Conductor  Franz  Welser - Möst

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Franz Leopold Maria Möst was born in Linz, Austria, and later studied under the composer Balduin Sulzer. As a youth in Linz, he studied the violin and had developed an interest in conducting. After suffering injuries in a car crash that led to nerve damage, he stopped his violin studies and shifted full-time to conducting studies.

In 1985, Möst assumed the stage name Welser-Möst at the suggestion of his mentor, Baron Andreas von Bennigsen of Liechtenstein, in an homage to the city of Wels where he grew up. His first major debuts were at the Salzburg Festival in 1985, followed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986 and the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur in 1988.

Between 1986 and 1991, Welser-Möst served as the principal conductor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, and from 1990 to 1996 he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. 

welser-most From 1995 to 2000, he was music director with the Zürich Opera House. He became general music director of the Zürich Opera in September 2005, with an original commitment to the Opera through 2011. However, he stood down from the Zürich post in July 2008, after having agreed to serve in the same capacity at the Vienna State Opera. Welser-Möst first conducted at the Vienna State Opera in 1987, as a substitute for Claudio Abbado in a production of Gioachino Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri. On 6 June 2007, the Austrian government announced the appointment of Welser-Möst as Generalmusikdirektor of the Vienna State Opera, effective September 2010, alongside Dominique Meyer as director (Staatsoperndirektor). In September 2014, he announced his resignation from the Vienna State Opera, effective immediately. Welser-Möst is an honorary member of the Wiener Singverein. He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in its Vienna New Year's Concert in 2011, 2013 and 2023.

Welser-Möst made his United States conducting debut with the St. Louis Symphony in 1989. He guest-conducted the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time in February 1993. With the 2002–03 season, Welser-Möst became the seventh music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. His most recent contract extension is through the 2026–27 season. During his tenure, Welser-Möst has led the orchestra's ongoing residency at the Musikverein in Vienna, which began with Welser-Möst's first European tour in 2003. In addition, under Welser-Möst, the orchestra initiated an annual residency at Miami's Carnival Center for the Performing Arts (later renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts) in 2007.

Under Welser-Möst, the orchestra began presenting regularly staged operas in 2009, reviving a practice by his predecessor Christoph von Dohnányi. These concert opera presentations have included a three-year cycle of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, Richard Strauss's Salome (2011–2012), Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen (2013–2014 and 2017–2018), Strauss' Daphne (2014–2015) and Ariadne auf Naxos (2018–2019), Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin and Bluebeard's Castle in the 2015–16 season (a collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet), and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (2016–17).

Welser-Möst published his autobiography, Als ich die Stille fand: Ein Plädoyer gegen den Lärm der Welt, in 2020; it was published in English in May 2021 under the title From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World.

During his tenure with the LPO, Welser-Möst had established an exclusive recording contract with EMI. His 1996 recording of Franz Schmidt's Symphony No. 4 [shown above] received the Gramophone Award for Best Orchestral Recording. The CDs of Anton Bruckner's Mass No. 3 and Te Deum and works of Erich Wolfgang Korngold both received Grammy Award nominations for "Best Classical Album." EMI struck a similar deal with Welser-Möst to record performances at the Zürich Opera and has released a number of DVDs of his Zürich opera productions. In 2008, EMI reissued many of Welser-Möst's earlier recordings in an eight CD set. In October 2007, Deutsche Grammophon released the first commercial recording featuring Welser-Möst with the Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. This recording was soon followed by a disc of Richard Wagner Lieder performed by the orchestra and soloist Measha Brueggergosman. Several DVDs have been issued as well, including Bruckner's 7th and 8th symphonies, at Severance Hall, and the 5th and 4th at the St. Florian Monastery. In 2020, Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra released a three-disc recording featuring works from the past three centuries, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, the first recording on the orchestra's own in-house label.

This website transcript of my conversation with Franz Welser-Möst is being posted early in 2023.  A quarter-century before, in May of 1998, he was making his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and we met at his hotel.  Portions were presented on WNIB, Classical 97.

As with most major figures of the classical music world, Welser-Möst displayed knowledge and understanding, to say nothing of self-confidence, early in his career.  As you will read on this webpage, he shares his views with certainty, as well as a touch of humor.

Bruce Duffie:   You conduct both symphony and opera.  Aside from the very obvious, what are the differences between leading an opera troupe with singers on the stage, and leading an orchestra?

Franz Welser-Möst:   Opera still is the great education in a conductor’s life simply because you have to master more than just an orchestra.  You must also react to what is happening on stage.  Sometimes you have to wait, or speed up the music according to the action on the stage.  These are little things which symphony conductors are not used to, and it’s just one more dimension to it than just the music.

BD:   You don’t find the same thing with a violin soloist, or a piano soloist?

FW-M:   No, because you have to accompany a soloist.  You have to be flexible, and try to reach a common understanding with an instrumentalist, but he doesn’t have to walk around and act.  That brings a lot of difference to it.  It depends so much if the singer sings an aria at the front of the stage, or at the back of the stage, or if he or she has to walk around during the aria.  All these are little things where you have to watch very carefully.

BD:   Are these things not ironed out in rehearsal with the stage director?

FW-M:   Of course, but these are things that you must find together with the stage director.  I can make a musical compromise when we get a great visual effect.  These are always discussion points between a stage director and a conductor. Fortunately, the time is over where you just have all the singers in front of the stage singing their arias, and not moving at all.  We try to achieve as much as possible as a Gesamtkunstwerk [complete work of art, a term used by Wagner].

BD:   Even in non-Wagner?

FW-M:   Absolutely, even in non-Wagner, especially if the acting is poor.  I’m sure you know the problem with the first performance of La Traviata.  They had a singer who was fat, so nobody believed she had consumption [tuberculosis].  The visual side is very important in opera.

BD:   Then let me ask you the ‘Capriccio’ question.  Where is the balance then between the music and the drama?

FW-M:   You always have to find it during the working process.  If each side gives and takes, then you find the natural balance.  When you study an opera score, you try to work the visual side into your process.  You know exactly what you, as the conductor, will need.  Then, when I discuss a piece with a stage director, I tell him at certain points that the music has to come first, and at other points there will be flexibility.  Sometimes it is very difficult, such as the opera Jenůfa, when you have to adjust.  The choruses are rather tricky to keep together with the orchestra, but at the same time I see it’s important that there’s a lot of acting going on, because the story demands it.  These are things that we just have to rehearse a lot, but they work.  Musically, the first thing is it has to be together.  It’s very obvious that the action is important, but at other places, especially when it’s just one singer, sometimes I just need him or her to really have good contact with me.  There might not too much acting, and that
s when it gets tricky.

BD:   When it gets complicated, years ago they used to rely on assistant conductors and prompters.  Now you can have TV monitors.  Is that a good thing to be able to have your beat clearly seen on a TV screen backstage?

FW-M:   Absolutely that is a good thing, but at the same time, the singers had to learn that what they see of my beat is actually what I give for the orchestra.  An assistant conductor would know the distance, so he would have to beat just before me, so that the singing would be right in time with the orchestra.

BD:   They have to anticipate?

FW-M:   Absolutely, and quite a lot sometimes!

BD:   Is that at all like double bass players who need a fraction of a second to get the sound of their instruments moving?

FW-M:   [Laughs]  It’s something like that.  You will figure that out in the rehearsals.  It depends very much on how far they are away, and what their acting has to be at that moment.  There are many, many little details.  It’s sort of a puzzle, and in the end, it leads to something which should work.

BD:   Do you ever get it completely right?

FW-M:   Oh, yes you do.  Every time the curtain goes up in the opera house, it’s always a miracle, but it’s a wonderful thing, and there’s nothing greater than when it works.  There’s nothing greater than opera!  When it all works together, it’s the greatest art form for me.  When it doesn’t work, there’s nothing more terrible, of course.
BD:   I hope it works most of the time.

FW-M:   It does, it does!

BD:   Is there ever a performance that is perfect?

FW-M:   No!

BD:   Could there be?

FW-M:   I don’t think so, and that’s good, because it keeps us going somehow.  You try to drive to its perfection.  You have great performances, but there’s always something, and it teaches us the lesson that we are imperfect.  We’re not machines, and that’s a good thing.

BD:   That teaches the performers a lesson.  When you’re performing, are you at all teaching the audience any kind of lesson?

FW-M:   There was a time, especially in Europe, when artists and directors of artistic institutions said that they had to teach the audience this and this, and it took away a lot of the fantasy of the single listener and visitor of a performance.  Music has a lot to do with communication, and we want to communicate something to the audience on a mainly emotional level.  It’s always about perception, but perception is very subjective, and again that’s a good thing.  I don’t agree with the view that somebody who listens to my performance has to see the piece as exactly the way I do in order to understand that it’s a masterpiece.  Absolutely not!  Variety is a great thing in life.

BD:   You have the variety of all of the different perspectives in the audience?

FW-M:   Absolutely!  It’s like when you go to a museum.  The artist can’t demand that we look at his painting exactly the way he wants us to.  It’s only up to me to say whether I see this or that in it.

BD:   When you come to a piece, either for the second time or after many years, do you see it differently?

FW-M:   Absolutely, and that underlines my argument that we change all the time.  Everything is in a process of change, and when you talk about a series of performances, talk to the players of the Chicago Symphony.  There would be nothing worse for them than playing one program four times, and every time exactly the same.  That would be terribly boring for them.

BD:   When you are rehearsing, do you make sure that everything is right, or do you specifically leave something for the spark of the performance?

FW-M:   There must be a difference between rehearsals and performances.  I leave certain things on purpose because I don’t know myself exactly a hundred per cent in every detail what a performance is going to be like.  If you ask me what my performance will be like today, I can’t tell you.  I can tell you afterwards how it went, but I can’t tell you in advance exactly what it’s going to be like, because it depends not only on how I am today, but I’m dependent on how the orchestra feels.  There are many, many things, and that’s the great thing about live performances.  They are, to a certain extent, unpredictable, and I think that’s great.
BD:   You know the direction you’re going, but that’s about it?

FW-M:   Yes, exactly.

BD:   Has there ever been a case during a run of performances, that you decide you want to change the whole direction?

FW-M:   Not on purpose, but they can happen, and sometimes one doesn’t know why they go into a completely different direction.  I’ve experienced that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Earlier you mentioned that getting an opera performance off the ground, and getting the curtain up is a miracle.  Is it the same kind of miracle, or a different kind of miracle, for a purely orchestral concert?

FW-M:   No, especially when you have an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony.  They’re so highly professional, and it’s one of the top orchestras of this world.  As a conductor you can have a certain amount of trust that a certain standard always will be reached.  But in opera, you have all the other influences.  You can’t trust that everything the stage crew does back stage will be absolutely at that second where you need it.  You can have performances where, all of a sudden, the singer comes on stage twenty seconds too late.  What do you do then?  That’s not under your control, you see.  [Both laugh]  The only thing which could happen in a concert is that the lights go out.  That has happened, and it’s a very strange thing.  [Much laughter]

BD:   You mentioned the excitement of the live performance, and you are also getting involved in recordings.  Are recordings different than performances for you?

FW-M:   Not a hundred per cent.  I try to look at recordings as documents of a moment, nothing more and nothing less.  I don’t want to over-estimate recordings, and say this is exactly the way I want to have this piece done.  It’s a document of the moment, the way you look at that piece on a certain day, and that’s it.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings that are out so far?  [Remember, this interview took place in May of 1998, before he began his tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra.]

FW-M:   Not all of them but some of them, yes.  I would say the recording of the Bruckner Fifth [shown above-right] is one of my favorite recordings, and the Korngold Symphony [shown left] with the Philadelphia Orchestra is a great recording.  There are one or two more...

BD:   I don’t need specifics, but I just wondered if you were basically pleased with them.

FW-M:   There are few I would say which are very good, and others I’m not so happy with.  But I have to say that when I’ve done these recordings, I hardly ever listen to them afterwards.  I just try to move on.

BD:   You listen to it one last time to approve it, and then that
s it for you?

FW-M:   Exactly!

BD:   I hope that twenty or thirty years from now, you can look back and be pleased with most of them.

FW-M:   [Laughs]

BD:   What do you say to someone who comes up to you and says they liked your recording, and the performance was either better or worse than the recording?

FW-M:   I would say that’s the way the world goes.  One day you’re on your best form, and the next day you’re not on your best form.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, we demand you be on your best form all the time!

FW-M:   We try, but who can?  Who can predict and plan the way we live?  To say that three, four, or five years from now I will be on my best form, that’s impossible.

BD:   But you try?

FW-M:   Yes, of course.  That’s the very serious side of our business.  We have to try as hard as we can, because the audience has paid for the tickets, and that means they deserve the best we can give.

BD:   Do they demand too much?

FW-M:   No, I don’t think so.  Sometimes when you’re in this situation, as an artist you demand from yourself too much, and you can make yourself really crazy.  That can happen.

BD:   I hope you don’t beat yourself up too much over small mistakes.

FW-M:   [Laughs]  Yes, I can get quite angry with myself!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You have a huge amount of repertoire to select from, both in the concert hall and the opera stage.  How do you decide if you will learn this opera or symphony, or you’ll let it go?

FW-M:   The way I grew up was to try everything, and decide later if you really like it.  Sometimes, in the early days of my career, I conducted pieces I absolutely was not convinced of, or that might not be to my taste, but at least I wanted really to try.  So, from Baroque music to contemporary music, I’ve tried pretty much everything, and I think it’s a good way, because it gives you an enormously huge base in your repertoire.  Later on you choose more and more, and say no, that one I don’t want to do again.  So I pick less, but you also go through phases, and you think.  The other day I received a call from the Salzburg Festival.  Next year, I’m doing a concert there again, and all of a sudden I thought I would like to do the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven again.  I’ve stayed away from it for eight or nine years, and I felt maybe now it’s time that I approach it again.  So, it has a lot to do with personal development, and how your taste develops.
BD:   Will you go out and buy a clean score and start fresh?

FW-M:   Absolutely, yes.

BD:   Do you do that even if it’s the next year, rather than eight or nine years ago?

FW-M:   No, no, I wouldn’t do that.  Like with Shostakovich Sixth [which was on his Chicago debut concert that week], I’ve done that recently, so I wouldn’t completely re-study it.  The way the music business works, one doesn
t have time, really.  In my job at the Zurich Opera, I do about fifty to sixty performances per season.  That doesn’t leave you that much time really to approach every single piece completely new.  That’s impossible.

BD:   Do you find it at all schizophrenic to do some studying of the Shostakovich Sixth in the afternoon, and then conduct La Traviata in the evening?

FW-M:   Yes, but from my experience I can do that for a certain amount of time, and then I have to stop it.  [Both laugh]  It gets to be too much, and becomes, in a bad sense, routine.  I work on several pieces at the same time, but then I need a real good break to digest it all.  Then I can make a fresh start for another piece, or for the same pieces again.  I’m not somebody who’s working 365 days a year.  I had the week off before I came to Chicago, and then I will have two weeks off.  Then I work for another month in Zurich, and then I have a good summer break.  I try to plan my calendar so it gives me enough time to digest what I do.

BD:   How far ahead do you begin studying a score you haven’t looked at in a while, or ever?

FW-M:   It depends on what it is.  To give you one extreme example.  We will start a new Ring cycle in Zurich in October 2000 [a year and a half away].

BD:   I assume you’re already preparing that?

FW-M:   Exactly.  We will do it over two years, but you can’t study Rheingold, and then study Walküre, and then study Siegfried...

BD:   You see The Ring all as one piece?

FW-M:   Absolutely!  You have to study all four together at once, and you have to put time aside to do that.  Last year when we made the decision to do it, I immediately started to read books.  Of course I’ve heard the Ring cycle quite a few times, but there’s so much more about it than just learning the notes.  The notes you can learn pretty fast, but to get a clear picture of the entire piece, to get the overview, that needs quite some effort.

BD:   Is it right to expect someone of your tender experience to have as much insight as someone who has been conducting the Ring for thirty or forty years?

FW-M:   Absolutely!  Experience is something very important in a conducting career, but at the same, when you approach any piece for the first time, you have to be prepared as if you had already done it ten times.  This week, when we did the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, after the concert I told André [Watts] that it was my debut with the piece.  He was surprised, because there were several moments where we discussed this and that, and I made suggestions to him.  He got the impression that I had done it already, and had experience with the piece, which was not the case.  When I did my first Parsifal, people wondered how it was possible.  But it just needs enough preparation time.  So many of the conductors don’t take enough preparation time.

BD:   Are there ever times when you come to the concert hall or the opera house fully prepared, and then, just by hearing it and working with it, you change your mind about a detail or a major idea?

FW-M:   Oh, absolutely!  That happens all the time, because when you’re working, let’s say, on a symphony, you have your ideas.  Then, when you come to an orchestra, it’s like making chamber music.  In a string quartet, the first violin player will probably have studied this score, and comes to the rehearsals with his colleagues.  It’s an interactive medium we’re working in, and that’s the same for a conductor with an orchestra.  You can’t say to the Chicago Symphony, “Forget your own personality.  I want you to play like the Vienna Philharmonic.”  That’s nonsense.  That’s such rubbish.  It’s always about giving and taking.  For some people, the word
compromise is something bad, but I don’t think so.  As I said, music is about communication, and that can’t be a one-way street.  You must have a clear idea of the concept of the piece, but there are so many details which depend on a single player, and maybe even on his form on that day.  If you ask somebody to play louder, and he can’t, what then?  [Both laugh]  That’s why opera conducting is such a good school for conductors.  You must have an overview and a concept, but in detail you have to be flexible.

BD:   Is it easier or more difficult working with a great virtuoso orchestra as opposed to, say, a second-line orchestra that has a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily the technique?

FW-M:   Everything has its advantages and disadvantages.  When you work with a great orchestra, it actually challenges the conductor simply by its quality.  Some other people might get intimidated by that quality, but I get inspired by it.  It’s like a wonderful toy, and you can try even more crazy things.  There are no limits for your fantasy, and that’s what I enjoy with the orchestras like the Chicago Symphony or the Vienna Philharmonic.  On the other hand, the wonderful plus of an amateur orchestra is that over-boiling enthusiasm they have, and that makes up for quite a lot.  You can also have that very often with amateur choruses.  When you have a professional orchestra and an amateur chorus, in the end you get a very exciting performance because the chorus infects the orchestra with their enthusiasm.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the big question straight out.  What’s the purpose of music?

FW-M:   [Mildly shocked]  What’s the purpose of music???  My God!  You could also ask me what’s the purpose of life!  That’s a very difficult philosophical question.  I’ve used already the word ‘communication’ a lot, and I can’t give you a one-sentence answer to this question.  To put it in a philosophical way, to be a human being has to do with living with and through others, and it’s the same with music.  For me, making music is only possible with and through others.  When you can achieve that, then music making is something not only fulfilling, but shows something greater in life than just its day-to-day business.  I’m not afraid of saying that in that context, it has something very religious.  Not churchy, but something very religious.  In this world you don’t live on an island, and you should be aware of that.  Art, like politics or religion, is something which is there to fulfill very deep needs of people.

BD:   Is the music that you conduct, for everyone?

FW-M:   I think so, yes, absolutely.

BD:   [With a wink]  Six billion???

FW-M:   [Smiles]  Why not?  We have to get away from putting everything too much into these categories, and saying that classical music is only for 3.2% of the population.  You can’t argue about taste, but everything in this world is there for everyone, and it’s up to every single person to pick and choose.

BD:   Are you glad with what you have picked and chosen?

FW-M:   I feel very privileged.  I feel I’ve been put into this position, and I feel extremely privileged, because it’s not only fun, it’s very fulfilling.  If you do it the right way so that you don’t overdo it, it’s like when you enjoy good food.  If you overdo it and eat too much, it’s not good for you.  If I would say the Grand Canyon is only for ten per cent of the population, and nobody else is allowed to see, this is a taboo I don’t like.  We always have to make the effort it to make it real.
BD:   [Again, with a wink]  Music is real???  Music is reality???

FW-M:   Oh, yes.

BD:   It’s not fantasy?

FW-M:   No, no!  We have to go into that extra dimension.  For me, the key to that is when you look at the relativity theories by Einstein.  I’m not pretending to understand all of it, but it’s about the relativity of time.  It’s about the fourth dimension.  In music, every day we experience that time is relative, and for me there’s the key.  If you use the word ‘real’ or ‘realistic’ only in a materialistic sense, then you’re dead.  It’s maybe a funny philosophy, but that’s the way it works for me.  These things are real.  If you would ask if God is only fantasy, I would say that God is real for me.  There are differences, but reality is just not the things I can touch and see.

BD:   Real is also something you can feel?

FW-M:   Absolutely.

BD:   Is it your job to make the audience feel at least something
not necessarily a specific thing, but something?

FW-M:   Yes, that’s my job.  I always tell my musicians in Zurich and in London that we have to take to risks on stage during a performance to bring it off, because maybe 95% won’t hear a tiny little mistake from one player, but 100% will sense an atmosphere.  That means you have to throw yourself emotionally into a performance to move, and to touch, and to excite an audience.  That’s the purpose of a performance for me.

*     *     *     *     *

:   When you study a score, and take it a rehearsal, how much is the composer and how much is the conductor?

FW-M:   That’s a difficult question.  You study the score as much as possible, and you try to get closer and closer to what the composer meant, or what you think he meant.  That’s also the great thing about music
there is no such thing as the total objective truth.  That doesn’t exist.  Again, we’re back to when you look at the painting.  It’s up to you what you see in it, and that’s the same with music.  You have to be very careful, and you have to be very faithful to what the composer wrote, and try to make it work the way you see it.  That’s the only way these art forms work.

BD:   Do you feel that the composers expected this out of you?

FW-M:   I think so, yes.  Some composers have used the expression that they give birth, but then the child has to live on its own.  It’s a good expression, simply because you try to establish a very personal relationship with a piece.  For me, a piece is like a live organism.  It’s like another person, and you try to get to know it as much as you can.  But even if you have lived with it for fifty years
or in my case maybe ten or fifteen yearswhen you approach it again you see different sides in that piece.  That’s one thing which I love about life.  Otherwise we’re back to the recordings.  You record it once when you have found your perfect interpretation of it, and that’s it.  Then it’s dead.  I think that’s wrong, and that’s what’s so exciting about music.  It’s like getting married and you say, “Okay, I know that person.  Put her somewhere!!!  [Both laugh]

BD:   You want to grow with her!

FW-M:   Exactly, and it’s the same with all these wonderful pieces.  You try to grow with them.

BD:   [Playing Devil
s advocate]  Yet with someone else, it’s growing.  With a piece of music, it’s still the same black spots on the page.

FW-M:   Absolutely!  That’s what makes these pieces masterpieces.  There is a joke about three conductors on a plane that crashes.  Who survived?  Mozart!  [Both laugh]  The wonderful meaning is that as bad or as far away from what the composer meant an interpretation might be, if it’s a masterpiece, it will survive.

BD:   Do you only conduct masterpieces?

FW-M:   Sometimes it’s difficult to say what is a masterpiece and what isn’t.  I do quite a lot of contemporary music, and some pieces I enjoy at the moment when I do it.  Then, when I pick it up five years later, I think it wasn’t good.  But my purpose is that I’m a servant, and I have to try my best with whatever is in front of me.  That’s the way I was educated.  When you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, you think you know the world, and you talk badly about this or that piece.  My teacher said to me,
“As long as you can’t write a single bar like this, it gives you no reason to be snobby!  I took that on board, and that’s my philosophy.  Otherwise you never could conduct, let’s say, an overture by Suppè.  It’s great fun!  [Both burst out laughing]  [Until recently, his name was usually spelled Suppé, with an acute accent, or even without an accent, as in the incorrect parish register entry, despite his father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather being recorded as Suppè with a normal Italian grave accent.]  You can’t go to the best restaurant in the world 365 days a year for lunch and dinner.  You would get bored.  Sometimes I think kitsch is great!  The great thing about life is the variety, and it’s the same in music.  I remember I had not done the Eroica for seven years, and when I came to it again I thought, “Wow!  What a masterpiece!  What I’m trying to say is that whatever you do, enjoy it!


BD:   Do you have any advice for composers?

FW-M:   A problem so often with composers today is that they just try to write what some critics think is fashionable.  I think it is best to be truthful to oneself.  I’ve experienced so many times composers who had no idea what they had written, and if you can’t hear with your inner ear, then don’t write it, please!  It becomes what we call ‘desk music’.  That’s something which I don’t like.  Look at Boulez.  What he writes might, for some people, be impossible to hear, but he actually can hear everything.  He has that incredible ear, and he knows absolutely exactly what he does.  So, that demands my greatest respect, and for me he
s one of the really great people in this century.  For me, that is the truth.  He writes only what he actually can hear and what he believes in, but some people just make little dots on a piece of paper, and have no idea what it’s going to sound like.

BD:   What advice do you have for other conductors?

FW-M:   Oh, my God!  I’m not good giving advice!  I’m not that old to give advice to other conductors!  [Both laugh]  I now have a young American who is my assistant in Zurich, Michael Christie [see photo and biography below].  He’s incredibly gifted, and I told him not to look for the easy way.  Go the hard way.  It pays off later on.  You should have a long, long career, and that doesn’t mean you must have done everything, or led all the famous orchestras when you’ve turned thirty.  My career worked pretty quick, but now you see kids standing in front of famous orchestras.  Our job is very much about experience, and the problem of the last twenty or thirty years in this business, is that so many conductors tried to avoid opera, and it shows.

BD:   Start by being a Kapellmeister some place?

FW-M:   Yeah, absolutely.  There’s no greater place to learn conducting, and to get the maturity, and the overview than in an opera house.

Michael Christie (born June 30, 1974 in Buffalo, New York) is a Grammy-winning American conductor.

michael christie Christie graduated from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music with a bachelor's degree in trumpet performance. His conducting teachers have included Peter Jaffe, Eiji Oue, and Robert Spano. He first came to international attention in 1995 when he received a special prize for "outstanding potential" at the First International Sibelius Conductor’s Competition in Helsinki at age 21. Following the competition, he became an apprentice conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and subsequently worked with Daniel Barenboim, conducting both in Chicago and at the Berlin State Opera. From 1996 to 1998, he was associate conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Franz Welser-Möst named Christie assistant conductor at the Zurich Opera for the 1997–98 season.

Christie was the music director of the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder from 2000 to 2013. He is credited with nearly doubling attendance and revenue at the festival during his tenure. He then took the title of music director laureate of the festival.

In December 2004, Christie was appointed music director of the Phoenix Symphony. In August 2005, Christie was named the 5th music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, with his first concert in February 2006. His Brooklyn Philharmonic tenure concluded in June 2010. In January 2012, Christie was announced as the next music director of Minnesota Opera. In parallel, he concluded his Phoenix Symphony tenure in 2013, at which time he took the title of music director laureate, for a three-season term. With the Phoenix Symphony, Christie has recorded music of Mark Grey for Naxos Records.

Christie began his tenure as music director of the Minnesota Opera with the 2012–2013 season. In February 2014, Michael Christie's contract with the Minnesota Opera was extended to the 2017–2018 season. With the Minnesota Opera, Christie has conducted world premieres of new three operas, commissioned by the Minnesota Opera as part of its New Works Initiative: Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize in music; Puts' The Manchurian Candidate (2015); and Paul Moravec's The Shining (2016). Christie concluded his music directorship of Minnesota Opera at the close of the 2017-2018 season.

Christie won a 2019 Grammy Award (Best Opera Recording) for the world premiere recording of Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs with The Santa Fe Opera (PENTATONE). In 2017, he led the world premiere performances at The Santa Fe Opera.

In 2019, Christie was appointed Music Director of the New West Symphony, serving the greater Los Angeles area in Thousand Oaks and Oxnard, California.

Outside of the USA, Christie was chief conductor of the Queensland Orchestra from 2001 to December 2004. While in Australia, Christie met his future wife Alexis, a medical doctor. The couple married in 2006, and they have two children. The family resides in Minneapolis

BD:   Do you have any advice for audiences?
FW-M:   Enjoy!  [Both laugh]  Listen, and be very outspoken about it.  That’s also good.  To pretend to understand is a terrible thing.  When people say to me, “I don’t understand classical music,” my answer is always, “I don’t understand it either!”  I try hard.  I love it and I adore it, but to understand it is a very big word.

BD:   Understanding implies completion?

FW-M:   Yes, exactly, which doesn’t exist.  People should follow their instincts and senses.  Music has so much to do with sensibility.  Like performing and listening, we need to find the balance between intellect and sensibilities.  This is something that is very important.  Some people try to be too intellectual about all this.  Music is always on an emotional level.  If you talk to another person, and it’s purely on a dry intellectual level, there’s nothing emotional happening.  It’s always an exchange of energy when we meet and talk with other people.  Musical performances are as if I would talk to someone, but in a different language, and I hope that’s the way they will see it.

BD:   Is music the common language of the world?

FW-M:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s too easy for me to simply say yes, but I think there’s a good chance that everybody has an understanding for music.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

FW-M:   Oh, yes.  In my younger years I always wanted to be older, but now I’ve made that turn where I would like to be young again!  [Laughs]  No, I’m absolutely happy where I am, absolutely happy.  
You try to get a clearer and clearer picture of what you’re doing.  It’s like a big, big puzzle for me.

BD:   Do you like traveling the world?

FW-M:   No, I’m not too fond of traveling.  I like meeting people.  I love people, but I like my home.

BD:   Where’s home for you?

FW-M:   My wife and I have got two homes.  My wife has lived for twenty-five years in Liechtenstein, and that’s where our residence is.  I also have a house on a lake near Salzburg, which is incredibly beautiful.  That’s where I always want to go because it’s so peaceful and quiet.  I can just close the door behind me, and be at one with nature.

BD:   Liechtenstein is such a tiny country.  I assume there isn’t a Greater Liechtenstein Philharmonic?

FW-M:   [Laughs]  No, there’s only an amateur orchestra.  Liechtenstein has only 28,000 people, and it’s mainly banking people and tourists.

BD:   What do they do for arts?

FW-M:   Liechtenstein is not far from Zurich.  In June there is the Schubertiade Festival in Voralberg [originally organized by Hermann Prey].  In the summer there is the Bregenz Festival, and during the year you go to Zurich, or Lucerne.  Munich is not that far, a little more than three hours by car, and Milan is two and half hours by car.

BD:   Thank you for all the music, and for coming to Chicago.  I hope you will return.  [He would be back for more concerts with the CSO later in 1998, as well as 2000 and 2002.]

FW-M:   Thank you very much.


See my interviews with Lang Lang, Dame Felicity Lott, and Robert Lloyd

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 19, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.