2021 Special Citation
Unsure of which academic program to place their child in as the Austrian school system requires at age 14, Franz Welser-Möst’s parents enrolled their son into the school for musically gifted children. After all, he’d been impressing everyone with his violin and piano playing skills since he was six.
“They didn’t quite know what to do with me, but they thought, ‘Oh, he likes music, so maybe that is the direction to go,’” he recalls, now in his 20th season as The Cleveland Orchestra’s music director. “That was it for me from day one. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
A few years later, he was playing in the school orchestra when his teacher unexpectedly and without giving him any instruction put him in front of his colleagues and asked him to conduct. He ended up leading all of the rehearsals for that teacher, Balduin Sulzer.
“I thought, ‘I really enjoy this,’ so I asked him if I could also do a concert,” he says. “He responded, ‘Ya, if you organize everything yourself, you are off on your own!’ So that’s where it started.”
Although Franz didn’t take it too seriously at first and still wanted to be a violin player, a year later he was in a terrible car accident. Among other injuries, nerve damage in two of his fingers ended his plans to become a professional violinist, but he then pursued conducting even more diligently. He doesn’t know exactly what he initially enjoyed about conducting, but his schoolfellows felt that he knew what he was doing. Years later, they told him that it was great to play for him and he knew how to inspire them.
Today, he is inspired by his job leading The Cleveland Orchestra, featuring the finest orchestral musicians in the world. “The amazing thing about this orchestra is they come extremely well prepared and give you so much in the first rehearsal,” he says. “Everyone has practiced, and technically, you don’t have many problems. So I always come out of a rehearsal inspired to seek even more in the quality. When you start on 97% of what is possible, you definitely want 98 or 99%, as well!” “
As a promising young conductor Franz made an extremely successful debut with the orchestra,” recalls Yefim Bronfman, regarded as one of today’s most talented piano virtuosos. “Since then Franz has become one of the most important musicians in the world, and he has maintained and improved the level of this great ensemble.”
The New York Times has declared Cleveland under Welser-Möst’s direction to be “America’s most brilliant orchestra,” praising its virtuosity, elegance of sound, variety of color, and chamber-like musical cohesion.
Of course, he thoroughly enjoys his other job, too, his wonderful, long-term relationship as a guest conductor with another world-class orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic.
He has twice appeared on the podium for the Vienna Philharmonic’s famous New Year’s Concert, and regularly leads the orchestra in subscription concerts in Vienna, as well as on tours in Japan, China, Australia, and the United States. From 2010 to 2014, he served as general music director of the Vienna State Opera. He had earlier led the Zurich Opera across a decade-long tenure, conducting more than forty new productions. His recordings and videos have won major international awards and honors. With The Cleveland Orchestra, his recordings include a number of DVDs on the Clasart Classic label, featuring live performances of five of Bruckner’s symphonies and a multi-DVD set of major works by Brahms.
In 2019, Mr. Welser-Möst was awarded the Gold Medal in the Arts by the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts in recognition of his long-lasting impact on the international arts community. Other honors include The Cleveland Orchestra’s Distinguished Service Award, Vienna Philharmonic’s “Ring of Honor,” and recognition from the Western Law Center for Disability Rights.
Regarding the Cleveland Arts Prize, he observes, “When you receive an award from a place you call home, and Cleveland has been my musical home for 20 years, and from people who know me well and don’t take me for granted, that makes it special to me.”
His book From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World was published in Austria in July 2020, under the title Als ich die Stille fand, and rapidly rose to number one on the [German-language] best-seller lists, where it remained through much of 2021. The English version of From Silence was released worldwide in Summer 2021.
“While working on the book, it turned out more and more that I wanted to write it for younger musicians, maybe guiding them a little bit, as I had been through quite a few ups and downs in my life,” he says. “I wanted to be honest about success.”