CONDUCTOR OF THE YEAR


The 2003 Honorees

By Donald Rosenberg

Expectations are high for this 42-year-old Austrian conductor, who this season became music director of one of the world's symphonic plums, the Cleveland Orchestra, and whose own personal style seems to fit perfectly into the ensemble's traditions of clarity, precision, and discipline.

Franz Welser-Möst can gaze down at the Rhine River or look upward to Alpine peaks from the ultra-modern home he shares with his wife in Schaan, Liechtenstein. The serene vistas are close to the Swiss town of Maienfeld, where the fictional tale of Heidi is partly set. Only an hour's drive away, Welser-Möst created his own professional idyll as music director of the Zürich Opera.

The mountain-climbing, marathon-running Austrian conductor revels in the magnificent surroundings, which provide relief from the pressures of high-profile music-making. But he has another good reason to feel like he's on top of the world: This season, he became music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. In the past 56 years, the coveted post has been occupied by only three other conductors-George Szell, Lorin Maazel, and Christoph von Dohnányi.

Welser-Möst, who has guest-conducted most of the major American orchestras, as well as the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, knows he is filling large shoes in Cleveland. Dohnányi brought the orchestra to the pinnacle of international esteem during his 18-year tenure, so expectations are high.

Yet Welser-Möst shows every sign of confidence as he assumes responsibility. Musical America's Conductor of the Year soon will take a great orchestra to Carnegie Hall, Vienna's Musikverein for biennial residencies, and Europe's prestigious summer music festivals. He has said he'll become involved in educational activities at Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, and at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Oberlin College.

By far the youngest of the music directors recently appointed to a major American orchestra, the 42-year-old conductor, who looks more like an eager-beaver graduate student than an experienced maestro, has already begun to have an impact around Severance Hall by telling everyone to cut the "maestro" stuff and simply call him Franz.

This offstage informality and good cheer belie the seriousness with which he takes his job once he steps onstage to rehearse and perform the wide repertoire he has embraced since he was a teenager in his hometown of Linz. As audiences in Cleveland and elsewhere have learned, Welser-Möst has highly eclectic tastes. He conducts everything from choral works of Bach, Tristan und Isolde, and Strauss waltzes to scores by such living composers as Kaija Saariaho, Matthias Pintscher, HK Gruber, and Magnus Lindberg.

During his first season in Cleveland, which began symbolically with Haydn's The Creation, he's conducting Saariaho and Pintscher premieres, plus a number of pieces slightly off the predictable path, including Mahler's Seventh Symphony, Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, and concert performances of Verdi's Don Carlo. Welser-Möst intends to continue Dohnányi's practice of balancing the old and the new, along with healthy sprinklings of the neglected. Several years ago, he led stirring Severance Hall performances of one of his favorites, Franz Schmidt's oratorio, The Book with Seven Seals.

"What I want to avoid most is the comment, `Oh, my God, the same thing again.' I just like to show there's an awful lot of good music you don't hear very often," says Welser-Möst. "I have an enormous list of pieces I want to do. I won't run out of ideas quickly."

His ideas about programming essentially were ignored by management while he was serving as music director of the London Philharmonic from 1990 to 1996-a period that caused him much distress and eventually prompted his flight to the relative safe haven of the Zürich Opera.

Welser-Möst wanted to be adventurous with the London Philharmonic, but the administration pushed him to focus on core Austro-German repertoire that inevitably, and prematurely, set him up for comparison with venerated living and deceased maestros. The 30-something conductor who "gave British music critics such entertainment when he was in London," according to Richard Morrison of The Times, was dubbed by one scribe as Frankly Worse-than-Most, an unfair and frankly inaccurate moniker that no longer bothers its recipient. "Of all the nicknames for a conductor, I've got the nicest," he says. "My nickname is really cute, when you consider the rest."

Welser-Möst was burned at the time, nevertheless. Until then, he had led something of a charmed musical life, although his days as an accomplished violinist came to an abrupt end when he was injured in a car accident at the age of 18.

He turned to conducting at the urging of an Austrian musician and monk named Balduin Sulzer, and made it to the finals of the Karajan Competition in 1979. Posts with the Austrian Youth Orchestra and ensembles in Sweden and Switzerland followed. Welser-Möst's big break came when he substituted at the last minute for Jesús López-Cobos with the London Philharmonic and then replaced Klaus Tennstedt on an international tour. These engagements led to his appointment as the Orchestra's music director.

After his unhappy time in London, Welser-Möst began regaining his spirit at the Zürich Opera, starting in 1995. He is credited with strengthening the orchestra markedly, and he has shown his sense of daring by presiding over works ranging from Rossini's Il Turco in Italia and Dvorvák's Rusalka to Berg's Lulu and a new Robert Wilson production of Wagner's Ring, including a recent Götterdämmerung whose musical freshness triumphed over dramatic inertia.

Welser-Möst's association with the Cleveland Orchestra spans the second half of the London era and the entire Zürich period. He made a successful Cleveland debut in 1993 and returned often in subsequent seasons. His earliest performances with the Orchestra suggested the possibility of an enduring relationship, and though there have been artistic valleys along the way, especially in mainstream works, Welser-Möst has shown an affinity for Cleveland's traditions of clarity, precision, and discipline.

Those traditions should give the new boss an opportunity to grow as never before-and certainly in an artistic environment that is much more nurturing than the antagonistic atmosphere he encountered during his last foray into orchestral music directordom. Welser-Möst plans to collaborate with the Cleveland musicians on terms dictated by two sources: the composer and himself. He never listens to music at home, and certainly not to his own recordings, saying he relies solely on the score for the messages he conveys to mus- cians and listeners alike.

"Art is completely subjective," he says. "I don't think you should try to be more clever than the composer, or you should become a composer yourself. If it doesn't work immediately, I have to find out how it will work, and not change the composer. This right and wrong doesn't exist in music."

What does exist now for Welser-Möst is an orchestra that can achieve anything he hears in his head-with equal input from conductor and players. "It is the orchestra which is the least laid-back. Their work ethic is so high. Of course, they challenge you. They deliver so much already in the first rehearsal and look at you as if to say, `OK, where do we go from here?' But they're not arrogant. They don't think they're perfect," he says. "That's what's so beautiful about this orchestra."

And it's what has catapulted Welser-Möst so quickly to the top of the music world: "I inherit an orchestra you can only dream of as a conductor."

Ears will be poised to hear how he realizes his dream.

Donald Rosenberg is classical music critic of The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: "Second to None", and president of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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