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Johannes Moser Channels His Wild Side

January 19, 2019

Although he’s a prize-winning cellist who’s recorded and performed with orchestras world-wide, there’s relatively little publicity available on 39-year-old Johannes Moser. He’s not an old-school musical divo, and has no wish to be. But an artful documentary available on YouTube (see below) showcases the amiable, auburn-haired Moser moving through the real world, speaking in his native German (he was born in Munich), and in English with a pickup group of cellists assembled for a street performance in New York City.

Moser has previously appeared at Davies Hall with Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic, playing electric cello in Enrico Chapela's Magnetar, in 2011. (See the SFCV review by Georgia Rowe). But next week will mark his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, on acoustic cello, led by resident conductor and fellow Bavarian Christian Reif. They'll perform Witold Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto, also new to the Symphony. (This piece replaces the originally scheduled concerto by Andrew Norman, which is yet to be completed.)

A commissioner and advocate of new music, Moser was raised by musical parents and started cello at age 8, and now advocates for classical music among students from kindergarten to college and beyond, in all strata of society. Among his awards are a special prize at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, and the Brahms-Preis in 2014. Moser spoke with SFCV while on tour in Atlanta.

Your publicity calls you German-Canadian. Where are you based?

My home base, and also where I feel most connected in terms of roots, is Germany. I live in Cologne at the moment, where I hold a professorship. The Canadian side comes from my mother, Edith Wiens, who’s a Canadian soprano [now on the faculty at Juilliard]. She came from Vancouver to study in Germany, which is where she met my father, Kai Moser. He used to be a cellist in the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

What are you doing in Atlanta?

I just came in yesterday to play with the Atlanta Symphony, from Portland, where I’m their artist-in-residence for three seasons.

And you’ve been getting out into the community in Portland.

Like any city on the West Coast, they have a lot of issues with homelessness. So we played at one of those transition shelters. I also went to a school for boys who would otherwise be in jail, and what was so cool was that it opened up a platform to talk about emotions and impressions.

What went back and forth between you and the boys?

I played some Bach for them, and then I said, “I’m going to play something else, and I want you to share your feelings.” I played “The Swan.”

From Carnival of the Animals?

Exactly. Then one boy stood up and said, “I started off with some anxiety, but then I felt comfortable,” and another boy said, “It was like being in a trance, and it really put my thoughts to rest.” It showed them that music can mean so many different things to each individual. And I have to tell you: when I come to those places, my pulse is just as high as if I were playing in a symphony concert. Because you have no idea of what is going to come your way! Where, in a concert hall, we can concentrate on the art because those outside parameters are sort of normative.

Did you pick up the cello from your dad?

In a way, yeah. I started with violin, but I needed an exit strategy, because it was awful!

What proved to be the difference between the two instruments?

First of all, sitting down. I was a bit of a frail child. But I will also say that I clearly remember sitting down and playing the C string and experiencing those low frequencies and really feeling at home with it. Maybe I’m stretching, but I feel cellists are also social creatures. It seems that because the cello is so versatile, we get to work our social side a bit more than other [musicians] do.

Has any of that changed or expanded? Is this a particularly good time to be a cellist.

The violinists and pianists already had their Paganinis and Liszts and Rachmaninoffs, the cellists are kind of late bloomers. It was really with the arrival of Casals, Rostropovich, and du Pré that the cello — musically and technically, and from the standpoint of composition — was starting to catch up. Because, mind you, the Schumann and Dvořák concertos, at the time of their inception, were unplayable. And it was the 20th-century cellists who really made sure that these masterworks came to the forefront of people’s attention.

What made those works unplayable? Had cello pedagogy not developed?

I suspect that on gut strings, the higher register was never as appealing as it is now, with the stronger modern setup. Cello-making and string-making have really played a huge role in development. And it’s chicken-and-egg: If you have a certain level of cello playing then you can ask for a certain level of difficulty and emotional quality in works.

So it’s a motivation also for composers, even those for whom cello is not their instrument.

Absolutely. Very few people will write a cello concerto, or a viola concerto, out of the blue. It takes today’s cellists — and I include me on that list — to keep inspiring composers of all shapes and forms to write for the instrument. I think a composer will always keep the best ideas and themes for their symphonic work. Rostropovich was the first to convince composers to take their best craft and ideas and put them into a cello work. That’s why we have pieces like Dutilleux, Prokofiev, Ligeti, and Lutosławski, for that matter, that are not only great cello concertos but also top pieces in the composers’ rosters. The Dutilleux Concerto is one of his best.

Is that why you combined it with the Lutosławski on your latest [November 2018] Pentatone recording?

Yes. They were written in the same year, 1970, and both for Rostropovich, though they come from completely different universes. Dutilleux comes from color landscapes and atmospheric descriptions, and Lutosławski much more from mass and numbers, and his endeavors in quarter tones.

And Rostropovich recorded both.

Yes [on EMI Classics, in 2002]. Maybe his approach was a little more abstract.

Please tell us more about the Lutosławski, which you’re bringing to us at Davies Hall.

What makes it so different is that Lutosławski uses aleatory, composed freedom for the orchestra musicians, which to this day some of them find bewildering, and I would dare say a little bit scary.

How does this work?

Lutosławski writes a short pattern, and the conductor will give a downbeat to a certain number. Once that number appears, the musicians are supposed to play that pattern repeatedly, in their tempo and style. You can choose the dynamics to a certain degree, but it is organized by the conductor. It’s not a technique that has made it into the natural understanding of every musician.

Some might have an allergy to it.

Yeah, because it grants you a kind of freedom where you’re, do I really feel comfortable with that, am I exposing myself, am I doing this right? I would say a big chunk of rehearsal goes to familiarizing the musicians with this technique, and it being okay that every performance is different because of that.

And they’ll have three performances here. What effect does all of this have on the featured instrument, the cello?

Because the conductor is organizing the chaos, so to speak, when I come in with my voice, I don’t have those aleatoric passage. But I can take time with fermatas, and because those patterns are repeated, the orchestra is kind of in a holding pattern, and when I get to a certain point, the conductor gives a signal and we continue on. So, in a way, it also enhances the freedom for me. It’s very much catering to personal expression, and also to the expression of that particular day. I might come frustrated from the airport, or delighted from a cable car ride.

I’ve heard that you’re a hiker and a biker, but I don’t know whether you’ll have a chance on this visit to invoke those influences. But will your personality figure in? Will we recognize Johannes Moser in these performances?

I definitely think so. There is a narrative in the concerto, which is a conflict between the individual and the mass. In it, the cello is continually attacked by the brass players. And the brass players are trying to convince the strings to attack the cello with them. But the strings are kind of ambivalent. I am trying to charm the strings, in my way. And after each of the first episodes, there’s a huge outrage or outcry by the brass, to bang on the intruder, which is me.

When I get attacked, I fight back, and I must say, when I’m on stage, I feel the attack quite literally, and quite physically. I’m a really peace-loving dude, but I get to channel a certain energy in this concerto that I don’t usually tap into. I tell the musicians that the first violins need a certain amount of distance from me, otherwise they will get hit by my bow. Lutosławski was a big theater fan, and a fan of theatrical music.

So even if you have to take it sitting down, you’re not going to be passive.

Quite the contrary. And the end of the concerto is so wild: there’s one spot which Lutosławski classified as “pig-sticking.” I run around, and I’m obviously the pig, and the percussion, with incredible stabs, is having a go at me. Rostropovich, being politically oppressed and prosecuted by his native country, strongly felt that he wanted to turn this piece into a political analogy. But Lutosławski insisted that the piece was not political.

For you, is it political or personal, or both?

It’s hard to divide the two. So much of our lives now, just like when the piece was written, is defined by our political circumstances, and much of our frustration comes from that source.

Lutosławski himself was a repeat visitor with the San Francisco Symphony. Do you have expectations for your debut?

It’s been a big dream for me, because this is the only orchestra of the “big five” in the United States that is missing in my experience. And I expect they will be fantastic with this kind of music.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.