Andreas Großbauer on the Viennese Sound

On the eve of the New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic broadcast live and watched by millions of people around the globe, we publish the exclusive interview with Herr Andreas Großbauer shortly after he was elected Chairman of the orchestra. The interview was conducted on September 18th, 2014 at the Shanghai Symphony Hall when the orchestra played.

You were elected Chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic. How do you plan to reinvigorate this orchestra and sustain its high quality of playing?

The orchestra is asked to play in many parts of the world. This means that the selection of suitable destinations for concert tours is a very important matter. China is very important for our orchestra. Many Chinese fans must already know that we are coming to China in2017 in cooperation with Wu Promotion. This is a very positive development. Quality is always the most important aspect with the Vienna Philharmonic. This always raises the question of just what is meant by ‘quality in music’? Is it just a matter of hitting the right notes or does it involve more than that?

A most powerful aspect of the Vienna Philharmonic is our ability to touch the hearts of the audiences. This is our raison d’être. It is very important for us to create a sound that goes directly to the soul. This is something for which we always have to work very hard, of course. The Viennese sound is based on a long-standing tradition, but at the same time it keeps developing. So the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic 20 or 30 years ago was a little different from the sound of today because it depends on the people who are playing. That’s why we all have to focus on the quality.

When did you join the Vienna Philharmonic?

I have played in the orchestra since 2005. Before that, I was in the Vienna Symphony for four years. Only two years after I joined the Philharmonic, I started organizing the Vienna Philharmonic Ball, which is, of course, a very important event that takes place in the Musikverein. Because it is not broadcast, many people abroad are not aware of its existence. It is one of the most luxurious and exclusive balls in Vienna, and always takes place in January. The Vienna Philharmonic performs during the ball’s opening ceremony. It is truly a noble and elegant occasion that I presided over beginning in 2007, in addition to playing in the orchestra. After that I was elected as the orchestra’s chairman.

Social events in Austria are very important. Well-known individuals from Austria’s most important institutions come to our ball. It is also a party of musicians, with many instrumentalists, singers and dancers coming even from abroad to join in this celebration of culture and music. All the seats in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein are removed to make room for dancing. The whole buildingis used for the ball, including all the smaller halls. There are many chamber music ensembles which perform at various times throughout the night. The ball startsat 10 PM and lasts until 5 in the morning. A very good dance band also plays waltzes. It’s like a dream.

Sounds like the Act II of Die Fledermaus…

Yes, you make a very accurate comparison. Let me tell you one more thing about the ball. After the ball, many people go for breakfast to the Imperial Hotel, which is located just opposite the Musikverein. The Imperial Hotel knows that people from the ball will be coming over and that some of them may be a bit tipsy. We even organize music at the hotel so the party goes on throughout breakfast. This is typical Viennese.

Since you played in both orchestras in Vienna, how would you compare the working environments as a violinist?

I really liked playing in the Vienna Symphony and had a very special time there. I enjoyed working with them. However, even beforeI went to the Symphony I had already played as a substitute with the Philharmonic and was used to their sound and a schedule which included performing both operatic and symphonic repertoire. That is why I made the decision to come back to this orchestra.

The organizational structure of the Vienna Philharmonic is totally different because it is a self-governing association. The musicians themselves deal with the daily business of managing the orchestra. This can be very difficult sometimes, but the orchestra is very, very strong.

Would you tell us about the self-governing process and how the board and its chairman are selected?

We have an election every third year. There is a meeting where all the members of the orchestra come together to elect new members, as well as the ball organizer, ticket manager, tour manager, CEO and many other functions, including the chairman. The candidates speak about what the orchestra needs and their vision for the future. The musicians cast their ballots personally by hand and the results are tallied up and announced immediately. The last chairman held his position for 17 years.

So the members also decide how many female musicians can join the orchestra?

When I was in the Vienna Symphony there were already a lot of women players. For our generation this is very normal. But it takes a while for the Philharmonic to raise the number of female players. One of the most important reasons for this is that there is very little rotation. The musicians generally stay for their entire careers, until 60 or 65. Only when they retire there is an audition for a new position. So it takes time. Since we only take the best qualified musicians we do not have a quota. The candidate who performs the best at the audition is the one who wins the position.

For a long time the orchestra has not had a music director or chief conductor. Is this a good thing?

Take the example of the Vienna State Opera. It can be good to have a music director or principal conductor. But often personal problems develop with time. In the State Opera the administrative director and the musical director had trouble finding their way together, which led to a separation. Things can run very successfully with a principal conductor, but if the chemistry is not just right it can also be a disaster. We are very satisfied with our system of not having a principal conductor. We ourselves decide who conducts the orchestra. In the last years we have done quite well, don’t you think?

By publishing the orchestra’s ties with the Nazis, I presume the case is closed?

This case is never closed because we always have to be open about what happened during the Nazi regime. The things that happened here at that time should never happen again. We have the responsibility to passon awareness of these events to future generations. In the last several years we have been able to expand the orchestra’s historical archives. It is now my goalto open the archives to the public so that the orchestra’s historical documentsare accessible for study. We are involved in this process right now.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra built its own hall, perhaps for the orchestra to project its own sound in the same manner that the Vienna Philharmonic is closely associated with the Musikverein. How would you describe the Viennese Sound?

I like the idea of what you are saying about an orchestra having its own hall in order to reflect its own sound. This is certainly one aspect of the Viennese Sound. There are many mosaic pieces which go into creating our sound. One aspect is the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. We play there often and it becomes part of our souls.

Another aspect is that we play regularly in the State Opera. Performing in the opera requires a different musical focus because we are listening to singers and the human voice. We are constantly honing our skills to master this unique challenge.

The third thing is the special instruments, the Viennese horn and oboe.

The fourth thing is the character of the individual musician. It is an important tradition with Viennese musicians to play Viennese music together. Of course, the city is another influence, with its very traditional character. One can sense clearly the soul of this town. This is the mixture which creates the specific sound of the Vienna Philharmonic.


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