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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Franz Welser-Möst - The conductor they loved to hate

By Norman Lebrecht / February 12, 2004

Twice in as many years, I have seen a music director run out of town. The first was Giuseppe Sinopoli who arrived at the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1984 with an 80-disc Deutsche Grammophon contract and a winning smile. Intelligent and affable (he held a medical doctorate and medals in archaeology), Sinopoli was a capable opera conductor who had yet to prove himself in the unsparing light of concert sound.

The cerebral Italian spent rehearsals waffling on about the neuroses of Mahler and Schumann when all the band wanted to know was whether he wanted them to play louder or softer. The reviews were so awful that some critics refused to attend another concert and guest conductors backed off. In 1994, the orchestra dropped Sinopoli. He died, poor chap, three years ago, aged 55, while conducting Aida in Berlin.

I once suggested that the Philharmonia had split on his merits, only to receive a correction from the chairman who insisted that no more than five players ever thought he was any good. The rest put up with him for the record deal. In Sinopoli’s case, the verdict of musicians and critics was pretty much unanimous.

It was less so in the curious case of Franz Welser-Möst. At the milksop age of 29, the bespectacled Austrian opened his tenure at the London Philharmonic in 1990 with a seven-work concert, overlong for his rehearsal time. It was downhill from there on. He sacked a chorus director and front-desk violinist. The players dubbed him Frankly Worse Than Most. A good manager might have saved him but the LPO kept firing its managers, leaving the young maestro defenceless. In 1996 he quit London for Zurich Opera. One critic wrote: ‘he came from nowhere, he’s going nowhere.’

The case was curious because Franz had talent. I saw him in Japan take over a Klaus Tennstedt concert unrehearsed, ripping off as fiery a Beethoven Fifth as I shall ever expect to hear; it was the first time he had ever conducted the score. Even those players who loathed his disdainful, glinty-eyed strangeness had to admit that there was something about the boy. In the end, the persistently rotten reviews did him in.

Fast forward to 2004. Franz Welser-Möst, now 43, heads America’s most refined orchestra. After two exhilarating seasons in Cleveland, his contract has been extended until 2012. Back home, he will conduct the next Ring cycle at the Vienna Opera, where he is regarded as the heir apparent. His disastrous start has been reversed, though not forgotten. This week, Franz Welser-Möst is conducting a London orchestra for the first time since his departure; there is something personal about these concerts, something to prove.

‘After London,’ he told me the other day, ‘you learn to take criticism the right way. You learn the political side of our business – who has power, who abuses it. You learn to trust your instincts. The experience made it easier for me to deal with the world, to be stronger in my beliefs. I don’t regret one second of it.’

When he took over in Cleveland, he retired several players and revamped the repertoire, provoking rumbles from the city’s chief critic, Donald Rosenberg. But the benefits of new leadership were soon apparent. He appointed the orchestra’s first woman principal player, an oboist, and conducted scintillating premieres by such 21st century composers as Thomas Ades, Matthias Pintscher and Olga Neuwirth.

He spends 18 weeks a year in Cleveland, more than any music director in the US. ‘For me the great thing is bonding with the players,’ he smiles, ‘and that happened faster than I expected. It’s never easy telling people it’s time for them to go, but you don’t have to be nasty about it. You take them aside, ask them to work on their intonation. They get the message.’ He will bring the orchestra to Edinburgh this summer and the Proms in 2005, en route to a residency in Lucerne.

Salzburg is out of his diary. ‘Too boring,’ he shrugs. ‘This summer has one of the most uninteresting programmes of any festival I have ever seen. I can’t think why people would pay good money to see such things.’ As if to make a point, he will conduct a Rosenkavalier in Zurich this July with a cast (Kasarova, Nina Stemme) that powerfully outshines Salzburg’s production the following month.

Diplomacy was never part of his baggage. He mentions having to ask the Berlin Philharmonic to repeat a passage seven times until he got the required pianissimo. Simon Rattle might not be flattered by that remark, but Franz is impervious to the implicit slur. There is something self-enclosed about him, something which might appear almost menacing unless one recognises his essential naivety.

The son of a sometime member of the Austrian Parliament, he was spotted as a teenager by an eccentric, Furtwangler-worshipping baron called Andreas von Bennigsen, who adopted him. He then ran off with the baron’s young wife, Angelika, herself an industrial heiress. Early in the relationship, Franz was smashed up in a road accident; some of the scars are still visible, the pain intermittent. He married Angelika and lives with her in Liechtenstein.

Untouchable throughout was his self-belief. Franz, with baton in hand, never doubted his destiny no matter how murmurous the players, how querulous the critics. He knows exactly where he’s going. He stayed out of London for four years, returning to the 2000 Proms with a hulk of Austrian scripture, Franz Schmidt’s Book of Seven Seals. He returned again with the Zurich Opera, performing Tannhauser at a packed Festival Hall. ‘I’d never seen a London audience respond like that,’ he grins. ‘It was a great feeling.’ He forsees his concerts with the LSO as the basis of a regular relationship, ‘if the chemistry works’.

So all’s well that ends well - except for the unresolved conundrum of how so many music critics got it so wrong. The problem has much to do with the London scene where, with a dozen rival newspapers, critics listen too closely to the cavils of players, and to each other's opinions.

The reverse is equally unfortunate. The New York Times chief critic, Anthony Tommasini, has found fault with every Philharmonic concert conducted by Lorin Maazel, whom most players proclaim to be inspirational. In a metropolis with only one newspaper, the critic has no need to take soundings, and no fear of contradiction.

Critics have a responsibility to get it right and a licence to get it occasionally wrong. When they do get it wrong, however, they face disempowerment. They can write whatever they like now about Franz Welser-Möst: he is a fixture in our musical future. ‘My career only goes up and up and up,’ he laughs.

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