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The last time the Cleveland Orchestra visited Chicago was 2002, in the first season of Franz Welser-Möst’s tenure as music director.
As the time, many were surprised by the choice of the slender young Austrian to take the reins of the famous orchestra, an ensemble honed by the legendary autocrat George Szell into a refined and extraordinary instrument. The Cleveland Orchestra’s reputation continued and was burnished by Szell’s podium successors, Lorin Maazel and Christoph von Dohnanyi.
The early years of Welser-Möst’s Cleveland tenure were somewhat stormy, characterized by tough reviews and criticism about both the quality and consistency of his performances, locally and on the road.
Currently marking his 15th season leading the Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Möst, now 56, has persevered, answering his critics with his work on the podium and is having the last laugh. The orchestra enjoys as strong a reputation as it ever has, the conductor is popular with his home audience, and his contract was recently extended through 2022. Further, Cleveland’s adventurous programming puts most other leading American orchestras to shame. Even the picky musical press seems to have come around, acknowledging Welser-Möst’s musical leadership and podium skills.
Saturday night, Chicago audiences will get a chance to judge that relationship as Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra come to Chicago for their first concert in 15 years. (A scheduled 2011 concert was cancelled when the orchestra was stranded in Michigan by a winter storm.)
Speaking from Cleveland, the soft-spoken Austrian maestro is clearly a relaxed and satisfied musician, comfortable with his role as he moves toward the two-decade mark in Cleveland.
“You know when you start a job you have to have a vision for what you want to achieve,” he says. “Maintaining a fine instrument–which it always has been, no doubt–is just not enough.
“By now I’ve appointed over forty players in the last fourteen years,” he added. “So almost half of the orchestra is musicians which I have picked. That means it has become truly my orchestra.
“Cleveland always has been known for its precision and meticulous playing. And I wanted to add on one side, a ‘singing’ sound and also flexibility. Basically, the goal has been to create the biggest chamber music group in the world. Which is a different concept than having a wonderful machine, which follows exactly what the conductor does.”
Performing operas in concert has been part of his plan to increase the ensemble’s versatility and flexibility. “Precision is a tool. It doesn’t equal music. I tried to teach the orchestra what it means to be flexible, but to do that with everyone together at the same time, so that you would add flexibility without losing the precision.
“For instance last summer in Salzburg we did the Four Last Songs. What I tried to achieve with them is that whatever the singer does everyone has to be with that singer. Even if you’re sitting a couple yards away. It’s a different kind of listening and reacting.
“That has been my goal. It’s like with a great string quartet like the Alban Berg Quartet. They were spontaneous in performances; not just doing what they rehearsed. And to achieve that with 104 people takes time.”
The conductor says that even with such a refined and polished orchestra as exists in Cleveland, there is still room for improvement.
“First of all, you never reach the ultimate. That’s part of the ‘charm” of being a musician,” he says with a laugh. “You always strive for perfection but you never achieve it. Building and orchestra or steering it in a certain direction—that’s a long-term project. It’s not something that you achieve in two or three years.”
Welser-Möst’s repertoire has been wide, concentrated on Austro-German cornerstones but also embracing French repertoire, Sibelius and a wide range of 20th and contemporary music. He even opened the current season with Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3.
The program he is doing in Cleveland and Miami later this month is typically enterprising, pairing the Seventh Symphony of Anton Bruckner—a composer specialty for Welser-Möst–with excerpts from Bach’s cantatas, performed by the acclaimed Miami-based choir Seraphic Fire.
The conductor had wanted to bring that program to Chicago as well, but the Bach-Bruckner lineup was rejected by CSO’s artistic planners, for something more populist, he said.
“You know, sometimes these [programs] have non-artistic reasons,” he says with a laugh. “Which have a lot to do with promoting the concert.”
“You run into these lines like ‘Oh, we can’t do that because we have that already’. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a bazaar, exhibiting your pieces. And finally you find a program that everyone can live with.”
With his contract extended, Welser-Möst is grateful for the additional time but aware that the clock is ticking and he still has much he wants to accomplish in the remaining five seasons.
“There’s a lot of repertoire we still haven’t tackled together. I would love to hear my orchestra play Frau ohne Schatten. I would love to hear my orchestra play Parsifal-–because I think this orchestra would bring out the Impressionistic side of it. I would love to hear my orchestra play Otello.” He also wants to do more Schubert as well as the complete symphonies of Bohuslav Martinu, which he feels are greatly neglected.
“The great news is that we have an audience here in Cleveland that buy into that. We did Cunning Little Vixen two years ago. It has never been done in Cleveland and we played four performances and all four were packed.
“That’s something I find exciting about this community. They love this stuff. You don’t have to play another Mahler cycle or a Beethoven cycle just to get people come to concerts. Thanks to my predecessors here–and thanks especially to Pierre Boulez who educated the audience here–we have an audience that is curious and doesn’t want to just hear the same tunes over and over again.”
Welser-Möst says the Cleveland Orchestra routinely draws the youngest audience of any major orchestra in the country, with twenty percent of attendees under 25.
“They might hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the first time, but they also might hear Chronochromie by Messiaen for the first time. And it makes no difference to them. If it’s an exciting performance they don’t care who the composer is.
“Quality and passion are the two things which really count. And we’re blessed here in Cleveland with our wonderful orchestra and our fantastic concert hall. But we also have a world-class audience.”
Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 Saturday at 8 p.m. at Symphony Center. cso.org; 312-294-3000.