Conductor Battles Burden of Success


In a profile last year, conductor Franz Welser-Most was called “battered but unbowed.” Unbowed he certainly is. But the 35-year-old Austrian, who returns to the Los Angeles Philharmonic tonight for two weeks of subscription concerts, hardly appears battered either.

Dressed in jeans, polo shirt and sneakers, he looks particularly robust, clearly standing out among the formal, pasty-faced businessmen in the lobby of his swank London hotel. In conversation, he is charming, confident, maybe even a bit cocky; he seems to be having a great time and a great career. As outgoing music director of the London Philharmonic, he has been getting terrific reviews lately. He loves his new job as music director of the Zurich Opera. He’s got a recording session in a couple of hours for a heavy-duty Bruckner mass, but that has been going so well that it is ahead of schedule. He’s young and handsome. What could possibly be wrong?

“In very straightforward words,” Welser-Most says, “you’re not allowed here [in London] to be young, successful and a foreigner. That doesn’t work.”


What he’s alluding to is the fact that since he took over at the London Philharmonic in 1990, the hometown critics, practically in chorus until his recent spate of good reviews, have accused him of being ill-prepared and charged him with bringing little to the music he has conducted.

Yet just about every other place he conducts, and especially in America, Welser-Most is particularly popular with audiences, orchestras and much of the press. This is his third year in a row with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he will be back next year. He is well-liked in Philadelphia and Cleveland; he won over the intractable New York Philharmonic in one rehearsal; and St. Louis wanted him for its next music director.

As Welser-Most explains it, music-making has had nothing to do with his problems in London. The press, he notes, also turned against other foreign-born music directors in London, including Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Klaus Tennstedt and Giuseppe Sinopoli. “Look at the press about the royal family,” he notes. “There’s no other country where the press is just so weird as it is here.”

Welser-Most feels that the precarious state of the London music scene also has added to his problems. The city has five major orchestras competing for limited audiences and dwindling government support. The result, he says, has been cutthroat competition.

“In my case it has been worse than ever,” he explains, “because at the time when I came, the [London Philharmonic] got the residency at the Royal Festival Hall, which was a big political issue. All the lobbying going on behind the scenes in favor of the Philharmonia, which didn’t get it, was unbelievable.”

Next came a proposal for government funding to be awarded to only two orchestras. One was to be the London Symphony Orchestra, leaving the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic to fight it out for the second slot. Ultimately, that policy was not adopted, but Welser-Most asserts that the divisiveness it engendered has not gone away. Finances remain so tight that his orchestra might not survive the year, and, Welser-Most says, it has brought in Los Angeles Philharmonic managing director Ernest Fleischmann as a consultant.

Even absent a Darwinian struggle among the orchestras, it isn’t difficult to see that the British might have their problems with Welser-Most. An Austrian with a passing resemblance to the young Mahler, he was promoted as just the right kind of serious, traditional up-and-coming conductor to revitalize the classics, to be a Brahms, Beethoven and Bruckner man.

But Welser-Most emphasizes just how non-traditional he is. He says that he likes to conduct all kinds of music, without qualification. Which is why, he says, he feels so at home in America: “I feel free in a way [there], and I really can go crazy in the music.”

His biography is as untraditional as his tastes. “My life,” he admits, “has taken so many surprising directions, where you think everything is going straight down the road and then all of a sudden you’re just around the corner and you go totally in a different direction.”

Those strange turns have famously included being adopted by an Austrian baron, even though he was never orphaned. Welser-Most says he is now estranged from Baron Andreas von Bennigsen, but he nonetheless stills registers in hotels under the baron’s surname, and he is accompanied everywhere by the baron’s ex-wife.

His conducting career constitutes another turn around another corner. It just happened, he says. “I studied the violin. I didn’t have a clue about conducting, and I never learned it really.” But one day, at age 16, he was asked to conduct the rehearsal of the school orchestra he played in. Then, after an arm injury ended his violin playing, he decided to try conducting seriously. “It’s all quite funny,” he says, of the twists and turns, “but very enjoyable.”

And Welser-Most now claims to be perfectly satisfied with his new post in Switzerland, which he has assumed this season. Although not the most visible opera company in Europe, the Zurich Opera does attract audiences and press from all the neighboring countries, and Welser-Most points out that it has an exceptional roster of conductors, singers and directors, many of whom have sought shelter from taxes in Switzerland and so are required to perform there.

But for him the real attraction of Zurich is simply conducting opera. “I do believe that in a conducting career one should have spent some considerable time in an opera house,” he says.

Certainly leaving the London Philharmonic seems only to have improved Welser-Most’s fortunes, even there. The orchestra, if it survives, has asked him to become conductor emeritus. He’s agreed, although he thinks he’s too young for such a stuffy title.

* Franz Welser-Most conducts the L.A. Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., tonight-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., in Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, Hindemith’s Cello Concerto (with Daniel Rothmuller, soloist) and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. He conducts Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber,” Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, and Symphony No. 6 by Shostakovich, Oct. 26-27, 8 p.m.; Oct. 28, 2 p.m. (minus the Shostakovich) and Oct. 29, 2:30 p.m. $6-$58. (213) 365-3500.