Coming into Orchestra Hall for Tuesday morning’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra rehearsal, the musicians were warming up as usual. It took a moment to even notice that there was already an inconspicuous figure seated motionless facing the orchestra in the conductor’s chair, clad in blue jeans and navy blue polo shirt with a long, multisyllabic German logo on the back of it. The orchestra tuned up then the stage became quiet.
“Good morning, everybody,” said artistic administrator Cristina Rocca to the orchestra. “It gives me great pleasure to welcome back a very old friend, Maestro Christian Thielemann.” The orchestra warmly applauded.
Without saying a word, Thielemann slowly ascended to a standing position on the podium where the music stand in front of him was already placed down to his knee level. Without referencing the score placed upon it, he grasped a rather long baton and turned to the violins, holding it in their direction with a slight movement after which quiet strains of the opening of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony issued forth. It wasn’t quite a false start, but a bit tentative as most of the orchestra was likely expecting a word or two first. Most conductors would have likely begun again. But then, most conductors would have said something before starting, especially after not having stood on this podium in over twenty-seven years.
“Maestro Thielemann’s Chicago Symphony debut was quite a memorable one,” recalled Henry Fogel, CSO president and CEO from 1985 to 2003. “It was also his American symphonic debut [in March of 1993]. Klaus Tennstedt had canceled. It was an all-Beethoven concert, Symphony No. 5 and 6, the ‘Pastoral.’ It was programmed that way because it was going to be an EMI recording with Tennstedt. I called [Daniel] Barenboim [CSO music director from 1991 to 2006], who was in Europe at the time. I asked him who he might recommend. He recommended Thielemann, who at that time was just finishing up ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ at the Met in his debut there. We became his American symphonic debut. Barenboim said he had been really impressed with him ever since he had been his assistant conductor for ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in Bayreuth at the age of nineteen, if you can believe it.
“The Beethoven concert was astonishing. It was very dramatic. It tended toward extremes a la Furtwängler. The pianos were really soft, the fortes were really loud. It was very dramatic. He managed as a conductor, completely unknown to the musicians, to get them to play with a lot of passion. The orchestra really played with intensity. He had them with him all the way. And the feedback I got from musicians was very enthusiastic. Of course, we reengaged him. There was a Schumann Fourth that was very beautiful. We would have kept having him back but he became too busy in Europe. But I’m glad he’s back now. I’m planning on going to the concert.”
The first movement of the Bruckner Eighth continued on in that first reading. Thielemann sculpted sound in real time with a variety of physical gestures that included large sweeps and sudden dips and crouches. His eyes were laser-focused on specific players and remained intense and expressive. When they would move, you could still feel his gaze. Players gradually became more intense and expressive right along with him. Even sitting in a mostly empty hall, you could palpably feel the energy in the hall transforming. He let the entire movement play out before going back to it and performing surgery on every phrase.
Comments were sparse but made as needed. “There is a crescendo in the first violins at that point in the exposition,” Thielemann cautioned, “but not in the repeat, ha-ha.” “Too much sugar,” he later said gently, his eyes saying more than the words. “Sound innocent, like we are.”
Thielemann’s baton, which has a line across it three-quarters down, would sometimes be used as an object for his fingers to make a point upon: sometimes a single finger, sometimes two or more. His hands can be clasped or open depending on what is being communicated. Air waves can sometimes be observed moving across his fingers.
And Thielemann does not look radically different, having moved from his late thirties to his early sixties since last in Chicago. “You are so kind!” he said. “Times change. I went to the Art [Institute] yesterday and was fascinated by the quality. It is full of first-rate objects. I thought back twenty-five, twenty-six years ago and I remember going there then, too. But it seemed more like ten years ago or so. You know, sometimes you lose your feeling for time. You should not lose it when you conduct. Or spend money and all these things. It’s all so familiar here. I tried to remember where I stayed when I was here. Twenty-five years ago there was a building called the Doral Plaza. And then I had an apartment when I did ‘Meistersinger’ at Lyric Opera [in 1999]. I looked, it was somewhere on the river. Somewhere there. I had a wonderful time here. It was February and very cold. Now it’s much more pleasant. I have so many positive associations and thoughts about Chicago because I always felt very well here. Everything is well organized and it’s very clean. I like that very much.
“When I was in Chicago, there was also a nice moment I had. When I did ‘Meistersinger’ [at Lyric Opera], Wolfgang Wagner came with his wife. And he sat right behind me and when you saw his profile, you would think it was Richard Wagner himself. And I remember them backstage, they looked into the conductor’s monitor and behind me was Wolfgang Wagner and they said, ‘Look! Richard Wagner is back! It’s impossible!’ Because he looked so much like his grandfather. Mein Gott!
“And we sat in the Four Seasons Hotel and Wolfgang would talk about Bayreuth during the war, before the war, after the war and about all these famous conductors. Very fascinating. Then he asked me, right here in Chicago, if I wanted to do ‘Meistersinger’ performances in 2000 for my Bayreuth debut. I had a moment of lack of education and asked him, ‘But would there be anything else? That’s one good plan. Is there a new production that maybe you are planning?’ ‘Yes, a new ‘Tannhäuser production in 2002.’ I asked him right away, ‘What about that?’ And you know, he said yes. And I left the room, and I had ‘Meistersinger’ in 2000 and ‘Tannhäuser’ in 2002. That was Chicago. And then this wonderful friendship began and I was every year in Bayreuth. That meant two-and-a-half months every summer. I have done 185 performances there, more than anyone else. And I am only the second conductor to have done all ten Wagner operas at his own theater. The other was Felix Mottl.
“Also [while] in Chicago, I got the call from the orchestra at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, that they had elected me as general music director. These things all happened in Chicago. So, good vibrations, I would say.
“They have a wonderful sound!” Thielemann said of the Chicago Symphony, eyes wide as saucers. “And they are very fast. I just wanted to make, you know, the first rehearsal is about making contact, but working on certain details so that they know: is he more of a rhythmical guy, or he wants us to play free, or he doesn’t want too much vibrato, and so on. And then one sees how the chemistry works. I’m a big fan of chemistry and of not talking too much to an orchestra. It’s better to show it with your hands. You have to show it your own way. And they have to know me and I have to know them. The first contact is always very interesting, ja?
After seventy-five minutes on a sixteen-minute movement, there was a break. Players surrounded and greeted Thielemann warmly and individually, mostly players who remember performing with him, most recently in 1995. Since that time, his stature in the conducting world has only increased. Speaking with a player in German about Daniel Barenboim, who should be calling Thielemann’s cell phone at that very moment? Daniel Barenboim.
“Sometimes we have daily contact,” Thielemann admitted after the rehearsal back in his dressing room. “He wanted to know how the rehearsals were going and so on. He came to my rehearsal of ‘Rheingold’ [in Berlin] and Elena his wife came for all the ‘Ring’ cycle. I went to see him at his home. He lives not far away from where I grew up, where my mother still lives. He is so warmhearted and so nice with me. In our business, it doesn’t happen very often that you have colleagues who are friends. There’s so much envy and misunderstandings and whatever.”
If Barenboim can be credited with introducing Thielemann to the CSO over a quarter-century ago, it is current music director Riccardo Muti who spearheaded this much-anticipated return. Muti said when he arrived in Chicago in 2010 that Thielemann was at the top of his wish list for returning guest conductors. Barenboim as well, who was absent from the CSO for thirteen years when he returned in 2018. For Thielemann, it has taken that long to make a return happen.
“I know, I know,” admitted Thielemann. “And Riccardo is a good friend of mine. I frequently speak with him on the phone and ask him about traditions in Italian operas and advice. We’ve met personally several times. He is really a wonderful friend and somebody I trust very much. He always said, ‘You have to come, you have to come,’ so we found this period here.”
At the end of Muti’s music directorship? “Ja, I know,” said Thielemann, rolling his eyes. Muti even went and guest conducted at Staatskapelle Dresden where Thielemann has been music director since 2011 to sweeten the deal.
“Yes, and I wanted him for Bayreuth. The thing is we have tried to get [Muti] to Bayreuth, but he is reluctant. Every summer he is always with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg. You cannot do both things together. They are only two- or three-hundred kilometers between them but there is so much traffic in the summer that I once had a trip from Bayreuth to Salzburg of seven hours in the car. It was a nightmare. The streets are full. And you don’t know what’s happening. So it’s not nice to travel back-and-forth. But the most important thing is that you have to adjust, even as a conductor. The acoustic of the hall in Salzburg is much different than the acoustic at Bayreuth. I also remember Barenboim and Levine saying that each had done one year at both: an opera in Salzburg and an opera in Bayreuth. Both said afterwards, ‘Never again.’ It’s not only the transportation but also the acoustics. It’s such a problem. You have to somehow change your ear. It is hard to get the effects out that you want because my ear has to adjust. It is very serious if you say, ‘I just don’t have the time to deliver quality.’”
Speaking of unusual circumstances under which to be coming back after twenty-seven years, how does one manage to do a new “Ring,” of all things, surrounding a return to the Chicago Symphony? Barenboim was going to conduct a new “Ring” at the Staatsoper Berlin but became ill and reached out to Thielemann personally.
“Sunday morning, quarter to eleven,” Thielemann recalled. “if you get an ‘Anonym’ call with a phone, usually you see a number. ‘Anonym’ is usually my mother, but my mother was in the other room and would not call me from one room to the other. It’s Daniel and he says, ‘You have to help me.’ And I said, ‘What can I do?’ ‘You have to do the “Ring.”’ ‘When do the rehearsals begin?’ ‘The day after tomorrow.’ ‘Daniel, as you see, I’m going to Dresden and I have a tour with them and we do Bruckner 5 and Beethoven and whatever.’ So, we arranged travel back-and-forth from Vienna with a small plane. They had already had not half, but one-third of the rehearsals. A wonderful young conductor, Thomas Guggeis, was assistant there and now is going to Frankfurt as general music director. So he would do the rehearsals for me and then I just came and conducted the orchestra and it went so well.”
None of this would have been possible, according to Thielemann, had he not stepped in suddenly with the same orchestra back in July for Herbert Blomstedt.
“Blomstedt fell in his hotel and he broke something and he could not go on. That was on a Saturday and I get a message Saturday night, ‘Could I go on for him Monday and Tuesday?’ I had never conducted the Staatskapelle Berlin and I was free in Bayreuth. The program included the Bruckner 7, which I know well, and another piece, which we changed to the ‘Tristan’ Prelude.
“So, I saw the Staatskapelle for the first time the day of the concert and of my debut. And we would rehearse a little bit. And then we went home and said, ‘Let’s meet tonight and see how it goes.’ And it went so well that when Daniel felt not well, he obviously asked the orchestra, ‘Could you imagine doing the “Ring” with him?’ So it happened that we already had this wonderful connection. Otherwise, it would not be possible.
“I have done the ‘Ring’ very often, five years at Bayreuth and I’ve done it at the Deutsche Oper. I’ve done it in Vienna. I know it very well. But it is a new acoustic, a new theater. You have the first orchestra stage rehearsals, how much do I hear from the singers? Is the orchestra too loud? Do we hear the first trumpet? And they helped me so much. It was so wonderful and such a huge success that I was overwhelmed by the reaction. And it was wonderful that Daniel trusted me so much and that he would phone me personally and ask me.”
There are three “Ring” cycles, with this week’s Chicago date falling right in the middle.
“And so, I came here. It had never been an idea to say I would not come to Chicago. I said right from the beginning, ‘This is something I want to do.’ So a colleague, Mr. Guggeis, is doing the ‘Ring.’ And when I go back to Berlin, I do the third cycle. Why not? That’s life. So, a young colleague steps in for me. We both step in for Daniel. Leonard Bernstein jumped in for Bruno Walter. These things happen all the time. It’s good. For young conductors and young soloists there are so many opportunities. Sometimes it’s a sad opportunity. And sometimes the flight doesn’t arrive or whatever and they need a pianist. I think Horowitz had his Hamburg debut that way. He played in Berlin and received a call that they needed someone to do the First Tchaikovsky Concerto, now. Sometimes that happens.”
Is the Bruckner Eighth Symphony compatible between two “Rings”? “Oh, yes. Bruckner has so much to do with Wagner. The sound is a little bit similar. And the spirit is similar. There are places in ‘Walküre’ that could be Bruckner.
“I know that in the English-speaking world, Bruckner is more and more becoming a stranger somehow. Not here, probably, and not in New York. But in England for example. I know because I proposed it with the Vienna Philharmonic. ‘Why don’t we go to there and there and play Bruckner 7?’ ‘No, no, they don’t want Bruckner.’ Why don’t they? I don’t understand that. But a city like Chicago with its cultural background, I think it would be a wonderful thing. And I want to play a Bruckner Symphony with the Chicago Symphony, one of the best orchestras in the world. So, this is a wonderful experience to hear how Bruckner is with them. Something new. Also, for me, a new experience.”
Given that the Bruckner Ninth is unfinished, does Thielemann feel that the Eighth stands as the culmination of Bruckner?
“It is the most perfect construction, I think. Number Five is also very similar, I must say. What I like is that there are two instances when the sun is coming in the morning and begins to shine and it goes very slowly and is very intense: the end of Number Four and the end of Number Eight. And it goes back to nothing. And then there’s this enormous crescendo for the very end that comes again. I always think it is an unbelievable moment after this wonderful construction because it is mathematically so right and so well-constructed. And musically, too. And therefore we have chosen the Haas edition and not the Nowak edition. Nowak cuts out some parts of the Adagio and also some parts of the last movement. And Haas has put them in again. I don’t know what the reason is for Nowak to cut. In the COVID times, I completed the Bruckner cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic. I went several times to Vienna and I read much about the different versions of Bruckner symphonies. And there are some mysteries. Things you cannot really understand. Why he changed certain things. In some cases you know because the Schalk brothers—not forced him to, but let’s say convinced him—that he would not be played if he didn’t change some things. But other parts he changed just because he wanted them to change. In Number Eight, there is a cross made in the score. But then he writes under it, ‘Not valid.’ So what is valid? That he didn’t want it again? Or that he wanted it?”
Is the Eighth a good introduction to Bruckner, as Thielemann sees it? “Oh, yes. It is very melodic. The first movement is quite short. It’s very clear with a reprise that is quite short. The Scherzo is short. It’s really something you can sing with after a while. You can whistle when you go away. The Adagio has such an atmosphere that if it is well played, you are speechless. And then this wonderful last movement which is so powerful and so sensitive together. That’s something I like so much with Bruckner. You have this sensitivity. You feel how vulnerable he was and how much he obviously suffered because he was not recognized as a great composer in his time. And you feel how much energy he has put in this music. And how convinced he was of his religious conviction.
“Like Bruckner, I wanted to be an organist, too, and I think, I’m born Protestant. Can a Protestant understand a Catholic? I think everybody can understand this music because it has such an atmosphere and you are convinced of that which you are and what you believe in.
“It is not Catholic or Buddhist or Jewish. It is much more. It is a world he created which fits for everybody. What everybody gets is the atmosphere. That is so important. If it’s played with the right atmosphere, you don’t get tired of it during this one-hour-and-twenty-five-minute piece. If it’s a good performance, you go out and you think this is something which leaves you in a very good mood. I always left a Bruckner symphony in a very good mood because it gives me power. You go from Eight and you think somebody has given you a vitamin injection. He obviously believed things would go on and on.
“Like Wagner in the ‘Ring,’ life is not over. Valhalla burned down and many people are dead. But the Rhinemaidens have the gold back. And do you know who survived? Alberich, the bad guy. So you know what that means? It will start all over again. The whole thing. With other people around. There soon again will be the attempt to steal the Rhine gold and the cycle repeats.”
Of course, when you happen to be around the most desirable potential successor to Riccardo Muti as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you have to ask, even if it seems like asking about marriage at the start of a first date: is such a scenario even a possibility in Thielemann’s mind?
“Listen, I am chief conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle. And when that is over [in 2024], it is over. And what can happen? We will see. In the last months as you know, has had so many surprises for me that you have to wait. If the chemistry works and if things work, then things work. But you cannot say, ‘I want that.’ We’ll see. It’s a wonderful orchestra and everybody is so friendly here. I feel really well. It’s wonderful. Let’s see how the concerts are and how the chemistry is.
“But I have a full calendar. You can imagine. Until 2028. And now I have to jump in. As you know, the ‘Ring’ ruined my vacation and I’ve already had other plans when things are asked of me. But you can rearrange your schedule. I don’t know when I see my own bed at home. Then, I have to reorganize my whole life, ja? Which is also possible if there is a good reason. If there is a good reason, you can rearrange many things in your life. Of course.”
Through October 25, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan; cso.org.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org