Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

As he takes over the reigns of the Cleveland in the 2002-03 season, Franz Welser-Möst, 40, comes to an institution that was progressively nudged into the 20th century over the past decade by the intellectually probing music director Christoph von Dohnanyi. Dohnanyi did a commendable job of upholding an older tradition – one which many critics and subscribers felt was dismantled during the tenure of his predecessor, Lorin Maazel – while instituting new commissions and premieres and supplementing his own new-music efforts with frequent visits by guest conductor Pierre Boulez.

How will the Austrian-born Welser-Möst navigate this delicate balance as he inherits America’s most respected orchestra? A glance at his resume, which includes five tumultuous seasons with the cash-strapped London Philharmonic (1990 to 1995), where belligerent players dubbed him “Frankly Worse than Most,” and five largely successful ones at the Zurich Opera (1995-present) indicates that he has moderate interests not only in Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner, but also 20th century Austro-German composers like Franz Schmidt, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and H.K. Gruber.

Franz Welser-Möst and American Music

Though Welser-Möst is still not a widely-known commodity in the U.S., guest appearances with major American orchestras have not boded especially well for his approach to American repertoire. In December 2000, for example, he led the New York Philharmonic in a program pairing John Adams’s Chamber Symphony and Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini observed that “there was nothing exceptional about this performance, no moments that vanquished you" adding that Welser-Möst’s performance of Adams "did not capture the brash humor of the music.”

This and other performances suggest that Welser-Möst is not a particularly idiomatic interpreter of American repertoire. Yet his tastes in contemporary European composers are at least, well, quirky. Early in his career he forged relationships with composers like H.K. Gruber and Kurt Schwertsik of the so-called "Third Viennese School." He has also repeatedly and admirably championed The Book With Seven Seals, the apocalyptic oratorio on Gospel texts by Franz Schmidt. Recording it in Munich in 1997 for EMI Classics, where the work had not been heard in years, he was urged to make it an annual event. He has since brought it to the BBC Proms and to Cleveland.

A perusal of Welser-Möst’s EMI catalogue reveals similar interests. Highlights include by Schreker’s Chamber Symphony, Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4, Gruber’s Frankenstein, and an all-Korngold CD with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has also recorded the music of Giya Kancheli and Arvo Pärt for EMI, and an all-Pärt CD for Virgin Classics. Less notable, though, is his work at the Zurich Opera, where there has apparently been little discernable push towards contemporary opera. Of the some fourteen productions he has directed since autumn 1999, only two – Richard StraussArabella and Lulu – are drawn from the 20th-century canon. Regardless, Cleveland audiences are a loyal and sophisticated bunch, and Welser-Möst should not underestimate their willingness to follow a lively and adventurous agenda.

Welser-Möst has suggested in interviews that one of the reasons that most of the major orchestras in the United States are led by European conductors in European repertory is that the American musicians deliver awesome technical power while the European conductor gives them aesthetic direction. Then again, it is worth noting that many European expatriates have moved into a community and become more “American” than the native maestros in repertory and creative development. Whether this proves true in Cleveland will interesting to see.

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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