Savour the silence

The first duty of a conductor is to imagine a world without noise

On Music

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The ugliest epithet ever attached to a conductor in my time was coined in the late 1980s when two London orchestras were fighting it out for the right to sole residency at the Royal Festival Hall. Neither organisation was in good shape.

Two backbench musicians duly dubbed him Frankly Worse than Most

The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, an Italian psychoanalyst whose ideas floated above the players’ heads. The London Philharmonic was losing the inspirational Klaus Tennstedt to cancer and players were unsure about his successor, a bespectacled Austrian, not yet 30, who went by the assumed name of Franz Welser-Möst.

Two backbench musicians duly dubbed him Frankly Worse than Most, an insult aimed not just at the man but the entire maestro breed. All conductors, the tag implied, were rubbish. This one was just WTM.

When the nickname appeared in a concert review, its subject offered his resignation. The players begged him to stay, fearing his exit might cost them the residency. Seven years later, when he left London for good, one barbed critic wrote “he came from nowhere, he’s going nowhere”.

Sinopoli, also run out of town, died aged 55, in the middle of conducting Aida in Berlin. The two orchestras agreed to split the residency and have resented it ever since. All that endures of the episode is a sour aftertaste of how unpleasant classical music can be.

Franz Welser-Möst, now 60, revisits his ordeal in a new memoir entitled From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World. He describes how it felt to be “used as a buffer by several interested parties; the low blows became more and more powerful while support from the orchestra became ever weaker”. What did he learn? Shut out the ambient noise, he advises, and “discover that we can trust in silence”.

The remedy has served him well. Since the turn of the century, Welser-Möst has been music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, the most accomplished in America. In the world’s most competitive market, he has maintained a translucent sound and refined it to a richness unmatched in Strauss and a delicacy rare in Bartok. The point of his memoir is to look beyond the conflicts of his life to a stillness he discovered a moment before he almost died.

On 19 November, 1978, he was in a car on the way to a concert when the driver lost control on an Alpine road. The woman in the seat beside him was killed. Franz, 18, woke up in hospital with broken fingers and a damaged spine, ending his hopes of being a violinist. In the instant before the accident — he is convinced it was before — “an unbelievable silence” embraced him.

“I was completely at its mercy,” he writes, “unable to move, let alone to influence what would happen in the seconds ahead. This silence seemed to me to ignore all the known rules of the world … Since that day I have thought repeatedly about the phenomenon of silence … silence as a condition of the absence of sound.”

The first time I saw him conduct he gave the most electrifying Beethoven fifth symphony I have ever heard in the flesh

The idea of silence as music was articulated by the American composer John Cage who associated silence with chance or aleatory events in which the unforeseen must always be expected. The random variable in Franz’s life took the form of a Liechtenstein baron called Andreas von Bennigsen who, dandled as a boy on Wilhelm Furtwängler’s knee, spent his time searching for a comparable genius.

Declaring he had found his grail in the town of Wels, he double-barrelled Franz Möst’s surname and adopted him as his son and heir. His parents, a doctor and an MP, seem to have raised no objections.

If that sounds weird, the baron proved positively wacko. By the time that Franz detached himself, the surname had stuck and his star was rising on EMI Records.

The first time I saw him conduct, deputising for Klaus Tennstedt on tour at a suburban Tokyo hall, he spent the concert interval throwing up and came out to give the most electrifying Beethoven fifth symphony I have ever heard in the flesh. From that night on, I have never doubted his capacity for self-inspiration.

In the aftermath of his London debacle, he spent a convalescent 15 years at Zurich Opera, working with an orchestra of watchmakers and an ensemble of many talents, among them the young Jonas Kaufmann. One night I heard him take the prelude to Der Rosenkavalier at twice the normal speed. Why? I asked. “Because we can,” grinned Franz. “It has been a long season and we needed to let loose.”

In Cleveland, he faced hostility from the city’s only music critic and testified in his dismissal lawsuit. Retiring senior players raised ripples of dissent but his tenure has been on the whole benign and the musical quality — in a rustbelt city of staggering deprivation, sublime.

Apart from a brief spell as music director of the Vienna Opera, his progress since London has been unruffled. The memoir is dedicated “to my dear wife, Geli”. He lives beside an idyllic lake, cherishing “the possibility of retreat into the silence of contemplation”. At 60 he may have one more career Alp to climb, but the ambition gene is tempered by his embrace of silence.

The more I read him, the more convinced I am that the first duty of a conductor is to imagine a world without noise, the primal chaos that existed before God said, let there be sound.

On the podium, Welser-Möst appears to practice some form of meditation before he gives a beat. Carlos Kleiber, the all-time maestros’ maestro, used to flutter around for a minute or more before exhaling. Furtwängler was famed for giving no beat at all. Silence may well be the true secret of great conducting.

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