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He thrives after life in the pit

June 08, 2005|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

Calling someone a choirboy isn't exactly a term of endearment in this country. But fling that epithet at Franz Welser-Most, the polished Austrian music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and he won't argue.

As it happens, in the late 1960s and early '70s Welser-Most did sing in a boys choir -- a few of them, actually, in his hometown of Linz. And though that was several musical lifetimes ago, much of the goody-two-shoes stereotype still applies. He has thick, wavy hair, rosy cheeks and a sly smile.

Yet Welser-Most, 44, has come a long way from that "Sound of Music" childhood. He has headed Cleveland -- long considered one of the "Big Five" U.S. orchestras -- since 2002, and now, having just concluded his third season, he is leading the ensemble's first West Coast tour since 1991, with stops at the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight, Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday and the Ojai Music Festival on Friday.

Hardly a fledgling conductor, he remains -- with Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kent Nagano -- one of classical music's young Turks, that group of brainy, photogenic maestros who are slowly but surely claiming the world's most important podiums.

And although Southern California may be terra incognita to many of the Cleveland players, it's familiar territory to Welser-Most, who has regularly conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1991.

The Philharmonic was among a number of American orchestras to take a shine to him back then, but his musical life was centered in Europe. His ostensible big break had occurred in 1986, when he conducted the London Philharmonic on short notice. Four years later, he was the orchestra's music director.

His six-year tenure in the English capital is remembered, however, mostly for the scorn he endured from critics and the lack of support he received from the orchestra. When his appointment ended, even his admirers wondered if he would recover his confidence or his reputation.

"We had a very turbulent time," Welser-Most recalled in German-accented but excellent English on the telephone from Cleveland last month. "When I started my job in London, I was not aware how political the music business was, and that's what I learned there. But that was 10 years ago, so ... "

Plenty of people would have crawled into a hole after the experience -- which is what Welser-Most did, after a fashion, when he became music director of Switzerland's Zurich Opera in 1995. Traditionally, conductors have cut their teeth in the opera house and then, if they are talented enough, have emerged to lead symphony orchestras. But for Welser-Most, life in the pit offered a respite.

The Zurich appointment may even have saved his career. During his seven years on the job, he impressed musicians, critics and audiences alike.

"I learned two things," he said. "First, craftsmanship -- organizing the forces, singers as well as instrumentalists. You have so much more to do. Second, it is my belief that such work builds character. As a conductor in the pit, you're not in the limelight. You're there to serve."

In fact, although Welser-Most's relationship with Cleveland began midway through his term at the London Philharmonic, it flourished during his years in Zurich. The conductor first visited the Ohio city in 1993, and he admits that his rapport with the orchestra wasn't instant. "It started to grow slowly," he said. "But then, I'm very often on the slow side developing a relationship."

Tom Morris, the orchestra's executive director from 1987 to 2004 and now the Ojai Music Festival's artistic director, says he admired many things about Welser-Most, chief among them the conductor's ability to surprise, selecting a symphony by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, for instance, for his first concert; his interest in modern music; and his deep affinity for Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn, core composers long central to the Cleveland Orchestra's identity.

But it was a less tangible quality that made Welser-Most a contender for the job of music director, once it became clear that Christoph von Dohnanyi was leaving after an 18-year reign.

"Franz doesn't insert himself between the music and the listener," Morris said recently, also by phone from Cleveland. "He becomes an enabler in communicating music to an audience."

By 1999, when it was announced that Welser-Most would replace Dohnanyi, he had led the orchestra in 42 concerts. And by the time he ascended the podium as music director, the number had grown to more than 70. "Each party knew each other awfully well," Morris said.

Which is why he minimizes the biggest surprise of Welser-Most's inaugural season: the extension of the conductor's initial five-year contract through spring 2012. "When it became clear this relationship was going to be a success," Morris remembered, "we said, 'Let's extend it a good long time.' "

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