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 on Heldenplatz.
“What are you doing;” he remembered the officer asking.
“I said I have something to do,” recalled Thielemann, who was about to pull out a special permit slip.
No explanation was needed.
“Are you Mr. Thielemann? We come to your concerts.” the conductor recalled the officer telling him before adding; “Go!”
And so Thielemann continued to work on recording a cycle of 11 Bruckner symphonies to be released by 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, Calif., on March 9 as part of the Vienna Philharmonic’s six-concert US tour that opens 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. It reached desolation.
“Sometimes I was the only guest at the Sacher. Can you imagine?” he said, referring to the famous 149-room hotel where the Sacher torte was invented in 1832.
However, the recording conditions were optimal. The Vienna Philharmonic supplies pit musicians to the Vienna State Opera, creating a hectic schedule, but the pandemic has led to the postponement of public performances.
“We would have more rehearsals than ever before. We could even go into overtime,” Thielemann recalled Thursday during a luncheon 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 from 1988-1992.
Thielemann became music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1997-2004 and the Munich Philharmonic from 2004-11. He has been chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since 2012-13, a role that was scheduled to end after the 2023-24 season.
Thielemann contemplated a review of his U.S. debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1991, leading Strauss’ “Elektra.”
“Someone wrote, he’s just a kapelmeister,” Thielemann said, using a German word for a musical leader sometimes used pejoratively, “which apparently meant a dull, uninspired conductor.”
“We look at it in a different way,” he said. “A Kapellmeister is the same as a conductor, it’s just in German. He is someone who must know very well what is going on in an orchestra.”
Thielemann was 28 when he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1987. He conducted his first performance at the Vienna Philharmonic in 2000. He has conducted 154 concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic on tour and will be at the podium of the famous New Year’s Concert at Musikverein for the second time in 2024.
“He’s a conductor who’s very close to our orchestra because we’re an opera orchestra,” said violinist Daniel Froschauer, president of the self-directed musicians.
Thielemann led a record 185 performances at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, while Felix Mottl was the only one to conduct all 10 of the composer’s mature operas in the amphitheater designed by Wagner in Germany.
“Usually in Bayreuth, the tempi are faster,” he said. “Don’t overdo it in Bayreuth because people will yawn.”
Thielemann had not conducted in the US since 2013 until last October, when he conducted Bruckner’s expansive 80-minute Eighth with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic premiered the Eighth on 18 December 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 Bernard2002.
Theilemann realizes that he will be measured against his predecessors. He cautions that the ratings are a guide, not an absolute.
“Don’t forget that orchestras in Bruckner’s time were weaker,” he said. “Violin players were not as good as they are now where everyone also has a very good instrument. And now we have different strengths that we play with. The brass are much stronger because the instruments are better than Bruckner’s time. So if Bruckner is writing fortissimo, be very careful not to do too much.”
Froschauer praises Thielemann for interacting with the musicians, deferring the performance to the tempo of former concertmaster Rainer Küchl.
“That was unbelievable to me,” Froschauer said. “This relationship: give and take.”
Thielemann insists with a dobra, voices like Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Reiner having left the podiums, that the fictional conductor played by Cate Blanchett in the Oscar-nominated “Tár” could not exist in the 21st century.
“One has to play the game of ping pong,” he said.
Thielemann hasn’t delved into Mahler that much, saying, “I’m still looking for the right path.”
“When (Leonard) Bernstein discovered, rediscovered with the Vienna Philharmonic these pieces, he would overdo certain things because he was such an exuberant character.” Thielemann said. “The worst we can do is go down that path and try to be more Bernstein than he was.”
His lesson when teaching budding conductors is “you have to start early.”
“I know Karajan also said, ‘The first 20 times Beethoven 9, you can forget,'” Thielemann said. “You have to make mistakes sometimes. If you are always successful, it is very dangerous. Everyone says you’re great, great, and then you have no limits.”