NEW YORK — During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in November 2020, when Vienna was locked down and people were allowed outside mainly to walk their dogs, Christian Thielemann was stopped by a police officer at Heldenplatz.
“What are you doing?” she recalled the officer asking.
“I said I have something to do,” recalled Thielemann, who was prepared to pull out a special permission slip.
No explanation was needed.
“Are you Herr Thielemann? We come to your concerts,’” the driver recalled what the officer told him before adding; “Go!”
And so Thielemann proceeded to work on recording a cycle of 11 Bruckner symphonies that will be released until 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 begins Friday. The Ninth Symphony was released on Friday by Sony Classical, joining Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8, with the others to follow.
Thielemann was at home in Berlin, bored with nothing to do, when he received the invitation to record in Vienna. He came to desolation.
“Sometimes I was the only guest at the Sacher. Can you imagine?” she said, referring to the famous 149-room hotel where the Sacher torte was invented in 1832.
The conditions for the recording, however, were optimal. The Vienna Philharmonic provides pit musicians to the Vienna State Opera, creating a hectic schedule, but the pandemic caused public performances to be postponed.
‘We would have more rehearsals than ever. We might even do overtime,” Thielemann recalled Thursday over 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 the Nuremberg State Theater between 1988 and 1992.
Thielemann went on to be music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1997 to 2004 and of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. He has been chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since 2012-13, a role that will end after the 2023-24 season.
Thielemann recalled a review of his US debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1991, conducting Strauss’s “Elektra.”
“Someone wrote, he’s just a Kapellmeister,” Thielemann said, using a German word for a musical leader that is sometimes used derogatorily, “which obviously means boring, unsubtle conductor who has no inspiration.”
“We see that in a different way,” he said. “A Kapellmeister is the same as a teacher, only in German. He is someone who has to be very aware of what happens in an orchestra ”.
Thielemann was 28 years old when he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1987. He conducted his first Vienna Philharmonic performance in 2000. He conducted 154 Vienna Philharmonic concerts before the tour and will be on the podium of the famous Vienna Philharmonic concert. New Year in the Musikverein. for the second time in 2024.
“He is a conductor who is very close to our orchestra because we are an opera orchestra,” said violinist Daniel Froschauer, president of the freelance musicians.
Thielemann conducted 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 the times are faster,” he said. “Don’t overdo it in Bayreuth because people will yawn.”
Thielemann did not conduct in the US from 2013 until last October, when he conducted Bruckner’s sprawling 80-minute Octave with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic premiered the Eighth on December 10. 18, 1892, and will play 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 that he will be compared to his acclaimed predecessors. He cautions that the scorecards are a guide, not an absolute.
“Don’t forget that the orchestras were weaker in Bruckner’s time,” he said. “Violinists were not as good as now, where everyone also has a very good instrument. And now we have different strengths that we play to. The trumpet players are much more powerful because the instruments are better than in Bruckner’s time. So if Bruckner writes fortissimo, be very careful not to do too much.”
Froschauer praises Thielemann for interacting with the musicians, yielding in performance to the tempos of former concertmaster Rainer Küchl.
“This was amazing for me,” Froschauer said. “This relationship: give and take.”
Thielemann insists that grim-faced shoutouts like Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Reiner are long gone from the podiums, that the fictional director played by Cate Blanchett in the Oscar-nominated film “Tár” could not exist in the 21st century.
“You have to play ping pong,” he said.
Thielemann hasn’t delved as deeply into Mahler and says, “I’m still looking for the right path.”
“When (Leonard) Bernstein discovered, rediscovered with the Vienna Philharmonic these pieces, he exaggerated certain things because he was such an exuberant character.” Thielemann said. “The worst thing we can do is go down this path and try to be more of a Bernstein than he was.”
His lesson when teaching budding directors is “you have to start early.”
“I know Karajan also said: ‘The first 20 times Beethoven 9, you can forget,'” Thielemann proclaimed. “Sometimes you have to make mistakes. If you always succeed, it’s very dangerous. Everyone says you’re great, great.” , and then you have no limits.”