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Christian Thielemann leads Vienna Philharmonic US tour

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During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in November 2020, when Vienna was shut down and people were allowed outside mainly to walk their dogs, Christian Thielemann was stopped by a police officer in the Heldenplatz.

”What are you doing?‘” he recalled the officer asking.

“I said that I have something to conduct,” recalled Thielemann, who was prepared to pull out a special permission slip.

No explanation was needed.

“`Are you Mr. Thielemann? We come to your concerts.’” the conductor remembered the officer telling him before adding; ”`Go!”

And so Thielemann proceeded to work on recording a cycle of 11 Bruckner symphonies being released through next year — the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Thielemann will conduct the Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on Sunday and at Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, California, on March 9 as part of the Vienna Philharmonic’s six-concert U.S. tour that opens Friday. The Ninth Symphony was released Friday by Sony Classical, joining Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8, with the others to follow.

Thielemann was home in Berlin, bored with nothing to do, when he received the invitation to record in Vienna. He arrived to desolation.

“I was sometimes the only guest in the Sacher. Can you imagine?” he said, referring to the famous 149-room hotel where the Sacher torte was invented in 1832.

Conditions for recording, however, were optimal. The Vienna Philharmonic supplies pit musicians to the Vienna State Opera, creating a hectic schedule, but the pandemic prompted the postponement of public performances.

‘We would have more rehearsals than ever. We could even go overtime,” Thielemann recalled Thursday during a lunch at Carnegie.

Now 63, Thielemann trained as an assistant to Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim, worked in smaller German houses and became music director of Nuremberg’s State Theater from 1988–1992.

Thielemann moved on to music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1997-2004 and of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004-11. He has been chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since 2012-13, a role scheduled to end after the 2023-24 season.

Thielemann thought back to a review of his U.S. debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1991, leading Strauss’ “Elektra.”

“Somebody wrote, he’s only a kapellmeister,” Thielemann said, using a German word for a musical leader sometimes used in a derogatory manner, “which obviously meant boring, unsubtle conductor who has no inspiration.”

“We see that in a different way,” he said. “A kapellmeister is the same as a maestro, it’s only in German. It is somebody who has to be very aware of what happens in an orchestra.”

Thielemann was 28 when he made his Vienna State Opera debut in 1987. He led his first Vienna Philharmonic performance in 2000. He conducted 154 Vienna Philharmonic concerts heading into the tour and will be on the podium of the famous New Year’s Day concert at the Musikverein for the second time in 2024.

“He is a conductor who is really close to our orchestra because we are an opera orchestra,” said violinist Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the self-governing musicians.

Thielemann has led a record 185 performances at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, joining Felix Mottl as the only ones to conduct all 10 of the composer’s mature operas in the auditorium Wagner designed in Germany.

“Usually in Bayreuth, tempi are swifter,” he said. “Don’t exaggerate in Bayreuth because people will yawn.”

Thielemann did not conduct in the U.S. from 2013 until last October, when he led Bruckner’s sprawling 80-minute Eighth with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic premiered the Eighth on Dec. 18, 1892, and will be playing it for the sixth time at Carnegie after performances with Karajan in 1959 and 1989, Karl Böhm in 1967, Georg Solti in 1993 and Bernard Haitink in 2002.

Theilemann realizes he will be measured against his heralded predecessors. He cautions score markings are a guide, not an absolute.

“Don’t forget that the orchestras were in Bruckner’s times weaker,” he said. “The violin players were not so good as they are now where everybody has also a very good instrument. And now we have different strengths we play with. The brass players are much more powerful because the instruments are better than in the time of Bruckner. So if Bruckner writes fortissimo, be very careful that you don’t do too much.”

Froschauer praises Thielemann for interacting with musicians, deferring in performance to the tempi of former concertmaster Rainer Küchl.

“This was to me was unbelievable,” Froschauer said. “This relationship: giving and taking.”

Thielemann insists dour-faced, shouters like Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Reiner are long gone from podiums, that the fictional conductor portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the Oscar-nominated “Tár” could not exist in the 21st century.

“One has to play the pingpong game,” he said.

Thielemann has not delved as heavily into Mahler, saying: “I’m still looking for a right way.”

“When (Leonard) Bernstein discovered, rediscovered with the Vienna Philharmonic these pieces, he would overdo certain things because he was such an exuberant character.” Thielemann said. “The worst we can do is follow this path and try to be more Bernstein than he was.”

His lesson when he teaches budding conductors is “you have to begin early.”

“I know Karajan said also: `The first 20 times Beethoven 9, you can forget,'” Thielemann proclaimed. “You have to make mistakes sometimes. If you’re always successful, it’s very dangerous. Everybody says you are great, great, and then you don’t have limits.”

This story was originally published March 3, 2023, 12:53 PM.

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