Michael Gielen championed modern music, led CSO through the ’80s

Michael Gielen was the CSO’s 10th music director. Photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

The distinguished German-born conductor Michael Gielen, who led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s, died of pneumonia on March 8 at his home in Mondsee, Austria. He was 91.

Gielen was appointed the 10th music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, serving from 1980 to 1986. He succeeded music adviser Walter Susskind, who stepped in for two seasons following the untimely death of Thomas Schippers in 1977.

An ardent champion of contemporary music, Gielen was one of the most important conductors of his generation.

As a music director, Gielen’s preference for programming the music of the Second Viennese School didn’t always endear him to Cincinnati audiences. But during his tenure, his discipline and exceptional ear became legendary, and the orchestra achieved new heights as a polished performing ensemble.

“Many felt that, through no fault of its own, the orchestra had lost some of its technical edge. Though his tenure was a brief six years, Michael’s strong, consistent artistic leadership restored the CSO’s luster and musical discipline,” said David Loebel, associate conductor of orchestras at the New England Conservatory, who was Gielen’s assistant conductor during his tenure.

“Many bristled at his demanding programs, which were meant to challenge and enlighten rather than merely entertain,” Loebel said. “Those who attended one of his CSO concerts expecting to relax and have pretty sounds wash over them were bound to be disappointed. Those willing to be exposed to worthwhile music they had never heard and to discover new things about the music they already knew, usually left exhilarated.”

A champion of the music of Lutoslawski, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, Gielen introduced several important CSO, American and world premieres, both at home and on tour. He regularly juxtaposed old with new on his programs, long before it was commonplace to do so in orchestra programs. During one appearance with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall, he paired avant-garde American composer George Crumb’s “Variazioni,” with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5.

On a personal note, I was riveted by his performance of Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto (1964-65) with pianist Ursula Oppens as soloist in the mid-1980s. The orchestra made a concert recording of the concerto, which was paired with Carter’s “Variations for Orchestra.” If his podium presence seemed austere to some, he was warm and kind off the stage, which I discovered when I met him years later for an interview over coffee upon his return for the orchestra’s centennial.

The oboist Heinz Holliger, a regular guest, performed the CSO premiere of Bruno Maderna’s Concerto for Oboe and collaborated with Gielen and the CSO on a reording of Lutoslawski and Strauss. Gielen’s other recordings with the Cincinnati Symphony ranged from albums of Busoni and Richard Strauss (“Metamorphosen” and “Death and Transfiguration”) to Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

Gielen’s legacy of local premieres included Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4 — performed with four conductors, Loebel recalled — Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony and Pierre Boulez’s “Rituel.” There was also a steady diet of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, including Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” with the soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson.

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Michael Gielen Photo by Patrik Müller

Off the podium, Gielen was “equally committed to the well-being and total contribution of each musician to the totality of the CSO,” said Steven Monder, former president of the Cincinnati Symphony.

“It’s difficult to talk about Michael Gielen off the podium without some reference to his approach to his musicianship, and his deep commitment to the integrity of his performance relative to the intention of the composer.  It was unequivocal. The clarity of the CSO performances under his baton were extraordinary and a reflection of this commitment,” Monder said.

“Off the podium and untethered from his commitment to the intentions of the composer whose work the CSO was performing, Michael was a gregarious, forthright, sensitive, and very caring man.”

Gielen was also a noted composer, whose style indicated his taste for the Second Viennese School. During that time, the acclaimed LaSalle String Quartet was in residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. In 1985, the LaSalle Quartet premiered Gielen’s String Quartet, “Un vieux souvenir,” after Baudelaire, a commission by Ann Santen, former general manager of WGUC-FM, Cincinnati Public Radio. The LaSalle recorded the work for Deutsche Grammophon.

His tenure coincided with the opening of Riverbend Music Center in 1984, on the banks of the Ohio River, where the orchestra performed summer concerts. The last work that Gielen conducted as Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”) at Riverbend in 1986.

Gielen returned to guest conduct in April, 1995, during the CSO’s 1994-95 centennial season, leading Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 2 for a “centennial gala” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 on subscription concerts at Music Hall.

Gielen was born into an artistic family in Dresden, Germany in 1927. His father, Josef Gielen was a director of opera and theater, and his mother, Rose Steuermann, a former actress, was the sister of the pianist Eduard Steuermann. In 1940, the family fled Nazi Germany for Buenos Aires. In Argentina, the young musician studied piano and began his career at age 20 as a répétiteur (coach accompanist) at the Teatro Colón, working with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Karl Böhm and Erich Kleiber. The family returned to Europe in 1950, so that Michael’s father could become director of Vienna’s Burgtheater. It was in Vienna that the young conductor began to establish his career as assistant conductor of the Vienna State Opera.

Among his other posts and major musical appearances, he was chief conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera (1960-65), music director of the Belgian State National Orchestra (1969-73) and spent two decades as Generalmusikdirektor of the Frankfurt Opera (1967-87), where he is regarded as having elevated the stature of the company.

After Cincinnati, he became chief conductor of the Southwest German Radio Orchestra at Baden-Baden (1986-99), where he recorded extensively. Among his widely-admired projects were the complete cycle of Mahler’s Symphonies, as well as Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.

Gielen had expressed the desire to make the move from Cincinnati in order to make more recordings and spend more time rehearsing, both difficult to accomplish with American orchestras, Loebel said.

“I heard superb rehearsals and performances of ‘Lulu’ in Salzburg and also some of his last concerts before his retirement, in Berlin in 2012,” said Loebel, who considered him a mentor and a deep intellect. “Most revealing was watching him rehearse and record with the Southwest German Radio Orchestra in Baden-Baden. Freed from the commercial pressures that bedevil American orchestras, he helped a good orchestra become an excellent one, leaving behind a rich catalog of recordings that easily hold their own with those of more renowned ensembles.”

During his lifetime, he conducted important world premieres, including Ligeti‘s Requiem (in Stockholm), Stockhausen‘s “Carré” and Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s “Die Soldaten.”

Gielen conducted American orchestras regularly and was a revered guest of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a broad range of repertoire. His last American engagement, said Loebel, was leading Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” at San Francisco Opera in 2004.

In 2010, Gielen was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation prize, considered the Nobel Prize for classical music.

He is survived by his wife, Helga, and a son and daughter.

The Cincinnati Symphony released a statement saying, “We honor his extraordinary musical life and keep his family and everyone close to him in our thoughts and prayers during this time of loss.”

The orchestra’s concerts on March 15 and 16 will be dedicated to his memory.

With thanks to David Loebel, as well as to the late Mary Ellyn Hutton, who chronicled Michael Gielen’s CSO repertoire on her blog.

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