Austrian maestro Welser-Most looking ahead to US challenge

At a mere 40 years of age, Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Most has already reached heights his colleagues will never achieve or even approach. After a bright career, mainly in German-language operas, he will, as of September next year, assume the position of music director of the Cleveland Orchestra – to many, the most accomplished orchestra in the USA – in place of Christof von Dohnanyi, there since 1984. The main question now being asked is how the austere, Cartesian sound that has been built by the legendary George Szell since the 1950s will be combined with Most’s sharply contrasting style, a Romantic musical vision. On Saturday, Welser-Most will conduct Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, one of the most spiritually loaded, demanding, and idiosyncratic works in terms of dynamics, at the Herod Atticus Theater. He will front the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the Singverein Der Gesellschaft Der Musikfreunde in Wien choir, the Prague Philharmonic Choir, the Athens Festival Choir, and the St. Florianer Sangerknaben boys choir. If we had to place you in a particular school of maestros, which would it be? Ah, that’s difficult to answer. But, generally speaking, I belong to the Austro-German tradition of Furtwangler and Karajan where, generally, a specific spiritual continuity exists in the way music is approached, which I, too, have cultivated all these years, especially at the Zurich Opera. Yes, but now that you will be in Cleveland, don’t you feel George Szell’s anti-Romantic shadow will be cast over you? Don’t forget that George Szell came from the central European musical tradition, which shaped him, especially through the German-language operas, long before he went to America. Of course, but you may be aware of his terrible experience, the one and only time when Karajan conducted the Cleveland Orchestra. He said back then that he’s going to destroy what I’ve been building all these years. Yes, I know… but you will see what I mean if you listen to Szell’s recordings of symphonies by Brahms or Bruckner. Each conductor builds his own musical vision. In Cleveland, they had a different sound with Szell and Dohnani. With what musical vision will you be going to Cleveland? Will you change the orchestra into something like Berlin’s? No, that’s not at issue. For me, the existence of a balance between technical perfection and feeling, which would allow the music’s meaning to be conveyed, is the most important thing. Since 1989 I’ve conducted all the major orchestras of the US, while I conducted at Cleveland for the first time in 1993. From the first moment, I considered the orchestra of Cleveland to be the most important of them all. Its precision and technical capabilities, as well as its artistic spirit, is exceptional worldwide. How difficult, then, is it for somebody to change something in a perfectly shaped orchestra? What will be your mark on it? I’m not going with the aim of necessarily changing something. A period of some years will elapse during which whatever is to happen will happen naturally. My aim is to maintain the orchestra’s unique qualities, from which I’ve learnt a lot, and, through these, offer my own vision of a warm sound conveyed by the meaning of the works, while maintaining the orchestra’s incredible transparency of sound. The point is for one to build the sound that he or she desires, its colors and expressions. Your repertoire often revolves around the big, post-Romantic oratorios. A tour with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony brings you to Athens. What draws you most to this particular kind of music? I’ve lived with choirs and church music. I even executed the… crime of conducting Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis shortly after my 20th birthday after being pressured by my instructor, who convinced me that it was the only way I would not be afraid of conducting it at 50. Next year, however, I will conduct it three times with the Vienna Philharmonic, and we will also be taking it to the Vatican. I wasn’t too familiar with Mahler’s Eighth – his Seventh and Ninth symphonies are my favorites. They made me an offer to conduct the Eighth, and I accepted. That’s how I realized that it conveys a sensational message – it’s the work’s philosophy, what it has to say. Saturday, 8.30 p.m., Herod Atticus Theater, Dionysiou Areopagitou, tel 323.2771, 323.5582. Tickets are available from the Hellenic Festival box office, 4 Stadiou, in the Spyrou Miliou Arcade, tel 322.1459.

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