked about, about that era and our time as well.

Franz Welser-Möst: You know the, the Weimar Republic stands actually sort of for chaos, in a way, because til the late Romantic, the turn of the century, sort of everyone was one way or another in the Romantic style, before in the Vienna Classical style, Baroque style, whatever, with all the difference, if you look at Bach and Vivaldi, for instance. But it's Baroque music.

But then, all of a sudden, all the composers sort of went off in different directions, like the program we played last night. Hindemith, totally different, then Frau ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss, the suite, totally different, then Schoenberg, Opus 31, 12-tone music, and La Valse by Ravel. It's all extremely different, and all these four pieces have been written within just a few years. You know, so, it, the word I would use is disorientation, which was that time. And some of it we experience today as well.

John Schaefer: Well, you mentioned La Valse by Ravel. I mean, that is the sound, by the end of the piece, that is the sound of things falling apart. And I wonder if you feel the Mahler 9 contains any kind of intimations of any hints of what was coming.

Franz Welser-Möst: No, I don't think so. I think you know, that in Mahler 9, there's one thing which I find so interesting when you look at how he evolved as a composer. For the first time, I think he actually shows humility in the last movement. It's this giving in into what is unavoidable. And so you know, it's difficult to speculate on, on what people felt at that time when you read.

Most people sort of didn't see it coming. When, like, look at when Austria declared war on Serbia in 1914, and a lot of the intellectuals and artists were actually for the war because they thought it's over in six weeks. At Christmas, everything is fine and gone. And then it turned into a World War. So, and Schoenberg is the best example. he was for the war. And then he, he sort of became a pacifist, you know, and he's by far not the only one. But Mahler, you know, I think so much of his music has to do really with his own life, with his own struggle. But as I said, you know I, I think in towards the end already, already in the eighth symphony, that he takes two texts, which are sort of milestones in history. On one side, the, the most beautiful text is in Christian Church. The, the with some, what do you call it the text for, for the Weston Festival (UNKNOWN) and which was written by a monk, Rabanus Maurus, in 800 something, and is one of the most beautiful texts there is, in the, in the, at least for the Catholic Church. And he takes for the second movement the last scene of Goethe's Faust, which is an enigma to us. Still to the very day. And, and so, you know, he, he got away from just looking at himself and his struggle. And in the Ninth Symphony, already the beginning, it's, he talks about the past. It's a farewell but it's, it's a farewell where he doesn't fight anymore.

Jeff Spurgeon: We have to, we have to extend to you a farewell at this time. You have people who want to see you, but thank you for this journey in music today and the words you've given us this afternoon.

Franz Welser-Möst: Thank you very much.

Jeff Spurgeon: Franz Welser-Möst, the conductor of today's performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, after a weekend with the orchestra here in New York City, playing, and for you.

John Schaefer: And for a guy who is justifiably exhausted after leading that performance, able to string more than a few words together in a very coherent way. That was, I'm mighty impressed.

Jeff Spurgeon: A pretty marvelous piece of business for sure. Ah. And so you can hear that things are folding up and so we're going to conclude this broadcast from Carnegie Hall Live as well.

John Schaefer: Our thanks to Clive Gillinson and the staff of Carnegie Hall. WQXR's team includes engineers Edward Haber, George Wellington, Duke Marcos, and Chase Culpon. Our production team Eileen Delahunty, Laura Boyman, Aimée Buchanan, Yueqing Guo. I'm John Schaefer.

Jeff Spurgeon: And I'm Jeff Spurgeon. Carnegie Hall Live is a co-production of Carnegie Hall and WQXR in New York.

This is Classical, 105. 9 FM at HD, WQXR, Newark, and 90. 3 FM, WQXW, Ossining.