The Man Behind the Baton

An enterprising conductor talks of marathons and true musicmaking

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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."

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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."

The phrase "the business world" carries a certain weight for him. Welser-Most is a new phenomenon - or at least his job is - in the London music world. He is not simply principal conductor of the LPO, he is its music director. His predecessor, Klaus Tennstedt was solely principal conductor. Plus in September the orchestra begins a five-year residency at London's premier music venue, the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall, an honor and a responsibility never before given to a London orchestra. This invests the orchestra and its director with a preeminent status. He not only conducts many of the concerts and the recordings, he is also responsible for the programming.

"And everything has to be sold!" he says. His responsibilities are onerous, and his devotion of his time to this one orchestra (with, he says, a consequent refusal to be on the roster of guest conductors with other major orchestras) make him something of a figurehead. An exclusive contract with EMI for recordings also threatens to turn this very young-looking 32 year old into a kind of star. (He was to have a three-hour photo session for EMI two days after our interview.)

In Japan, Welser-Most had given over 12 interviews in seven days. "Just crazy! But it was necessary for the orchestra, simply." He also ran in the London Marathon to make money for the orchestra, but that may have been an exercise more to his taste. I wondered if all this exposure didn't militate against his wish to get his ego out of the way?

"The pressure of the market is bigger than ever before. There's so much money flowing. So if you want to or if you don't want to - it doesn't matter which - you get kind of sold." The "difficult point" is that "this doesn't influence your musicmaking. Extremely difficult." His aim is that when he "goes on to the platform" he is "not any more the product which you see on the labels, posters, or wherever. Your face gets sold, but your musical heart, or your soul should not get sold. If you can't keep yours elf away from the business in your musical-doing, it will suffer after while - rather quickly, I think. But on the other side, if I don't sell my face, so to speak, the orchestra will suffer. That is a very strange situation."

He sees it as living "two different lives" in his job. "If you look at my schedule here in London, so often at the end of a day I come back to my room and think, `My goodness, I'm not a musician! I'm a businessman, I'm a politician or whatever - but I'm definitely not a musician!"

This may be one reason why, although he is strongly committed to the LPO, he does not plan to live in London. He is a resident of Liechtenstein, and does not like living in large cities.

There is a flinty determination just below the surface of this gentle face. I asked him whether he wanted to change the LPO, or to challenge the traditionalism of London's classical music repertoire or style.

A certain unease among the music critics has, of late, tended to replace the enthusiasm with which many of them initially greeted this new and comparative outsider to the ranks of world-class conductors. But the critics disagree among themselves about him and his concert performances. His dynamics worry them, perhaps. But Welser-Most himself has concluded with not a little asperity that the London critics "are almost as cynical as the New York ones."

What is clear is that he has sufficient self-assurance to ignore their strictures and follow his own lights. "I look for a different sound," from the LPO, he says. "Or, I would say, I look for more transparency."

He feels the orchestra is overworked and, for financial reasons, are too often asked to play less than the best music. He feels they need more space, more self-confidence. He hopes to help in these ways.

But one of his convictions is critical to inspiring and developing the orchestra: All classical music, he points out, is already old, whether it's 200 years or only a week old.

"But it doesn't matter, you have to play it like it would be created in the moment when you are performing it. That's the approach I try to get from them. Which means, like [Austrian pianist] Friedrich Gulda once said, "You have to play every note like it would mean you have to fight for your life."

A simple enough idea, but a foundation for real musicmaking.

"It makes it modern. It's like with any doing in your life, if you try to do it as a kind of ritual, where you just do it because it's done that way, then it's museum. But if you do it because you believe in it, and you do it passionately, in the moment when you have to do it, I think then it is alive."

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