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The Man Behind the Baton

An enterprising conductor talks of marathons and true musicmaking

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1992


YOU don't necessarily expect, while interviewing a classical music conductor, to be discussing quantum jumps and the monkey effect. But perhaps Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Most (music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) since October 1990) is a little different.

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"You know about the Monkey Effect? It has to do with the quantum theory. I think it was in the early '70s it was discovered on an island that one monkey started to wash a fruit and then to eat it. He obviously discovered that it tastes better. So the other monkeys on that island started to imitate him. But now comes the fascinating thing with it: it was not only the monkeys of that island, it was also the monkeys of the other islands around": they also began to wash their fruit before eating it.

"So a kind of quantum jump has taken place in the minds of that race." Like the discovery of a scientific truth in two parts of the world simultaneously. Or, Welser-Most thinks, like the great political changes recently in the communist world. "You can't explain it really, why it all of a sudden happens. Except in terms of the quantum theory - which is anyway not a theory any more."

He says, "It's the same even in our small world of classical music...." He thinks that even in a short moment in a concert "you can do quite a lot of good" to the listeners. "Over a certain time the music you deliver must be able to change someone's life, or lifestyle. And it starts ... in the orchestra," he says. "You can see that the atmosphere we have is a rather unusual one."

At that morning's recording session of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex", (in a North London church) Welser-Most exercized a notably steadying, quiet, even modest influence. He seemed nearly absent from the scene. His baton is delicately incisive like a laser; his other hand capable of sudden lyricism or swift uplift - but never overstated. No melodramatics, no show of personal domination. A minimal directorial demand. Simply an assumption that his orchestra was doing and would do what was required, with expect ed excellence. Admittedly, as Welser-Most puts it, this music was not Romantic, but "somewhat cool." It didn't require strong emotions in its performance. But Welser-Most has been quoted as saying he just wants to get his ego out of the way and let things happen - and watching him I could see what he means. For a high-flyer in the world of performance, his priority does not appear to be showmanship.

He assured me that it was no different at rehearsals. No tension. None of the "fight" often apparent between orchestra and conductor.

"And if you talk to people in the orchestra about our last tour we did in March - Japan, Mexico, and America, which was a terribly exhausting one ... quite a few people came up afterwards and said, `We can't explain ourselves how we could survive that tour at all. And secondly it has been artistically the most successful and best tour we ever did.'

"Well, for me it's not that difficult to explain." Then he adds: "Of course it's not logical, you know." All 14 concerts seem to have been first rate. No falling of standards, no morale-trough, at any point, out of which they had to dig themselves - which is "the usual way. But," he says quietly, "it doesn't have to be that way."

Welser-Most is sure it is important not to be concerned exclusively with musicmaking. "I try to get away more and more from [the idea] that musicmaking is everything, you know. Music has to be and is related to anything else - nature, science, whatever. It's very strongly related to science, especially today; I mean, if you read about physics, chemistry, cosmology - always, especially in the last 20 years, you meet musical terms again. Harmony, just to take one. And music has a lot in common with mathema tics. So if you start to work on that more and more, it gives you a wider prospect, really. And that is very important to me."

To another interviewer, Welser-Most admitted to always having with him "the Bible and the teachings of Buddha." He reads both every day. To me he readily says he is religious. "I am not churchy. I would call myself deeply, deeply religious. Which," he muses, "may be a bit funny in the business world - but let's see how far we get."