There are many reasons we don’t do reviews here at Vftp….
First and foremost, there’s the whole pot/kettle or glass houses issue.
Second, I don’t want to write a glowing assessment of one conductor only to run into an old mentor or friend who then asks me why I haven’t told the world about his bitchin’ Brahms.
So, it’s taken something for me to write here about a concert I just went to. Please, for my sake, don’t call it a review.
Walter Weller is one of those guys who has been around a long time, and had a rich and successful career. He’s more or less managed to achieve my idea of a perfect musical life- going around conducting Bruckner symphonies with great orchestras for a living. I’ve seen him maybe 10 times over the last seven years or so, and everything I’ve seen him do has been memorable and masterful, but I think he’s getting even better…
He’s an annual visitor to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, where he’s much beloved by the players. Last night, he conducted a Bruckner-free evening, which culminated in the very, very best live performance of Dvorak 9 I ever expect to hear.
From beginning to end, the performance perfectly balanced an all-encompassing sense of architecture with and endless stream of surprises, nuances and distinctive turns. This is a piece I’ve conducted many times (always from memory, it’s a party piece for me), and played many, many more times and heard many, many, many more times, and yet time and time again last night there was something there I had never heard. Almost without fail, just as soon as I heard the new detail, I could immediately see why he had done it. That’s insight- when you can keep even the most experienced listener off balance, and yet have everything you do be grounded in a structural plan. Nothing is tacked on the outside of the music- every detail comes from the inside of the musical argument.
Just in the first 2 notes of the last movement (the ubiquitous “Jaws” motive), he got from the strings about 5 different surprises in the articulation, envelope, color, vibrancy, development and release of the sound, and this was typical of the whole performance. The range of colors and dynamics seemed absolutely endless, and the end of the finale was one of those concert moments where there seems to be no limit whatsoever to the power of the orchestra’s sound.
This was the kind of music making that comes from a life’s experience, from decades and decades of study, an all-consuming love of music, and a complete depth of musical and human culture. As the world hunts for the next great, young conductor, maybe we should be asking ourselves if those three words (great, young, conductor) can actually follow each other in that order?
Coming just days after conducting a concert where I felt quite good about my own work (and where I certainly got lots of nice, ego-stoking positive feedback), it was absolutely refreshing to come away from a concert feeling completely challenged and inspired. I feel like I’ll be spending the next few years (or decades) trying to learn to study scores at that level. Walter Weller is a better conductor than me. I can live with that. He’s better than you, too. He’s better than anyone who’s won a “big job” this year- if you would argue that after seeing him last night, you don’t know enough about music to participate in the conversation.
I’m kicking myself for not watching his rehearsals this week. Interestingly, Sue tells me that he lets nothing slide, basically cleans up all the old, interpolated markings in their music, and gets them to play what the composer wrote on the page, listen for sound and watch. His three most often heard quotes are “Ja… ja, ja, ja..” “zo, now you know all ov my zecrets…” and, just before a run through, “okay… letz vind out.” He also seems to let them out early more often than anyone. Note, he doesn’t work on gazillions of little details, and when he conducts, you don’t see him showing gazillions of fiddly details, yet they’re there. That’s zen conducting, that’s mental powers.
I constantly find myself saying stupid things like “you never hear a real orchestra sound anymore,” and getting dirty looks and comments like “oh come on, they sound really good.” That sound last night- that’s a real orchestra sound. That’s szchouhm. You can still hear it here, on planet earth, for how much longer, I don’t know. It is different, but it is not just different. It is better. It is a richer, more sophisticated, more honest, more profound and more rewarding way of making music. These days we talk about “old school” music making as if it were a sauce anybody could slather on the music. “Would you like your Beethoven with “old school” or “new school” sauce?” The fact is, the difference is more like “teaching school” and “never been to school.” (note, I’m talking about almost everyone here, not just HIP-sters.). What we heard last night wasn’t just turn on the vibrato and play warm, it was a meticulous attention to detail- thousands and thousands of details, made to seem natural, organic and spontaneous. It’s the difference between five or six distinctive bow strokes and colors and an infinite variety. Message to conductors everywhere- being better at your job makes life better for everyone. Study hard.
Anyway, if I ran an orchestra in America and was looking for a conductor, I know who I’d call.
By the way, I don’t know any of his recordings, or if any of them capture what he can do live. Who cares- get to a concert. That’s where music really happens, anyway.
Of course, the really sad thing is that many music lovers who read this have no idea who I’m talking about. To the best of my knowledge, he’s never been mentioned by a big-time writer or mentioner in the USA as a potential MD of a major orchestra…. Here’s his bio.
Walter Weller was born in Vienna and became a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 17. The following year he founded the Weller Quartet which became internationally famous during its ten year existence and made many distinguished recordings. In 1961 Walter Weller became first Konzertmeister of the Vienna Philharmonic and in 1966 made his debut as a conductor. In 1969 he signed a long-term contract with the Vienna Staatsoper which enabled him to acquire a very extensive operatic repertoire. From the 2007/08 season, Walter Weller will take up the post of Music Director to the National Orchestra of Belgium. Weller was Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra between January 1992 and July 1997 and is now Conductor Emeritus. Together they have made highly successful toursGermany, Austria and Switzerland. Mr Weller has been bestowed the title of Conductor Laureate to the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and also holds the position of Associate Director with the Orchestra of Valencia, Spain. He was Artistic Director of the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft Basel, General Music Director of the Basel Theatre and Chief Conductor of the Basel Symphony Orchestra from September 1994 until July 1997, Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1980-1985 and Music Director and Artistic Director to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic from 1977-1980. Mr Weller is regularly invited as guest conductor by major orchestras throughout the world and has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, RSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala Milan, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic, WDR Köln and has a regular relationship with both RTVE Madrid and Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Forthcoming highlights include the Czech Philharmonic, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Gothenburg Symphony and Warsaw Philharmonic. Mr Weller’s operatic engagements have included Der Fliegende Holländer at La Scala, Ariadne auf Naxos and Der Fliegende Holländer for English National Opera, a new production of Der Freischütz at Teatro Comunale, Bologna, a new production of Prince Igor for Berlin Staatskapelle, and Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier for Scottish Opera. He recently conducted a new production of Cosi Fan Tutte with Opera de Monte Carlo, directed by John Cox, and will return for Der Rosenkavalier in 2006/07. Mr. Weller’s extensive discography includes recordings with Decca, EMI, Collins Classics and Chandos Records with whom he recorded all the Beethoven Symphonies (including Beethoven Symphony No.10) with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. On 22nd December 1998, Walter Weller was awarded the great Silver Cross of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria which in the past has also been awarded to Josef Krips and Herbert von Karajan. He has also been awarded the Beethoven Society Medal, Austria, the Mozart Interpretation Award, Salzburg and in 1999 a medal from the Cambridge Biographical Centre for Outstanding People of the 20th Century.