When looking for a new music director, the Cleveland Orchestra has a tradition of favoring people who might politely be called "strict disciplinarians": Artur Rodzinski (1933-1943) supposedly carried a revolver to rehearsals, George Szell (1946-1970) was feared for his terrifying temper, Lorin Maazel (1972-1982) lacerated players with his acerbic sense of humor, and Christoph von Dohnányi (1984-2002) suffered no fools. But together these men built the Cleveland into what is widely regarded as the most virtuosic orchestra in America, an orchestra capable of playing anything and playing it superbly.
Hand chosen by the orchestra and Dohnányi to be his successor, Franz Welser-Möst is a brash young conductor who has been described by players and critics as abrasive, dictatorial, occasionally brilliant, and often boring. As music director of the London Philharmonic for six stormy years, Welser-Möst publicly fired a first-desk violinist, quickly alienated most of the rest of the musicians, and ultimately packed up and left London altogether. Indeed, the stories of Welser-Möst's behavior have become almost legendary: he once walked out of rehearsals with the Vienna Symphony because he was offended by their remarks on the music he had programmed; he refused to substitute-conduct for an underrehearsed Magic Flute; and finally, fed up with what he called "Austrian condescension," he turned in his passport and took up citizenship in Liechtenstein.
But for all his prima-donna tendencies, Welser-Möst has also been praised for his inspiration. According to reports in the London press, he has led some of the most exciting — and some of the most enervating — concerts London audiences and critics have ever heard.
Thus it is impossible to guess what his University Musical Society concert with the Cleveland Orchestra will be like (they play on Wednesday, October 9, at Detroit's Orchestra Hall). Will his interpretation of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony be narcoleptic in the "Scene by the Brook," will it be electrifying in the "Thunderstorm," will it be beatific in the final "Hymn of Thanksgiving"? Will his performance of von Suppe's Poet and Peasant Overture be more poetic than peasanty? Will his performance of H. K. Gruber's Frankenstein!! be as hilariously awful as his recording of it, or will he somehow make this piece of postmodernist flotsam and jetsam sound like real music?
There is no knowing what Welser-Möst will do. But whatever he does, one can count on the Cleveland Orchestra. Seventy years of discipline should carry them through even Frankenstein!!
[Originally published in October, 2002.]
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