A Conversation With: Cellist Johannes Moser

Classic Arts Features   A Conversation With: Cellist Johannes Moser
 
Cellist Johannes Moser first came to international attention at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, where he earned the top prize and was awarded the Special Prize for his interpretation of the Rococo Variations.


Since then, Mr. Moser has become a frequent soloist with top orchestras around the world, giving his U.S. debut in 2005, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez.

He has gone on to make debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and, most recently, the Cleveland Orchestra, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer described him as having "played with agile brilliance and vast expressive character."

In this conversation, Mr. Moser discusses life as a concert and recording artist, family, and the power of music to change lives.

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Do you remember the first time you heard or saw the cello?

My father is a cellist, so that must have been quite early on. There's a nice picture when I was one year old _ I was holding the bow and he was holding the cello _ plus me on his lap! The violin was actually my first instrument, which I picked up at the age of five. I was very disappointed at that age when I learned that you couldn't just own an instrument, you actually have to practice it.

So both of your parents are musicians?

They are. My father is a cellist in the BRSO (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and my mother is the soprano Edith Wiens. But it all started much earlier. My grandfather was a musicologist and his father played in a quartet with Joseph Joachim, so the Brahms/Schumann connection is only a few generations away!

You have said that you knew already by the time you were twelve that you wanted to be a professional musician.

That is true. It was one of the dreams that you have. It seemed possible because my parents lived this normal life as musicians. There was nothing mysterious about it. Normally when you hear about the job of an artist or musician it sounds like an unstable situation. For me it sounded just fine. Little did I know!

When did you first play with an orchestra?

My first concert with orchestra took place very late by today's standards _ I was 16. I played the Saint-SaêŠns concerto. That was such a high-energy moment for me! It made me think: I want more of this _ I could get addicted to this. And I did! Actually, I had a career as an orchestral player in mind. When I was 22, my teacher sent me to the Tchaikovsky-Competition, and winning the top prize that year simply changed everything. After that, my career was starting out but I didn't think it would go beyond three seasons. But my first date in the United States was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez in 2005, and by that time I thought that this would actually continue.

That's quite an orchestra to make a U.S. debut with! How did this come about and what did you play?

It was Bernard Rands's Cello Concerto. Two years earlier I played with the BRSO in Montreux and Lady Solti was in the audience. Paavo J‹rvi conducted. At the post-concert dinner she [Lady Solti] said she'd put in a word for me at the Chicago Symphony. And so it happened: Matias Tarnopolsky [at that time the CSO's artistic administrator, and now in the same post for the New York Philharmonic] decided to invite me. They hadn't heard me before and I had performed no concerts in the U.S. What they did was invite me on a carte blanche _ needless to say, that was pretty extraordinary!

And you've already played with many other top orchestras in America since then?

Yes, I've played with Maazel and the New York Philharmonic twice already _ once in Tokyo, and after that in New York at Lincoln Center. Also with Welser-M‹st in Cleveland. What a great orchestra they are _ they have this amazing chamber music quality. It's amazing how each musician in the orchestra connects with everyone else. This season I'll play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the third time. Zubin Mehta conducted when I played Dvoršk there last December, and the year before I appeared at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl _ those were also incredible experiences.

You mentioned that the Saint-SaêŠns concerto was the first work you played with orchestra, and you just put out a new album of all that composer's music for cello. Is this a composer you have a special connection with?

Actually, this Saint-SaêŠns album was important for me to make. It represents so much of my past up until now, as well as my current interests. Besides being the first concerto I played with orchestra, I played the Allegro appassionato in a youth competition when I was 14. I've played The Swan on numerous occasions. Not only at home in my living room as a kid, but also as a student with this organization _ Live Music Now!, founded by Yehudi Menuhin. They perform at venues for people who can't get to concerts. I've played for them in hospitals, orphanages, and even a women's prison. Giving concerts like these has been a very emotional experience for me and has given my job a whole new meaning. I'll never forget playing Brahms's lullabies ("Guten Abend," "Gute Nacht") for the inmates in the women's prison. So many of them were separated from their children and it was a very powerful and emotional experience. Up until that time I didn't really fully understand why I was making music, but this concert at a school for disabled children was also unforgettable. There was a kid in a wheelchair who hadn't made a noise for years, and suddenly he shook and showed an incredible reaction to the music. Music has such power and strength. This was the moment that this job really meant so much more to me.

You can't ever really tell in advance which life experiences are going to have the biggest impact on you.

That's true. I was not exposed to children with disabilities or people dying in hospitals before this project. I'll never forget playing in a hospice. They just left the doors open to the patients' rooms and I played in the hallway. It was so scary and yet so peaceful _there was no cheesy romanticism or pathos to that moment, just me scratching on this piece of wood and hopefully making a little difference.

Getting back to our friend Saint-SaêŠns: don't you think his music is underrated?

Nowadays, his music is often played by eleven- and twelve-year-old kids. But I think he needs an advocate who has some life experience and is grown up to understand what he is about. That's what my album [for H‹nssler Classic] stands for: giving Saint-SaêŠns's lesser-known music, like the Second Cello Concerto or the Cello Suite, the credit it deserves. He really was a genius of his time _ he was into astronomy, he wrote successful plays, he did work as a scientist, and yes, he also was a composer. Composition wasn't his only thing: he was a truly complete genius.

Is there a composer that you wish had written a cello concerto?

It would be too easy to just say Mozart, so I'll say Szymanowski. His music is really awesome. He brings together modernist elements, but he's a classic in a way. I love the two violin concertos! But the 19th and 20th century is full of great cello masterpieces, so to complain about shortage of repertoire would be quite bizarre!

Do you enjoy making recordings?

It's a very different experience from performing concerts. The concert lives off of an exchange of energy with the audience, so not only do you send energy into the hall, but also you have energy coming back from the audience. You don't have that counterpart in a recording. You have to play to an imaginary counterpart. Making a recording that sounds alive, has spontaneous momentum, but also makes a statement that stays valid for some years to come _ that's the real task.

What do you mean by that?

Making music is a strange thing: you play it, and after two to three seconds, the sound is gone! A recording is evidence for myself about how I was thinking at that stage of my life. I find it interesting to make a record and to know what it was like. I don't believe records are for eternity. They are bound to the moment _ the moment they are made. They are children of their time. When you hear a Furtw‹ngler recording you see it in the context of the time _ it's a time capsule.

How many CDs have you made thus far?

About five _ four with H‹nssler, and a live recording of Theodorakis's cello concerto.

Do you have more recording plans with H‹nssler?

I'm doing an orchestral recording in 2010 with concertos by Hindemith, Honegger, and Martinu. Hindemith wrote his piece in 1940 _ it features a huge orchestra and has become one of my favorite pieces. Coming out this year is the third edition of recordings in the "Brahms and His Contemporaries" series. This series has earned me my second ECHO Award; the other ECHO winner was for my Shostakovich/Weinberg album.

Do you also work with contemporary composers?

I gave the first performance of a piano trio by Christian Jost at the Jerusalem Festival. He's writing a piece for twelve female singers, organ, and electric cello that is going to be premiered in May 2009. He's also writing a cello concerto for me. Fabrice Bollon also wrote an electric cello concerto for me. What really fascinates me is the dialog that I can have with a composer about his music. It has a very interesting side effect: getting into the minds of composers of today helps me understand what composers of another time were thinking. This opportunity is always wonderful for me! However, history has it that composers have not always been the best executors of their own works, so, as an instrumentalist, I do feel that I am a useful tool in the whole process.

What else are you looking forward to doing this season?

I'll be performing with the Israel Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the LA Phil, and many European orchestras. And at the beginning of next season I'll be with Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performing Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. This is a very important work for me: I played it in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky competition in the finals.

What do you enjoy doing when you're not making music?

Reading is important to me. Most of the time I'm traveling. When I don't have to do my daily e-mail madness I love to read biographies because it gives me such a live sense of history. I like to read different biographies at the same time. I was recently reading a Richard Strauss biography together with a biography of Alma Mahler _ together the two books cover pretty much the same time from different angles. He was in Munich [Garmisch], while Alma was in Vienna. It gives you a great sense of European history through these very important people of the time. I find that fascinating. Also, when you read a biography of Strauss even the Sinfonia domestica makes sense! I am also quite a sports fanatic _ I travel always with my jogging shoes and swimming trunks. It keeps me in shape and hopefully healthy with all the traveling I am doing. Also, I am turning more and more into a culture junkie, I love to go to the cinema, to concerts, to the theater when I am in Berlin. In the past month, I have seen three different Hamlets; besides the pleasure, it is a great inspiration on how many different angles you can have on the same piece _ that goes for music as well, of course.

Who are some of your other inspirations _ musical and otherwise?

With musicians I'd start with Michael Brecker, Miles Davis, Jascha Heifetz, Dino Saluzzi, Daniil Shafran, Bryn Terfel, Marcus Miller... Outside of music I admire people like the architect Le Corbusier and, to choose someone more contemporary, Apple's Steve Jobs. But to tell you the truth, last month I heard a really great squeaky sound deriving from the brakes of a car, and it inspired me to look for this sound on my electric cello, so you see, I try to get inspiration from wherever I can.

Interview courtesy of 21C Media Group, Inc.


 
Visit www.johannes-moser.com.

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