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An Interview With Bruno Weil

July 13, 2009

Over the last 18 years, Maestro Bruno Weil has transformed the Carmel Bach Festival into a major international event. The seaside festival, which celebrates the music of J.S. Bach and the composers inspired by him, is known for the rich range of its programming and the consistent high quality of its performances. A prized conductor in the symphonic and operatic world — his long resume includes performances with the Vienna Philharmonic and Deutsche Oper Berlin and stints at the Glyndebourne and Salzburg festivals — Weil is a Haydn expert famed for his period-instrument performances and recordings of Baroque and Classical music. He’s equally at home conducting Bach and Bruckner.

Last week, the festival announced that its distinguished music director and conductor will retire after the 2010 season. Billing this year’s 16-day musical bash as the maestro’s “penultimate season,” the festival opens July 17 with Weil leading the Festival Orchestra, Chorale, and soloists in a gala performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. It’s the work for which the award-winning German conductor is probably best known. His 1994 Sony recording of The Creation with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir — where Weil serves as principal guest conductor — remains a high-water mark.

The following night, and again on July 25, Weil will conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (the “Eroica”), and the “Eroica” Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major with pianist David Breitman. He’ll also lead a “Secular & Sacred Revelations” concert, July 19 and 26, featuring J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (Cantatas No.1, 2, and 3), Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42, Opus 2, Wie der Hirsch schreit, and Brahms’ Nanie. And he conducts “Haydn Seek: an Aha! Concert” on July 28, serving up symphonic and choral excerpts, arias, instrumental solos, and spoken narration that “search for glimpses of the ‘real’ Joseph Haydn: lover, innovator and superstar.”

The other day, by phone from his rented Carmel home, the 60-year-old conductor spoke about his extraordinary run at the Bach Festival and his vision for its future. He said he was a bit jet-lagged after flying in from Munich, where he’s a conducting professor at the State Academy for Music in Theater, but he seemed very much on his game — bright, frank, and witty.

You’ve had a long and fruitful tenure in Carmel, raising the festival to international stature. Why did you decide to leave after next season?

I think you have to retire when you’re at your best. I wanted to bring the festival to a standard that I think we’ve reached. It’s time for another generation. Nineteen years is a long time. It’s better to resign than to wait for them to ask you to leave. I was not in danger of that, but I think it’s time for somebody else, a new contribution. And there must be new challenges for Bach and for the Bach Festival.

How did you find the festival and the orchestra when you arrived in 1992, and what were your goals going forward?

What I found was a wonderful spirit. The atmosphere was so great. It was a situation where I thought I could build something. Coming here was the best decision I’ve ever made. I wanted to bring the highest possible standards. We needed the right players and performers, and of course, the new hall [the Sunset Center Theater went though a $21.5 million renovation and reopened in 2003]. That was hard. I had to convince the community and the festival that we had to have a better hall in order to make great music. You can’t make great music in a bad hall.

With the help of violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, who became concertmaster, you introduced period instruments and historical performance practices to the festival orchestra in 1993. Why was that so crucial?

What was important was the historical-period experience that Elizabeth brought, the things we know about Bach — the style and the phrasing — that had not been known 40 years ago. That was the most important contribution. Without her, it would not have been possible. She is one of the best string players in the world, if not the best on a period instrument. I had an idea of how the music should sound, but I’m not a string player. She showed the orchestra how to use the bow. It made all the difference in the world. It’s all about teamwork.

You’re conducting Haydn’s The Creation this month, a work with which you’re closely associated. What keeps bringing you back to it? What does it give you?

It’s the greatest oratorio of all time. Haydn was an old man then [67 when he finished the piece], but has written young music. The innocence and heart of this music makes you happy; it makes you feel young. It’s a masterpiece. With eternally great pieces like this, you always get something you hadn’t heard before. That’s what so much fun and rewarding about it.

You’re also leading one of your “Aha!” concerts, featuring excerpts from Haydn, linked by David Gordon’s narration. What was the idea behind the popular “Aha!” programs you created at Carmel?

The concept was to introduce audiences to a composer in way that wasn’t like a lecture. The idea was to show things we don’t know about these composers, to give a more complete picture of them with musical examples. There’s humor. (There’s always humor when I’m involved.) Since it’s his 200th anniversary, it was a good time to celebrate Haydn in a special way. Haydn was a great master of humor.

Why did you put Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on the “Sacred & Secular Revelations” program with works by Mendelssohn and Brahms?

Mendelssohn rediscovered Bach. Until he did the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, nobody was interested in Bach. We want to make those connections. Brahms loved Bach more than anything.

What are some of your most memorable experiences at Carmel, the magic moments?

There were quite a few. The Brahms Requiem last year, paired with a Bach cantata. That was a very special concert. I decided to do the Brahms not in a romantic way, but instead from Brahms’ point of view looking back, and using the rhetoric of Bach. It was such a moving experience. And of course, the Beethoven Ninth we did a few years back. We used Beethoven’s metronomic markings, quite different from the traditional tempos we are used to. The reaction was unbelievable. Something special happened. That’s the whole thing: What we do has to get the audience’s spirit. The St. Matthew Passion. Every performance brought me forward in my life. You always find out new things, new connections. There are always things I will discover the next time.

And your disappointments?

There are always disappointments in the life of an artist. That’s natural. I like what Hemingway said: “The best thing God gave us is a bad memory.” Let’s leave it at that.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a full schedule next year. I’m performing at festivals, recording Haydn’s The Seasons in Germany with Cappella Coloniensis, touring with Tafelmusik in Europe. I don’t like to think about it, otherwise I get nervous. ... I haven’t had a summer holiday in 18 years. This is hard work here. I’d like to go someplace and relax.

What do you do when you’re not making music?

I watch baseball. I love the San Francisco Giants. They won yesterday! But they lost today. A double-play in baseball is like a Bach fugue.

What do you listen to for pleasure?

I don’t really listen to music for pleasure. When I’m working, I watch baseball or soccer to get away from it. I love [jazz piano giant] Art Tatum. His musicality and virtuosity are unbelievable. Sometimes I listen to the Haydn string quartets for fun. They’re so wonderful.

What do have planned for your final Carmel season next year?

I’ve got some ideas, but nothing confirmed. I’m meeting with the artistic team. I’d love to do the St. Matthew Passion in my last season. I can’t do it enough.

How has the Carmel Bach Festival changed you?

It has changed my life as an artist and as a human being. Music-making here is done with devotion, passion, and love, not in the professional, money-making way. It brought us all together. It was wonderful. It is not easy to leave this place — the friendships, the beauty, the love among the people and friends who come to the festival. It has a great, great spirit.

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.