Getting to know Franz Welser-Möst

April 20, 2017
Franz Welser-Möst

Music to your ears: a Q&A with the music director of The Cleveland Orchestra 


Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, sees this city as a cultural hub. And he would know. Coming from a lifetime of living and breathing classical music, he exudes passion for what the orchestra brings to its audiences and its community.

Welser-Möst is sitting on the second level of Severance Hall's Bogomolny-Kozerefski Grand Foyer, overlooking the Egyptian Revival/Art Deco entrance hall. The hall is a perfect example of Cleveland's unique atmosphere, which, according to Welser-Möst, is unlike any other American city. There's a combination of hard work, talent and beauty, yet the orchestra delivers literally some of the best music in the world with an unpretentious approach to performing for all audiences.

What has your experience been like so far with The Cleveland Orchestra?

What I met here was a very unique spirit. There's no other American city where the orchestra is so much in the DNA of the community and the orchestra is really the city's pride--and you sense that. It is part of the identity of the community and that's what makes it really different to any other American city I've been to.

Having that spirit, the musicians also don't come here just to play in a top orchestra. They come to join The Cleveland Orchestra. It's a different mindset. The devotion of the musicians and putting music absolutely first, that is also very special.

What is your vision for The Cleveland Orchestra?

As The Cleveland Orchestra is a real jewel of this community, you have to think about more than just the institution. What I would love to see is if this city becomes the cultural Paris in America, and I think it has all the possibilities with this extraordinary venue here, with the Maltz Performing Arts Center, with the Cleveland Museum of Art, with this orchestra. That's all world-class. So I think if we keep going in this direction, this community, this city, can have a really wonderful, bright future.

When it comes to the orchestra itself, I want to nurture still and further this chamber music approach. I want to have the most intelligent orchestra in the world, because it's not just about playing the right notes at the right time, but actually give it meaning and that needs also intelligence, and that's something where the work just never stops. When you look at the history of the orchestra, it has been always driven for perfection. It goes way, way back for decades.

You've been all around the world--what makes Cleveland special for a visitor coming here?

One and a half years ago, I convinced some Austrian friends of mine to come here. And these are people who go every week to the Musikverein in Vienna and great museums. Vienna is, for good reason, very proud of its culture. They walked into the lobby here (at Severance Hall) and were speechless. And even more so when they walked into the hall and heard the orchestra play, and they have heard the orchestra in the Musikverein. And I arranged a special tour for them at the museum and showed them around the city and they were just totally surprised and taken by how beautiful the city is and by how much especially in culture it has to offer.

The other day, I was walking with my wife around Shaker Lakes and crossing a traffic light. There was a car and this guy pulled down the window and went, "Cleveland Orchestra, great!" That doesn't happen in any other city, and I think people sense that immediately when they arrive at the airport. That's at least what my friends told me.

How has the young audience development been successful with the orchestra?

We are really proud to be able to say that we have the youngest audience in America. Twenty percent of our audience now is under the age of 25 and people keep coming back. The young people are very open minded and if you deliver quality and passion, they will buy into it, and that has been part of our success.

Why is opera important for the Orchestra?

We started that and the orchestra loves it because it's something unusual. I looked into the tradition going back to the 1930s where Artur Rodzinski did a lot of opera here and famous people like Lotte Lehmann, who was the most famous soprano of her time, came to Cleveland. So there has been a tradition. It just got forgotten for some time. We tried to revive that while also being creative and innovative.

The director who is doing in May now Pelléas and Mélisande, he directed Cunning Little Vixen a couple of years ago, which made a really worldwide splash because the production was so innovative and creative, and so I've seen already his ideas for Pelléas and Mélisande, which by the way is piece full of dreams and the libretto could be by Sigmund Freud about hidden desires and what not. The sound world is extremely lush, and yet, as I said, very dream-like, and I know Yuval Sharon, the director, will put that visually into pictures, which like in Cunning Little Vixen, will stay with you forever.

What do you enjoy doing around the city outside of work?

I love nature and my wife and I own an apartment in Moreland Courts, so being that close to beautiful nature like Shaker Lakes or also the Metroparks we go to, that's something we enjoy. We go as often as we can to the museum, and once in a while, I enjoy going to a basketball game. Seeing the Cavaliers is great fun.

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