Marking 15 years, Welser-Möst is in a good place with Cleveland Orchestra

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Franz Welser-Möst will bring the Cleveland Orchestra to Chicago Saturday for their first visit since 2003.

Franz Welser-Möst will lead the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Bach and Bruckner Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center.

When Franz Welser-Möst was announced as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, many were surprised by the choice of the slender young Austrian to take the reins of the famous ensemble that was honed by the legendary autocrat George Szell into a refined and extraordinary instrument. The Cleveland Orchestra’s reputation continued and was burnished by Szell’s podium successors, Lorin Maazel and Christoph von Dohnanyi.

 The first years of Welser-Möst’s Cleveland tenure were somewhat stormy, characterized by tough reviews and criticism about both the quality and consistency of his performances, locally and on the road.

Currently marking his 15th season leading the Cleveland Orchestra,  Welser-Möst has persevered through those hectic early years, answering his critics with his work on the podium and is having the last laugh. The orchestra enjoys as strong a reputation as it ever has, the conductor is popular with his home audience and in Miami at the Arsht Center residency, and his contract was recently extended through 2022. Further, Cleveland’s adventurous local programming puts most other leading American orchestras to shame. Even the picky musical press seems to have come around, acknowledging Welser-Möst’s musical leadership and podium skills.

This weekend Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra will bring to the Arsht Center Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and music from Bach cantatas performed by Miami’s hometown choral ensemble, Seraphic Fire, in their first joint collaboration.

Speaking from Cleveland, the soft-spoken maestro, now 56,  is clearly a relaxed and satisfied musician, comfortable with his role as he moves toward the two-decade mark in Cleveland.

“You know when you start a job you have to have a vision for what you want to achieve,” he says. “Maintaining a fine instrument–which it always has been, no doubt–is just not enough.

“By now I’ve appointed over forty players in the last fourteen years,” he added. “So almost half of the orchestra is musicians which I have picked. That means it has become truly my orchestra.

“Cleveland always has been known for its precision and meticulous playing. And I wanted to add on one side, a ‘singing’ sound and also flexibility. Basically, the goal has been to create the biggest chamber music group in the world. Which is a different concept than having a wonderful machine, which follows exactly what the conductor does.”

Performing operas in concert has been part of his plan to increase the ensemble’s versatility and flexibility.

“Precision is a tool. It doesn’t equal music. I tried to teach the orchestra what it means to be flexible, but to do that with everyone together at the same time, so that you would add flexibility without losing the precision.

“For instance last summer in Salzburg we did the Four Last Songs. What I tried to achieve with them is that whatever the singer does everyone has to be with that singer. Even if you’re sitting a couple yards away. It’s a different kind of listening and reacting.

“That has been my goal. It’s like with a great string quartet like the Alban Berg Quartet. They were spontaneous in performances; not just doing what they rehearsed. And to achieve that with 104 people takes time.”

The conductor says that even with such a refined and polished orchestra as exists in Cleveland, there is still room for improvement.

“First of all, you never reach the ultimate. That’s part of the ‘charm” of being a musician,” he says with a laugh. “You always strive for perfection but you never achieve it. Building and orchestra or steering it in a certain direction—that’s a long-term project. It’s not something that you achieve in two or three years.”

Welser-Möst’s repertoire has been wide, concentrated on Austro-German cornerstones but also embracing French repertoire, Sibelius and a wide range of 20th and contemporary music. He even opened the current season with Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3.

The program he is doing in Cleveland and Miami this month is typically enterprising, pairing the Seventh Symphony of Anton Bruckner—a composer specialty for Welser-Möst–with choral music of Bach, performed by Seraphic Fire.

Welser-Möst has received some of his greatest acclaim for music of Bruckner and he has closely identified with his compatriot’s music for most of his life.

“I was born just a couple of miles from the town where Bruckner was born, and I grew up with his music; the church music, his motets are some of my earliest childhood memories,” said Welser-Möst.

“I think this music is less ‘churchy’ than some people think it is,” he added. “The interesting side of Bruckner for me, is that with one leg, he’s still in the Baroque time. He doesn’t fit the usual Romantic artist [temperament], like Richard Wagner and all these egomaniacs. He was a very devoted, good Catholic, humble and unsophisticated and even clumsy to a certain extent.”

“His music very much has this enormous conflict between the old world and—for him at that time–the new world, in his fascination with Richard Wagner’s music. I think this conflict in his work makes his music closer to Gustav Mahler than most people think. Because Mahler, as we know, was also an artist with enormous conflict in his own work.”

The conductor noted that Mahler arranged the four-hand piano reduction of Bruckner’s Third Symphony and, in gratitude, Bruckner gave Mahler the autograph manuscript of the work, which touched the young colleague very much. “So I think there is plenty of common soil between Bruckner and Mahler.”

Welser-Most also takes a more architectural view than those who see Bruckner’s vast symphonies as epic spiritual journeys, reflecting his deep Roman Catholicism.

“His music is less simple than a lot of my colleagues think. Take Bruckner Seven. Nobody can really hear it but in the first section of the first movement, you have a hidden quote of the Liebestod. And that’s no there by coincidence.

“[The Seventh] is in E major and not many symphonies are written in E major. But Tristan is written in E major, even though it only appears for two measures in the entire piece. But still it’s always related to E major–the key of romantic love. And romantic love does not go together with ‘churchy’.” So in many ways it’s a symphony that reflects on Tristan und Isolde.

He though that pairing Bruckner with music of Bach on the first half would bring out some intriguing common ground.

“When you look at music history from Beethoven onward and you look at the philosophical side of it, the human world and ego becomes more and more important.

“Bach was not someone who wrote music out of self indulgence, “ he said. “But Bruckner was the same way. He wrote music because he had to write music. And so his attitude and his approach about writing music was something very simple to the Baroque composers.”

“The order was such that there was God and God’s representatives on earth—the kings and whomever–everything had its order After the Age of Enlightenment, it was not the king’s anymore. But Bruckner, in his thinking is still in that Baroque time. And that’s why I thought it could be interesting to combine these two composers.”

With his contract extended, Welser-Möst is grateful for the additional time but aware that the clock is ticking and he still has much he wants to accomplish in the remaining five seasons.

“There’s a lot of repertoire we still haven’t tackled together. I would love to hear my orchestra play Frau ohne Schatten. I would love to hear my orchestra play Parsifal—because I think this orchestra would bring out the Impressionistic side of it. I would love to hear my orchestra play Otello.” He also wants to do more Schubert as well as the complete symphonies of Bohuslav Martinu, which he feels are greatly neglected.

“The great news is that we have an audience here in Cleveland that buy into that. We did Cunning Little Vixen two years ago. It has never been done in Cleveland and we played four performances and all four were packed.

“That’s something I find exciting about this community. They love this stuff. You don’t have to play another Mahler cycle or a Beethoven cycle just to get people come to concerts. Thanks to my predecessors here–and thanks especially to Pierre Boulez who educated the audience here–we have an audience that is curious and doesn’t want to just hear the same tunes over and over again.”

Welser-Möst says the Cleveland Orchestra routinely draws the youngest audience of any major orchestra in the country, with twenty percent of attendees under 25.

“They might hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the first time, but they also might hear Chronochromie by Messiaen for the first time. And it makes no difference to them. If it’s an exciting performance they don’t care who the composer is.

“Quality and passion are the two things which really count. And we’re blessed here in Cleveland with our wonderful orchestra and our fantastic concert hall. But we also have a world-class audience.”

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and music from Bach cantatas performed by Seraphic Fire 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center. 

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Mon Jan 23, 2017
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