Nothing Michael Gielen has ever done can be called altogether conventional. The music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra came to his job with virtually no American profile or track record, and has, with tours and some remarkable recordings, put his orchestra in a position of prominence.
When Gielen was finally named to succeed the late Thomas Schippers, people would walk around and say ``Who?'' And the answer would be ``You must hear his Bruckner.'' That was no consolation to people who feared the worst. As Gielen admitted, ``I had the reputation of playing at least two pieces by Stockhausen on every program, and they were afraid that they would lose their audience that way: You know how fears arise.''
He got off to a bumpy start with audience and orchestra: Overambitious ideas of programming that didn't take into consideration any US orchestra's inability to learn too much new or unfamiliar musicfostered some ill will from within. Things took a turn for the better last season. And when Mr. Gielen's contract runs out in 1987, he will have left behind a markedly stronger, more versatile orchestra than the one he took over.
The recordings bear this out. A quick listen to the last Schippers recordings and Gielen's Beethoven Third (Vox Cum Laude 9007 digital, his first with the orchestra) indicate a growing flexiblity in the ensemble. But that Third was a hard nut for the orchestra to crack -- no one had ever heard an ``Eroica'' taken at such a furious tempo. Gielen admits that the recording sounds a bit artificial and that the performances on the current tour (in New York March 25) will sound more natural because the orchestra believes in his approach now.
Why those fast tempos? Because Beethoven's metronome markings indicate he wanted it to move along at a clip, not a crawl. Violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who devoted his lifetime to things like studying Beethoven's metronome markings, wrote an essay on the subject that was published in the Musical Quarterly.
Says Gielen, ``I don't think that any of the conductors of our time have ever read it. Toscanini did the right thing [sensing the correct tempos] without reading Musical Quarterly. There's nobody in the world who tries to take these metronome markings seriously -- I mean, not by the beat, but what is meant by these markings. Why should [Beethoven] go so fast? Because he wants to convey a sense of a movement which has volume, which is this big [Gielen indicates an imaginary size with his hands], and not this big [another size indication]. And one hears different kinds of connections inside the movement at this tempo. Then, if it is played double-slow -- like many great conductors do -- it is lovely, but it is just wrong.''
For Michael Gielen, music is not just a job, it's his life. When he is not conducting, he is composing, but only for chamber ensembles. ``I've never written for orchestra. There is a neat divorce between my daily profession, where I have to compromise constantly with the circumstances of what it is possible to do in rehearsal, and the writing, where I only follow what it should be. . . . What I can say about the piece [a new quartet he wrote for the La Salle Quartet on commission by WKOC-FM and the La Salle] is that it does not compromise on any level.''
And that is a philosophy Mr. Gielen would like practice as a conductor. He likes to juxtapose unusual pieces in unusual ways. ``I believe very much in two composers or two pieces, by confrontation, throwing a special light on each other. And usually both of them profit.''
It's the sort of thing audiences in the United States do not care to experience, but it is the sort of things German audiences can tolerate. During his tenure as head of the Frankfurt Opera, Gielen developed a reputation for the quality of his rethinking of the classics musically and visually, working with directors he thought best highlighted the issues of a given work, and made them speak with immediacy to today's world.
The Gielen recordings to date are superior. In addition to the aforementioned Beethoven, there now are discs devoted to Berg's ``Lulu'' suite (with the radiant Kathleen Battle); Lyric Suite (Vox Cum Laude 9042); Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto and Lutoslawski's Double Concerto for Oboe and Harp (Vox 9064 and on CD 10006); and the newest release, an all-Busoni offering of a ``Turandot'' suite and two selections from ``Doktor Faust'' (on CD 10019).
The Berg ``Lulu'' suite is given a lucid, gripping performance. The two concertos feature Heinz Holliger on oboe and give a taste of what Gielen means about the benefits of shrewd juxtaposition. The Busoni offers fine performances of music that has been incomprehensibly neglected for too long. In fact, it ranks already as one of the most interesting releases of the year and is a must for anyone wishing to broaden his or her musical horizons.