A versatile cellist performing both on acoustic and electric cellos and a musician actively reaching out to his audience, cellist Johannes Moser visited Boston to perform the Saint-Saens cello concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Ken-David Masur. He kindly took some time to answer some questions for Opus Cello after his second performance.
How did you end up playing the cello?
The main reason for me to start playing the cello was to get away from the violin, because I really was the world’s worst violinist! (laughs) And also it helped that my father is a cellist, so we had a cello in the house. As soon as I sat down with it and felt the vibrations, I felt at home with it, it was a good feeling. And of course, even before I started playing myself, I heard a lot of the cello repertoire at home because my father would be playing all the time. Later on, it was the best excuse to avoid doing my math homework! My parents were ok with that as long as I was practicing my cello. It’s strange, and forgive me for jumping forward, but when I started playing electric cello, I realized I didn’t have that shield anymore in front of me. I realized how much of a shield a cello can be on stage. I don’t know how violinists do it, because they are so exposed. But with the cello, you really feel like you are a fortress, it’s a nice feeling.
You won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2002. Was that a turning point in your career?
It was a turning point in the way I thought about where I would go with my musical life. Since my father was playing in the Munich Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, I thought that was a great situation and I wanted to do the same thing and apply for orchestra jobs. I was about to do my diploma and my teacher recommended I go to the competition because the program was very similar to what my diploma required. So I thought: “Ok, I will go to Russia and come home very early!” (laughs) Then I got lucky in the competition and got the 2nd Prize (no 1st Prize awarded). Suddenly I had to rethink what I would do with my cello life, now that I had that Prize. I was 23 years old at that time, I actually had my birthday during the competition in Moscow. I used to play some recitals and maybe a concerto once a year, and you would think things would change drastically after winning a Prize like that, but nothing changed! Because there are so many competitions, what really made my career is calling conductors and asking if I could play for them. I did probably thirty conductor auditions. Most of them worked and that’s what brought me to playing with so many orchestras. I learned that from my mother who is a singer, and for singers it’s so normal to do this, even up to a late age, so I thought I could do that as a cellist as well. And for me, those auditions were like mini-competitions. I had to prepare hard and feel like I want to win those chances to play. So even if I stopped doing competitions after Tchaikovsky, I still kept that feeling of having to fight for things thanks to those auditions. It was a good way to start my career.
You played several concertos for electric cello with major orchestras, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Is this a medium cellists should be exploring more?
It is a good question. In a way, I like to think of the electric cello as not being a cello at all. It’s an instrument that you can use with cello technique. But it can’t replace the cello. If you are into exploring sounds and technology, it is a fantastic tool and it’s lots of fun, of course. You can hook the cello up to your computer and the Ableton software, get lost in sounds, it is a fantastic adventure. On the flip side, I don’t know if the electric cello will ever have a life of its own. Now 2Cellos are making a big splash with the electric cello, and I have to say I love their stuff! They are actually excellent cellists and fun guys. But the danger is to pick up the electric cello and mistake it for an electric guitar. We have a certain sound associated in our ear with the electric guitar that was engraved in our brain for decades and I think the electric cello can go a totally different way. Because you are using a bow, have no frets and a range that is really big, I think the adventure can be quite amazing on its own.
Is it our responsibility as musicians of the 21st century to break more of the traditional barriers with our new potential audience, such as dress code, silence in the concert hall, or speaking to the audience?
Well, I am glad you are saying that because I think silence is non-negotiable. That’s why I have a problem with playing classical music in bars. I did it, but I always felt that playing a movement of Bach with the noise of glasses clinking in the background just doesn’t go well together. I like to think of a performance like a painting, and you need a white canvas to begin. I think silence is the white canvas, and if you already have spots on the canvas, you may paint a masterpiece on it, but it will be soiled. So silence is a must for classical music. I do like to talk to the audience, because you can point out certain things that might not be obvious. The danger is then that people only focus on what you said, so you need to find a good middle ground. I think it’s ok to be a bit more open with the dress code. I mean, Yuja Wang looks fabulous, and she backs it up with beautiful piano playing too! The danger is when people get stuck on how she looks, but I think it’s fabulous. I think especially orchestras themselves could open up. I mean, if you play in tails, that’s what waiters used to wear to serve you drinks! That’s how you dressed on the Titanic! (laughs) So I think you can go a bit more with your time without losing the festive quality of it. I don’t think we should all perform in jeans. I don’t like that idea at all, because for me the concert is a very festive occasion. It is a celebratory occasion of something that in its best moments can be metaphysical. So it’s something very special and it is nice if it reflects in the way you dress. But you don’t need to dress like a waiter! (laughs) I think there needs to be some rethinking of this.
You are not afraid to experiment and toured with a toy pianist, playing Stockhausen among other things. Could you talk about that experience?
Yes, that was phenomenal! I was always interested in outreach but I thought, why not doing a tour that only focuses on outreach. And not just bringing Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn to kids but actually go with a piece of the 20th century and be very playful at the same time. So a toy pianist was the obvious choice! It’s amazing the things she introduced me to. We used those little music boxes, made of cut paper sheets and metal reeds. In a way, it was a great way to introduce children to making music with objects that you have in the house. You don’t necessarily need to have a degree in music to tackle that kind of music. I wanted to break those barriers and Stockhausen was as close as we could go at that moment. This tour was also a great introduction to me for experimental venues. We played in some really dark places! (laughs) I remember this concert in Brooklyn, in a place where in normal circumstances I would probably not have gone without being armed! But people were very nice and appreciative. We also flew to San Francisco to play, and this guy stood right in front of us for at least five minutes with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. People in the back of the audience were starting to be a bit nervous about the situation, and then he just pulled a coin out of his pocket, slammed it on the stage and left! That’s when I realized that although we have our own ritual in classical music, this is not the only way you can consume music. It was a great tour, really fantastic.
You are actually very involved in outreach projects outside of the Concert Hall. Why is it important for you?
I had a big turning point in my life when I was eighteen. I had just started studying with David Geringas in Berlin and things were going ok, I guess. In my first lesson, I played the Franck sonata and at the end he said: “That’s great. For the next half-year, you will only do open strings!” That tells you what he thought of my playing at the time. So I did indeed play only open strings for the next six months! I got really depressed and also the fact that as a musician what you create lasts only 2.5 seconds was really frustrating for me. I realized that I am not an architect building things or a doctor healing people. That really was a big crisis for me. As you do at that age, I was always partying and in constant need of money. There was this gig through a program called Live Music Now, which made you play in schools and hospitals. It changed my life, because I suddenly felt how music could change people.
I remember one specific incident playing in a hospital, and in the audience was this guy in a wheelchair with a very strong down syndrome. He hadn’t given any sign of life for two months. We started playing and he started shaking in his wheelchair like crazy! I panicked, thinking “what have I done now?” I was playing The Swan, I didn’t expect that kind of reaction! Afterwards, his caretakers came up to me and said “It was fantastic, you really touched him and he gave the only reaction he could give!” So that’s when I understood that maybe our job is not absolutely useless. Not that everybody in the concert hall should start screaming and shaking, but there is certainly something that we as musicians do to people that better their lives. So I realized that’s a very cool purpose to have. Since then, I am very grateful to outreach because you connect with people who don’t have the barrier of education or of etiquette that keeps them from expressing their own unlimited emotions. But you know, when I go into a class made up primarily of Turkish and Arabic immigrants, that’s when my heart pounds and I get nervous, because I have no idea of what is going to happen. Sometimes the kids hate it, and that’s ok! You get a real reaction so you can ask why they don’t like it and you can try different ways of playing the music and there is an interaction going on. The way children experience how music triggers their imagination is truly amazing. I would go into a school to play the Sacher Variation by Witold Lutoslawski, a piece full of quarter tones, and ask afterwards what they think they heard. And they would say things like: “Well, there was a swarm of bees running after an elephant that ran over a thief that had a gun, and the gun went off and hit accidentally a car that crashed into…” (laughs) It’s amazing! This kind of creative energy that you can fuel with music is one of the greatest gifts we have in classical music. When I go to a concert, I find my mind going into incredible places. Especially during a Bruckner symphony, when you have plenty of time to contemplate! (laughs) I think the mind gets triggered in a way that it doesn’t with other forms of art.
There is a great video of you playing all 12 parts of the Hymnus by Julius Klengel. It sounds and looks amazing. How did you make it work?
Well, I had done a tutorial video before playing four cello parts for a project with amateur cellists in Frankfurt. So I thought why not do it bigger and play the Hymnus for 12 Cellos? I couldn’t do it by myself so I asked the Bavarian Radio if they would like to do this project and they liked the idea. I recorded the main voice, put it into the software Ableton and created a click-track that not only gave the clear beats but also followed my rubato. That’s why you can see I wear an earpiece in the video, which allows me to hear this click-track. Then I just sat down and played every voice. Of course, the editing was the hard part. And to give you an inside tip, it looks like I play it all by memory, but actually the video editor just cut out the music stands. That’s why I am still wearing my glasses! (laughs) All the voices you hear are actually played live, what you see me play is what you hear. Up until the very last moment, I had no idea if it would be in tune or together, because it all came together during the editing process, which took about three weeks. And it was a long day of playing for me, from 8am to 10pm. The trickiest part was when you see all twelve cellists and the camera is panning along. What this editor did was filming in 4k and the zooming into the picture and pan digitally. That blew my mind! It was fun and of course now I am thinking about what to do next. But it’s also nice to play with other people, not just with myself!
Could you talk about that project you had playing with amateur cellists in Frankfurt?
I was artist in residence with the Frankfurt Opera, and they said I had Carte Blanche for a project of my choice. As I said, I love doing outreach but usually it goes towards school children. Since I had this residency, I thought why not doing a project that reaches out to people who really care about the cello but don’t do it professionally. So we put an ad in the paper and on the radio saying: “If you play the cello and want to play a concert with Johannes Moser, come on this day.” We were expecting maybe thirty or forty people to come and there were 130 of them! They were super enthusiastic, some of them played only for one year, some of them all their life. There were people who had stopped playing but picked it up again when they heard about the project, so that was very heart-warming, to know that it inspired people to come back to the cello. I had to select people, but I didn’t want them to play solo, because as an amateur you would get too nervous. They had to prepare the Lachner Serenade and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk arranged for four cellos. That’s when I made my tutorial video playing all the voices so they could practice and play along at home. At the end, we selected twelve cellists to play with me at the Chamber Music Hall of the Opera House, and it was one of the most special experiences of my life. We rehearsed a lot and they rehearsed also amongst themselves. We had to pick pieces that were possible for non-professionals, mainly slow movements but also faster pieces. The idea was that I would start alone and build up until we were up to thirteen cellists on stage, including me. One of the cellists was a banker, and he brought forty-five people to the concert, from customers to family! We had a full hall! I think that is the trend I want to follow a bit now in my outreach. We focus so much on children who have a background in under-privileged societies, but people who are already passionate about it but come from a more bourgeois background are a bit left out. And I think that’s very unfair, because they would totally come to a concert! And of course they come with a million questions: “Really? Down bow? Amazing!” (laughs) And working with them, there wasn’t any of this professional cynicism of people saying “let’s not rehearse too much, it has to feel spontaneous in concert.” They really wanted to work hard and were not scared to take initiatives too! They were very passionate and that was very refreshing.
You teach at the Hochschule in Cologne, Germany. What is your philosophy as a teacher?
Well, I just started, so it seems to change every week! It is hard. It is much easier to play a concert than teaching for a day. I am so tired after a day of teaching. I think my philosophy is to find what the students want to achieve with a piece of music and give them the tools so they can. I very rarely try to push my own interpretation. I also don’t recommend listening to too many recordings. It’s easy to lose your own voice when there are so many great recordings already out there. Some things are so in the tradition that you don’t question them anymore. I encourage them to keep their freshness and not rely on interpretations and traditions that are already out there. Of course you can’t re-invent the wheel. The Dvorak concerto was recorded many times, and pretty well. But why not take the risk and try to find your own voice? I feel music students are quite lazy when it comes to creativity. When you look at students in fields such as painting or photography, their biggest wish is to become an individual, not someone else’s voice. Of course at some point you may copy a Pollock or do a Rodin-like sculpture, but the goal is to show your own voice. In music, I feel like these days you haven to be able to create something that is already there. My suspicion is that this crisis of classical music that newspapers write about stems from the inability to be inventive and put out your own voice. I just recorded the Dvorak concerto and that was a very scary moment. I bought the manuscript, very expensive, 400 euros, and it is full of things that never made it into the printed edition. I thought I could definitely do all those things, but then people who buy the album will want certain boxes to be checked, because that’s what is usually done with this concerto. So I was torn between these two opposing points. I think in our art form, tradition has much more weight than it should have. I can only quote Boulez who said “Tradition is laziness” and I think he has a very strong point there.
Do you have any cello heroes?
I do! I grew up with Rostropovich and very much Heinrich Schiff, who I adored. My father also was a cello hero to me. He was my first teacher so he clearly influenced me a lot. I also always loved listening to Tortelier and Fournier. Very different players! Tortelier has a great noblesse paired with an incredible distinction of playing. The kind of player you can listen to and think: “I might not agree, but how convincing! Amazing!” It’s like when someone makes an argument and you think you may think differently but the argument is so well presented it becomes very convincing. His Don Quixote is fantastic because he IS Don Quixote in that moment. I think I love musicians who really become the piece they play. It’s the same when you see the videos of Rostropovich play Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante or Britten’s Cello Symphony, the identification with the music is so on the spot. I think that’s amazing.
Of course, the drug when I was a teenager was Shafran. And my teacher got really strict with me. People count years before Jesus and after Jesus but for me there was cello playing before Shafran and after Shafran! (laughs) I came into my lesson trying to use that vibrato one day and my teacher said: “What you are doing is Shafranism. Don’t do it.” I love his 2nd Kabalevsky concerto, it’s absolutely amazing. His Schuman is debatable. But once again, he is a player who identifies so much with what he is playing that he is very compelling. It’s also funny being a teacher now if I have to think about what I would actually recommend because I want to advise something that just grabs me. And as professional musicians, we tend to become so analytical. That’s also the appeal that Jacqueline Dupre had, people were just grabbed by her playing. It is still true today, so many female players were inspired by Jacqueline Dupre. I love Lynn Harrell’s Herbert concerto and of course I grew up with Yo-Yo Ma too. Heinrich Schiff was the first cellist I saw in concert, besides my dad. I had just started playing the cello, I was eight years old and he was playing Dvorak. I remember this guy with a red head came on stage, and when he played the first note he turned purple! As an eight year old, I thought: “This is so good!” (laughs) I actually took some lessons with him very recently in 2010 because I was playing the Lutoslawski cello concerto, and he is a champion of that work. I played it for him and he talked for three and half hours! That was the best cello lesson I ever got. He dissected every part of the piece, I have the highest respect for him.
What do you think makes the cello or the cellists special?
First of all, until the second half of the 20th century, we never had that very competitive repertoire that violinists and pianists had for centuries. So the sense of community that cellists have with cello ensembles, festivals, and societies, comes from not wanting to stay in your practice room all the time, because we don’t have a Paganini and we don’t have a Liszt. So we think: “We did Dvorak and Haydn, what’s next? Let’s get together and have fun!” Because of this different kind of repertoire, cellists tend to be social animals. I confess I was always scared of cello festivals. But now I have been twice to the Cello Biennale in Amsterdam and it is so nice. That’s one point that makes cellists unique. I think there are viola festivals too but I wouldn’t want to go there! What are they going to talk about? The Walton concerto? Great, do it! (laughs)
Another thing that makes the cello special is its range, which is what makes cello ensembles possible, as you know. Also, we always had a changing role in music. It started with the basso continuo, which is so thrilling because you are steering the whole ship. You lay down the bass, the pace, the rhythm structure, and the bass of harmony that others build on. As a student, I played many church gigs in Lubeck. We had seven churches and not to too many music students so those were good gigs! Of course we played a lot of Bach. I loved doing that, basso continuo is one of my favorite things and I learned a lot from it. And then we can also play concertos, so we can have both roles. A violinist will never have the pleasure of playing the bass. The possibility we have as cellists to be part of every layer of music-making is very cool.
What do you like to do when you are not playing the cello?
Because of all the time spent sitting on tour, I like working out as much as I can. Some hotels don’t have gyms so I do fitness videos actually, which can sound very corny! “And two, and one, and one more!” (laughs) But it is great because in the confines of your hotel room, you have no excuse not to be fit. With all the traveling and the dinners, it is easy to become very very fat! I also love to read. When I am home in Berlin, I like to hang out with friends. I love to hike and mountain-bike. I had a dream of crossing the Alps so I did that a couple of years ago with a mountain-bike, joining a group of bikers. I trained six months for it. Every summer vacation I have, I try to get on my bike. It is a very simple pleasure, it is beautiful because you are in nature and you see things faster than if you are hiking.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today!
Thanks for preparing this so meticulously! It was a pleasure. Sorry you have to listen to it all over again to type it down! (laughs)