(Franz Welser-Möst)

Chetana Nagavagara

Berlin, 23 September 2014

You don’t have to tell them. They know it already. Whatever they play, they won’t be able to fill the Philharmonie. So, why shouldn’t they have an all-German programme played to those empty seats! The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the top five of American ensembles, was conducted by the Austrian maestro, Franz Welser-Möst, in a programme devolted entirely to the 41-year-old German composer, Jörg Widmann. (I already analyzed his Air for Horn Trio in my review of the chamber concert on 6 September 2014.) When I arrived at the Philhamonie half an hour before the start of the concert on 11 September 2014, I thought I had come on the wrong day. As I have already written several times: if you want to hear the very best orchestras of the world that do not bear the title “Berlin Philharmonic”, do please come to Berlin for the annual Music Festival, and you will always get a seat. The Philharmonie is only sold out when its own Berlin Phil performs, and each concert with the same programme is usually given 3 times, and sold out every time. What do you call this? Local patriotism? Parochialism? Or provincialism? Whatever you may call it, the Berliners don’t care.

And let me give you another piece of information: the majority of the audience of the Philharmonie belongs to my generation, which means that they grew up with the Berlin Phil under Herbert von Karajan. Young people or students don’t have a chance, because the tickets are above their means. And standing tickets are few. The Berliners have never thought of organizing something like the Promenade Concerts (the PROMS) of London. Simon Rattle has taught them a few things about bringing classical music to unusual audiences, like those in prisons, for example, and the Berliners get excited for a little while, but he has not been able to change them in essence. In actual fact, he has capitulated, and his popularity is some kind of reinvention of the craze for stardom akin to the Karajan era. But signs of change have appeared, as reported in my review of Rattle’s Schumann and Brahms’s concert under the title “I have heard all this before”. The press lately has suddenly become hostile to Rattle after he had announced that he would not have his contract renewed (in 4 years time!) Some of the Berliners must have felt this as a slap on the face. How can a non-German, who has had the rare privilege of being Chief Conductor of the world’s “best” orchestra (in the judgment of the Berliners themselves), ever think of leaving Berlin, unless and until he is kicked out?

I have already written about the “other” audience at the Konzerthaus in the former East Berlin. There, remnants of genuine music lovers under the former Socialist regime have survived. In the drab daily life of Communist austerity, classical music (as well as theatre – including the Berliner ensemble founded by Brecht) was a kind of elixir of life. They listened attentively, discriminatingly, grateful to those musicians who helped to sustain human dignity in the midst of political bestiality. I was there in 1987, researching during the day in the Brecht Archive and spending the evenings in the concert hall and the theatres. The Gewandhaus Leipzig and the Staatskapelle Dresden, whose concerts I have already reviewed, are not post-Cold-War concoctions, but are time-honoured ensembles that survived very well under the Communist era. What I am trying to say is that there is such a thing as serious music reception, because music means so much to the audience and enrich their lives in innumerable ways. That tradition has been passed on to the audience at the Französische Platz, now part of Berlin Mitte (the middle of Berlin). Music can never be a fad, unlike the kind of music that has grown out of the economic opulence of the former West Berlin, heavily subsidized then and (to a lesser extent) now by the state.


What about the Cleveland Orchestra? There is a tradition of educational and cultural philanthropy in the United States, and the arts especially do not thrive mainly on the basis of the states support, but on the contribution from culture-loving patrons. We in the educational sector always envy private American universities on account of their inexhaustible endowment funds. Classical orchestras have benefited from this cultural philanthropy. In the early days, they had to “import” not only conductors, but also musicians from Europe. Notable among them was none other than Dvořák himself who went to America to help establish a music conservatory. Mahler was invited to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Toscanini, a declared antagonist of Fascism, had to leave Italy and made America his home, establishing the standard of orchestral playing that even today is hard to rival. Bruno Walter also contributed much to the classical world there. Strangely enough, Klemperer was not successful, since he was perhaps too austere and did not care about “educating” on orchestra, his aim being higher than that. Cleveland was lucky to be able to engage the Hungarian, George Szell (1876-1970), who from 1946 until his death in 1970 turned the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the world’s greatest. As Brahms figures prominently in the Berlin Music Festival of 2014, you might wish to go back and listen to the recordings of all Brahms symphonies played by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. It is a different approach from Klemperer’s interpretation, but any music lover will not overlook Szell’s seriousness and integrity. Subsequent conductors have all been highly recognized, the majority of them Europeans, including the present Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, as Austrian, who did not find his appointment in Vienna an ideal one, (He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in its annual New Year’s concerts in 2011 and 2013) and decided to concentrate on the Cleveland, which he had directed since 2002.

In the age of star conductors turning themselves into the “brandings” of the orchestras to which they are attached, Franz Welser-Möst must look every old-fashioned indeed. Conducting for him is not something physical; the communication with the orchestra can be achieved without excessive physical movements. He is not a conductor to be watched, but to listen to. I got a seat behind the orchestra again and watched him with utmost pleasure. Since the entire programme was devoted to the music of Jörg Widmann, it was worthwhile to observe how contemporary music was conducted by this man from Linz (who should have offered us the music of the Viennese School rather than contemporary German music.) You should see the expression of his face and also how he looked through those spectacles and communicated with the orchestra. His beats were very exact, and he knew how to strike a balance between giving the overall direction to the entire orchestra and paying attention to certain particular points or to specific sections of the orchestra. I could sense he was in absolute control, and the no-nonsense approach of his worked very well. Above all he seemed to enjoy the music he was conducting.

The programme started with the work called, Lied für Orchester (Song for Orchestra). An admirer of Schubert, Widmann wants to make the orchestra sing like a singer of the art song (Lied). What we heard was a music pitched high and low, as if to prove the range that the “imaginary” singer could master. Another aspect of singing is that of being soft and loud, and Widmann demands that the horn player at the start of the piece plays very, very softly. Wind players know only too well how difficult it is to play softly. (Widmann himself is a clarinetist.) The Cleveland horn player had no problem with this, and what we heard sounded like the sound of a horn coming from a very far distance. To determine the lyrical mood, the composers writes frequent elaborate passages for the harps. Widmann, a twenty-first century composer, has no qualms about writing long sustained melodies, and I do not hesitate to say that these lyrical passages as played by the Cleveland Orchestra could rival Gustav Mahler at his best. What a pleasant way to start a concert, not with the usual big bang, but with a lyrical enticement.

The second piece in the programme was a work Widmann composed during his stay in Cleveland as “Artist in Residence”. Getting to know the orchestra well, he was fascinated by the virtuosity of some of the players who could turn soloists at any time. The principal flautist, Joshua Smith, made a great impact on the composer and he came up with a virtuoso piece, with the title in French (in the wake of the revered Johann Sebastian Bach), Flûte en suite für Flöte und Orchestergruppen (Suite for Flute, [scored] for [solo] flute and orchestral groups). Let me begin by saying that whatever Widmann may have studied in composition classes must have been enhanced by the actual collaboration with Mr. Smith. His range of sounds was stunning. Some of the sounds that he could make were entirely novel to me. I never thought that the flute could be played like that. The orchestral parts are most inventive, and the dialogue between the solo instrument and the orchestra was particularly captivating.

The 8 movements provide a variety in moods. The first movement (Allemande) is almost Dvořák-like in its inspiration drawn from native American music, a kind of tribute to the “original” (and not indigenous) host country. It sounded fairly avantgardist, but enjoyable all the same. Intensity of emotion marks the second movement (Sarabande). The following movements show that Widmann is never pedantic and knows how to draw from various cultural sources, for example, the sixth movement, a Bacarole, is described as “Venetian Gondola Song”, but undergoes modern treatment that moves it pretty far from the original source. In all these movements there is a sense of a pervading lyrical improvisation that turns the piece into an occasion for music-making among friends. I guess the composer must have felt deeply indebted to the conductor, the soloist and the orchestra for having prepared themselves so well as to be able to present this work as something that came to them so naturally.

The second half of the concert began with a work called Con brio, described as a “Concert Overture for Orchestra”. This is where the versatility of Widmann came to the fore. Percussive instruments were drawn in to set the jovial mood. I could detect a sense of humour that expresses itself in musical terms, (and also in terms of music history). The contagious rhythmic vitality sounded almost like a parody of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, and the exhibition of the orchestral prowess was unmistakably a reminder of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. The performance, in a sense, could be taken as a master class in conducting. Franz Welser-Möst conducted this contemporary music with no stress, feeling rather relaxed and well disposed towards spontaneity. He is a product of Vienna, thoroughly trained in the classics, but can adapt himself to whatever comes his way.

The programme ended with Teufel Amor, described as a “Symphonic Hymn after Schiller”. The work in question is based on a fragment of a poem by the great German poet, Friedrich Schiller, which looks at Cupid as a creature that can create both heaven and hell for those in love. The composer is adept in using all the resources of the modern orchestra to represent contrasts in emotions and in styles. It is a work that is both outward-looking and pensive at the same time. Only a conductor of great perspicacity can bring it off. This was no problem to Welser-Möst. But I could notice that he deliberately avoided big bangs and was more inclined towards the lighter side of music. He had not been successful when holding an appointment with the London Philharmonic Orchestra: they found him boring. I don’t share that assessment. I think he is very refined. The Cleveland Orchestra has renewed his contract twice. They must be a very musical ensemble.

Widmann was in the Philharmonie to be congratulated by the small audience of real music lovers. Some of his elder colleagues were there too, including Wolfgang Rihm. He deserves the recognition given to him. But without the backing of a great orchestra, Widmann would not have sounded as great as what we heard on 11 September 2014 in the Philharmonie of Berlin.


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