Longtime Vftp readers will know that I generally have a “no comment” rule when it comes to the work of my colleagues in the dark profession. No reviews, no criticism and no praise. It’s the best way to stay out of trouble- praise one colleague and anyone you don’t mention has reason to be cross, criticise a colleague and risk alienating not only them, but all those who know and like them.
That said, everyone once in a while, I’ve felt the need to break the rules on behalf of someone who either really winds me up to the point I forge my better judgement, or makes me profoundly pleased.
On such colleague (whose work makes me pleased) is Walter Weller. I wrote a blog post after one of his previous visits to Cardiff which still sums up my overall admiration for his work. Amazingly, when I did a quick Google search for WW, my silly blog post came up before his own website. There are hardly any recent reviews on the first page of results. I’ve decided to break my own rule, also stated in that post, for all the same reasons. (Point of disclosure- he’s one of the few other regular BBC NOW conductors I’ve never met or worked with in anyway, so there’s no axe to grind professionally for me in this at all. It’s possible we would hate each other, were we to meet).
Is Walter Weller the tree that falls in the forest?
What a sound he make! But does anyone in the industry really hear?
Last Saturday, Walter led a performance of Dvorak 7 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales that simply blew this professional conductor and Dvorak 7 nut away. By now, I know what to expect from Walter- a beautiful, balanced and burnished orchestral sound, clear and unfussy phrasing, perfectly judged tempos and a sense of emotional arrival at the end of the work. What I also know to expect is spontaneity and surprises.
Weller seems to be associated with a certain kind of grounded if slightly too-straightforward Germanic style of music making. Maybe it’s the name; perhaps it is the bio or his modest stage demeanour. The actual music making he unleashes, however, is anything but straightforward. It’s as electric and fiery as it is grounded and mature. He constantly surprises, then amazes. One is first surprised by a turn of a corner, change of color, or arrival of a phrase that is completely unexpected, but once it’s happened, you can instantly see why it happened, and why it had to happen. I’ve conducted Dvorak 7 a whole bunch, played it more times than I can count, and heard it live and on disc way more than I probably should have. Again and again, Weller did things I’ve never heard anyone do, or dare to try, and always, they worked, and though I’d not seen most of them coming, once done, I could immediately see the logic behind his choice. People describe his conducting as old school, which is accurate if by “old school” you mean “when-standards-wer- higher school.”
(Walter Weller Conducts the Finale of Mahler 2)
(Last year, I wrote a whole blog post about the music which opens this clip, comparing how a stack of conductors handle this miraculous and structurally crucial moment. Weller’s is probably the best handling of that corner I’ve heard. Certainly up there with Haitink’s.)
It’s music making in complete command of moment-to-moment flexibility and rubato. Where most modern conductors either tie themselves slavishly to the safety of the metronome or slide around like a minivan on black ice when they try to vary the tempo, Weller gets the whole orchestra leaning forward or back in the pulse in a way that always feels natural and organic. Players say they have space to play even the trickiest passages, but nothing ever feels cautious or safe. Today’s hot young conductors may look exciting, but WW makes orchestras sound exciting. I really, really hope it counts for something.
Four years ago I wrote: “Anyway, if I ran an orchestra in America and was looking for a conductor, I know who I’d call.”
I stand by that. Why sign some 25 year old to a 5 year contract because you think they’re going to be really amazing in 20 years? If your orchestra has been through tough times, do you have the luxury of waiting for someone to mature? Why not appoint someone who can restore the band to health, electrify the audience and leave the future bright for someone else? I’m looking at you, Boston.
I suppose the answer is that industry has determined that a different profile of artist will put bums on seats. At least that is what I always supposed, until I heard a report of a leading orchestra manager speaking after a recent Weller performance who had obviously completely missed the point, and not heard the difference in the orchestra’s playing or the audience’s response. There is nothing, nothing, nothing more depressing for a musician than to realize that the people making life-and-death decisions about the industry just can’t tell the difference between mediocre, good and extraordinary. Cynicism we can understand, and occasionally tacitly endorse as a means to an end, but ignorance? Clueless-less-ness? Who are the other horses led to this fresh water who won’t drink?
One of the smartest things I ever did as a young musician was to make a list of musical giants I had to see before they left this planet, no matter the cost or the effort. Thanks to that list, I saw Sonny Rollins (one of those performances that will always stand as incomprehensibly great in my memory), Miles Davis, Bo Diddly, Elvin Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Erich Leinsdorf, Rostropovich and so on. I’m telling you now- put Weller on your list. See him while you can.
Well, I hope the great British listening public will take my lead, and choose to find out why Weller is one of music’s great international treasures when he conducts at this summer’s Proms……
I mean, At this year’s Edinburgh Festival…
At the Lucerne Festiv….
Here are some Twitter reactions to last Saturday’s concert from musicians and staff at BBC NOW.
“It’s just such epic fun with him. And it feels like there’s so much space to play even the tricky stuff. Such a privilege!”
“The most refined, soulful, passionate directing from Walter “The Real Dude” Weller just gave so much room to play and make music – loved it”
“Such a good gig! I think Walter Weller should be trending on Twitter. He is amazing. That is all. #walterweller”
“Weller is something special, a glimpse into an era when only the music mattered and wasn’t just a vehicle for self-promotion.”
“Amen to that too. Please can he do a late Bruckner or any Mahler symphony in Cardiff or the Proms.#walterweller”