Friday, 6 January 2012

Kinder, Küche, Kammermusik

How did I miss this? In a freewheeling interview with Vienna Philharmonic chairman Clemens Hellsberg, Michael Horowitz asks about clubbing, women, and cooking for Boulez.

The full interview (auf Deutsch) is here; follow the jump for my translated highlights. The translation is a bit free in places, but that’s the only way I get fun out of it, OK? And there is a load of stuff I could raise a wry smile at, but I eventually gave up a little on the square brackets as much of it speaks for itself.

MH: Herr Hellsberg, have you ever been to a nightclub [or disco, whatever]?
CH: I chanced it twice. I believe the first time was at the ‘Atrium’ [now the Ost Klub]. But after ten minutes I’d had it, and ran out of there.

MH: You don’t think then, like Friedrich Gulda did, that art music and popular music can go together?
CH: I do believe in principle that the only difference is between good and bad music, but the pop groups of my youth never interested me. The one exception was Elvis Presley, who really did have outstanding musical talent.

MH: Was it written into the original by-laws of the Philharmonic that women could not be admitted into the orchestra?
CH: No. Back then women were not an issue, and that corresponded with the social norms of the time. In the nineteenth-century nobody thought that women would ever be able to play in an orchestra. The medical profession only had its first female student in the year 1900.

MH: But this tradition has been maintained at the Philharmoniker for a little longer than that...
CH: That is correct. But it’s stated nowhere in our by-laws that women cannot be admitted.

MH: How many musicians play in the orchestra?
CH: In the Staatsoper orchestra there are currently 148. In the Wiener Philharmoniker it depends on how many are in the two-year probationary period. But we need every man and every woman [oh, smooth], because we are split into more than one group – one which must play at the State Opera while the other is on a concert tour... [Follow up, follow up! Sadly Horowitz doesn’t.]

MH: Do you have a favourite conductor?
CH: If I did, I wouldn’t name him.

MH: Does an orchestra have to subordinate itself to a conductor?
CH: On the one hand music proceeds according to strict rules, but on the other offers much freedom. And a conductor cannot determine everything from the beginning to the end. He must wait and see what comes from the orchestra. There must always be an interaction between the conductor and the orchestra, and the conductor must also back up his musical convictions.

MH: Is that something you can sense quite quickly?
CH: Yes, right from the start.

MH: What about a conductor’s age and experience? Is that important?
CH: A conductor has different things to offer at each stage in his life. Herbert von Karajan once said at the end of his life – quite enthusiastically and in connection with the Vienna Philharmonic – ‘you only get that from an orchestra as an old conductor.’

MH: You have played with Lang Lang and know him personally. It’s a sign of the times, but behind him there is some very strong management, a PR machine. Does this cult of celebrity bother you?
CH: No, I don’t mind when we are dealing with a great artist. And Lang Lang undoubtedly is one. A great artist must defer to an artwork and its principles anyway. That applies to conductors too.

MH: Are there conductors who don’t see it like that?
CH: There are those who have different attitudes, but when it comes to purely artistic matters, they defer to the work, yes.

MH: So that means that the most important thing is to serve the artwork?
CH: I don’t know if that always happens so consciously. A conductor must be egocentric to a certain extent, and in the course of engaging with the music his feelings about what the composer might have ultimately intended also count for something, of course. In any case, music is able to express contrasting feelings simultaneously. The truly great composers like Mozart, Verdi and Puccini were all great psychologists with tremendous empathetic capacities.

MH: If you play a piece more than once, does it always sound the same or a little different each time?
CH: It is never the same...

MH: ... and are there moments in which you almost reach perfection?
CH: Yes, very rarely. But these are wonderful moments.

MH: How big an influence does the audience have?
CH: The interaction with the audience is very important.

MH: Independent of your position as a violinist in the orchestra, you are also active as a musicologist and author. As the Vienna Philharmonic’s chronicler you wrote – in three years – a 700 page book about the orchestra [Demokratie der Könige]. What is unique about the Vienna Philharmonic?
CH: The unique structure of our orchestra involves taking more personal responsibility and gives us more freedom than other orchestras. Every decision we take is arrived at democratically. We decide as a group how much we tour, where we play and which conductors we invite. Of course this correlates with our approach to the music.
I think that in our orchestra the proportion of those who – even after decades – still take great joy in playing is higher than elsewhere. This has to do with the fact that we offer a greater variety than other orchestras, because we perform at the Vienna State Opera in addition to our concert duties. I simply could not imagine playing in a symphony orchestra that never or rarely performed opera – even if it would be at the highest level. I cannot imagine a life without opera. I would miss it madly if I were never seriously faced with the music of Wagner, Verdi or Mozart. Just to play opera from time to time is not enough – you need a breadth to the repertoire.

MH: What is life like as a musician in Vienna?
CH: Wonderful. As a musician I wouldn’t want to live in any other city. Here the proportion of people who are connected with music, or deeply rooted in it, is considerably larger than in any other city. [And there we go with the Kulturnation...]

MH: You don’t shy away from taking political positions, and the Philharmonic has performed a concert at Mauthausen. Is that for you, as an artist, something you take as a given?
CH: The privilege one has as an artist faced with the greatest works of art isn’t something you can just avow publicly. You have to behave accordingly. There I see an obligation which I can’t escape – and don’t want to either. There must be areas in our society that exist beyond the politics of the day. These include art, but also sport. You should discuss and argue it, but it has to be free of a political agenda. I feel that the timeless truths of an artwork have nothing to do with and shouldn’t be bound to the politics of the day. A great work of art is something deeply humane – art is one of the few things which can convey a sense of infinity. Not that we ever reach it – but one feels that innate striving for more, to keep pushing the limits. There are moments in music – not very often, but they do exist – in which time stands still...

MH: When did you last experience that?
CH: When I played the Brahms F minor Sonata together with my eldest son and Yefim Bronfman. That was the beginning of something very special. Or once when I played the Trout Quintet with Lang Lang – an unforgettable experience. With these experiences you sense every moment.

MH: Outside of music, are you a person who can enjoy life, and likes to eat well?
CH: Yes, but it doesn’t matter so much to me. During the day I need to drag myself to lunch. And sometimes I even forget to eat.

MH: Where do you like to eat?
CH: It is with food as with music – I require a certain quality. And in that respect I am spoiled beyond measure by my wife’s cooking.

MH: What does she cook particularly well?
CH: She cooks everything beautifully. Her lentils with bacon are excellent and her apricot dumplings are my favourite dish [Marillenknödel – also a sweet much loved by Mahler]. Elisabeth is very shy and never really appears in public, but she does invite my work colleagues – including soloists and conductors – to our house and cooks for them [poor woman, chained to a stove!].

MH: Apricot dumplings?
CH: Guests get a choice, but some of them do request certain dishes.

MH: For example?
CH: With Zubin Mehta it has to be something sweet. So my wife makes him a chocolate cake. Christian Thielemann loves her Käsehuhn [chicken with melted gravièra cheese – sounds yum, Mrs H.]

MH: And what does Lang Lang order?
CH: He prefers to eat Chinese, but likes to come to our house anyway. Pierre Boulez loves Elisabeth’s Tafelspitz [whatever you do, do NOT put that part of the interview through Google translate] and thanked her in a letter as follows: ‘As far as the Tafelspitz is concerned, please tell your wife – to paraphrase Kennedy – that “Ich bin ein Wiener...”’

Image credit: Kurier


  1. Your bracketed comments amused me to no end. That smoothness you describe when the issue of women arose is what I referred to as “genteel discretion” in our earlier discussion. On one hand, it is essential that we be polite, collegial, and gracious, but another when genteel discretion becomes a mechanism of collective denial – as you gently make clear in the brackets.

    When Hellsberg says they need every man and woman, he’s telling the truth from a certain perspective. If they do not let women members of the Staatsoper Orchester play in the Philharmonic, the men will be forced to complete more rehearsals and concerts themselves. There’s nothing an orchestra musician hates worse than more work. So it’s very unlikely that we will see many women besides Ursula Wex who is in the Staatsoper Orchester but not the Philharmonic. Laziness almost always trumps sexism.

    It is also ironic when Hellsberg says art must “exist beyond the politics of the day.” Through their employment practices they have buried the orchestra in politics.

    Hellsberg also presents a perfect example of the romantic transcendentalism that sill imbues the ethos of the symphony when he says:

    “A great work of art is something deeply humane – art is one of the few things which can convey a sense of infinity. Not that we ever reach it – but one feels that innate striving for more, to keep pushing the limits. There are moments in music – not very often, but they do exist – in which time stands still...”

    That’s true about art in many ways, of course, but we also need to learn more about the role that form of Romantic transcendentalism played in the 20th century’s aesthetic concepts of nationalism, authoritarianism, absolutism, and the cult of the hero. Here is an interesting quote by Hitler that shows where Romantic transcendentalism can lead:

    "Art is an exalted mission requiring fanaticism. He who is chosen by providence to reveal the soul of a people around him, to let it sound in tones or speak in stone, suffers under the power of the Almighty as a force ruling him, and will speak his language, even if the people do not understand or do not want to understand. And he would prefer to take every affliction upon himself than even once be untrue to the star that guides him internally."

    So where does the transcendence stop? In the Gotterdammerung of Germany and Austria? Fanaticism in art can become culturally isomorphic with fanaticism in politics. The absolutism that kind of art represents creates a mindset of dogma, intolerance, and bigotry. And as history shows, people then begin dying.

    Life imitates art. So we have to be careful about how we let our aesthetic conceptions shape our lives and our societies.

  2. Interesting comments, William. There are really very few sentences in this interview that could have gone without square brackets, which is why I restrained myself. But I do like your comment about Hellsberg ‘telling the truth from a certain perspective’; it describes his whole manner of operating down to a tee.

    About symphonic music and –isms, very briefly: I found Karen Painter’s recent Symphonic Aspirations: German music and politics 1900-1945 very interesting in this regard.

  3. I would include NOT telling the truth from a certain perspective as also a part of Hellsberg’s repertoire.