Interview with Cellist Johannes Moser: Singing on a Stringed Instrument

July 24, 2018, 1:01 AM · "This may be a very controversial thing to say to a violinist: I started with the violin at age five, and my exit strategy from the violin was the cello."

German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser, now a soloist who has played with top orchestras all over the world, was telling me how he found his way to the cello. Moser, who studied with the renowned cello teacher David Geringas, was a top prize winner at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition and has been involved in commissioning numerous new works for cello, will play this week at the Grand Teton Music Festival, in both a chamber concert Thursday and this weekend as soloist for Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1.

Cellist Johannes Moser. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Moser spoke to me in late June from Chicago, where he was playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto at the Grant Park Festival. My question was: why would anyone ever need an exit strategy from the violin?

"First of all, I was the worst violinist ever," Moser laughed. "I wanted to play an instrument, but the violin and I just didn't gel. Then I started playing the cello -- my father's a cellist. It was immediately love at first sight - or love at first bow stroke! Those low frequencies really spoke to me. As an eight-year-old, you don't make decisions, you just follow your instincts, and following the cello instinct turned out to be right for my life."

Moser is actually a fifth-generation musician -- his great-grandfather, the violinist Andreas Moser, studied with Joseph Joachim and actually became the legendary violinist's assistant; he also knew Johannes Brahms. A number of Edition Peters versions of Mozart quartets that are still in circulation are edited by "Andreas Moser" -- that's Johannes' great-grandfather. His grandfather was a musicologist; his father, Kai Moser, is a cellist who played in the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

"So we are very connected to the German music heritage; unfortunately I have nothing to do with that!" Moser said. "That is the history of the family, but of course every morning when I get up and I start practicing, like all of us, I start from scratch. You cannot call history for help!"

His mother is the Canadian soprano, Edith Wiens, who teaches at The Juilliard School, among other places. "She taught me a lot about breathing, about the connection between language and music," Moser said. "Just seeing how my mother was phrasing when she was singing songs by Schubert or Schumann or Brahms -- that was very informative for me. My aunt also is a singer, Anna Moser. So yes, there are a lot of musicians in my family!"

Johannes Moser plays on a 1694 Andrea Guarneri cello that he has on loan, and he also owns a 21st-century cello made by the Berlin-based luthier Ragnar Hayn.

"The modern makers are so exquisite at the moment," Moser said. "My students ask me, 'Should I buy an old instrument or should I go for a new?' I always tell them to go for new, because you can really also shape the instrument into what you want it to be. I really think it's an exciting time in terms of violin-making."

During the summer, festival performing presents all kinds of challenges for both artist and instrument: temperature, humidity, altitude - to name a few.

When I spoke to Moser he was struggling with 100-degree temperatures and high humidity in Chicago, where he would be performing outdoors. "It's a challenge, you really have to adapt quickly. The fingerboard really turned into a slip-and-slide!" Moser said. For one of the rehearsals, he made the mistake of warming up backstage in a temperature-controlled environment. "When I got on stage, all the humidity was condensing on the cold instrument!" he said, noting that he'd be warming up outside next time around.

He was using the Guarneri, whose 300+-year-old wood seems to soak up the humidity more easily, making it harder to play. Not only that, but when outdoors, "as the piece progresses, the woodwinds get higher and higher, and the strings get lower and lower. That is just how the instruments are built. When they warm up, winds go up and strings go down in pitch." The soloist must constantly adjust, not only to his or her own changes in pitch, but to those of the orchestral instruments.

The challenge at the Grand Teton Festival is different; it's not temperature or high humidity, but altitude.

"Breathing is not an option!" he laughed. But he was serious about it: altitude changes the pace at which one breathes, and for Moser, the music is deeply connected with the breath.

"I put major emphasis on breathing with the music," Moser said. "It's also something that I teach in my class." Moser teaches at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Cologne, Germany. "If we as string players connect to our breath, as wind players do, then we take a major leap forward, in terms of connecting with the music." However, at altitude that breathing that you've practiced at a normal altitude might not actually afford you enough oxygen. "So I find myself double breathing in some phrases where I would normally use one breath." Moser said. "I have no idea how wind players and brass players do it, that is a mystery to me, I'm completely in awe."

One of the things Moser cherishes about summer concerts in beautiful settings such as Grand Teton is the more relaxed feeling for audience members.

"People come with such a different attitude than during the season," Moser said. "During the season, people come from work, or they carve some time from their weekend. The mindset different from people who are coming from a hike, or who are coming to have a picnic outside while listening to music. I find it quite refreshing, and it's a great counterpart to the more focused and concentrated atmosphere of music-making during the season."

This weekend he will be performing Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra.

"There are two cello concerti by Shostakovich, actually, and I'm playing No. 1, which Shostakovich wrote in 1959," Moser said. "He wrote it for Mstislav Rostropovich, who was the major cellist for new music at the time -- he commissioned 90 works! He was remarkable." So far in his own career, Moser has helped commission 35 works, "so I'm working on getting up there!"

"The Shostakovich Concerto is certainly a piece that draws very much on atmosphere of the time; I would not call it a purely political piece like his later symphonies, which are so dark and very, very political," Moser said. "It's very driven in the first movement, and he does make a political reference by using Joseph Stalin's favorite song in the last movement. He mocks the song, of course."

Stalin was the notorious Soviet dictator, known for his brutal ways, whose government had denounced Shostakovich's work and labeled him an "enemy of the people." By 1959 Stalin had been dead for six years, having died in 1953 - coincidentally on the same day that Prokofiev died. "Artists felt at the time that they could slowly begin to make fun again of the regime, which of course would have been a death sentence just a couple of years earlier," Moser said. "It's funny, because Rostropovich didn't even recognize the song that Shostakovich was quoting; Shostakovich actually had to point it out to him. I find that very cool: it was so secret that even for people who were really in the know, it had to be explained to them."

The first Shostakovich cello concerto has a written-out cadenza that is four and a half minutes long, "and it's definitely full of cellistical fireworks!" Moser said. "At the same time, it's very deep, intimate and very personal. At the end of the cadenza, Shostakovich definitely showcased the possibilities for the cellist."

For his part, "Rostropovich played this piece everywhere on the planet, and it soon became one of the most-performed cello concertos," Moser said.

Did Moser ever hear Rostropovich play?

"I heard him play once, toward the end of his life," Moser said. "He played three cello concertos during that performance: Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations; and then in the second half he did the Gubaidulina Concerto. It was one of those Rostropovich extravaganzas, and of course growing up with all his recordings, that was a big moment for me."

"What I take as an inspiration from Rostropovich is his connection with composers and his connection with new music," Moser said. While Rostropovich asked many composers for new music, he also left the work of creating it their hands, without interfering. Moser said he finds that to be an ideal model. "I'm not one to go to composers and say, 'But here I need another cadenza,' or 'Here I need another slow movement,' or "Here I need this or that.' I offer my services, of course; if composers want to send me something, they can, and I will make a video for them and send it back so that they have an impression of how their composition sounds on the cello and what works for the instrument and what works against the instrument. But otherwise I leave composers alone, and I understand Rostropovich did something similar. I feel it's a good model, a way to keep classical music fresh and also to give birth to new pieces."

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July 26, 2018 at 03:34 PM · To ~ Johannes Moser, Violoncellist Plus!

Your 'While in Chicago in June, 2018, Interview' w/ Laurie Niles, was of great interest and intrigue to me, but must offer apologies for being a Violinist! So sorry about this, but my attempts to play the 'Cello failed miserably excepting one later thing! The Bow, for after 3 & 1/2 year private artist-pupil studies with my 'other' great mentor, Nathan Milstein, his rare & extraordinarily unique ideas of bowing on the violin also can be applied & ever so slightly amended for Violoncellist's! So, Thanks to NM, my approach to bowing on the 'Cello seems to work & when making fused bowing's for the full inner circle of strings in major orchestral repertoire ~ (If interested, please go to Member Bio's here for email info via my Artist Rep!)

We have great mutual interest in Dmitri Shostakovich & his Concerto's for your instrument and mine! In his First Violin Concerto in a minor, Op 99, I found & continue finding 'hidden' messages of Shostakovich re the then-Soviet regime, so regally & exceptionally expressed in this composition of the great Dmitri "S.", & opening movement of his Violin Concerto #1, for me, a tragic Ode of mourning for what I term his deep yearning for Sun in lieu of such daylight darkness which was the colour of the sky for most of the Life of Shostakovich & his musical brother's which included 'Cellist, Rostropovich & his great Russian Soprano wife, + the great David Oistrakh and mutual 'other's' ~ This facet of the lives of many of the Giant string & piano musicians propelled them to scale even greater heights, technically & more importantly, musically-spiritually, yet most were forced to 'hide' the latter to continue breathing ~

Such angst in daily living is quite 'foreign' to North American culture, as you are most certainly well aware ... In teaching ~ i.e., (how can one 'teach' Ocean depths of emotions in these Diaries of Shostakovich to even the most gifted pupil's?) Yes! One creates Map's for agile fingering's & bowing's, yet without the emotional depths, more often than not, such maps are often 'seen' by pupil's yet Not Seen/FELT, Yet or? It appears this becoming common 'condition' requires Much Discussion!

Very oddly aware of Joseph Joachim, as I used to play one of his name instruments which was not being looked for yet came to me following a performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in a major Scandinavian musical capital city, this 'star' instrument had belonged to Joachim when he gave the premiere of the Violin Concerto of Johannes Brahms! Your musical family heritage resonates radiantly as my family of musicians harkens back to pre-Bolshevik Russia w/German touches of ancestry, but we are second generation American born ~ That said, one gives Thanks for these roots of ancestry which do come to the fore when journeying into the Russian/ German/ Viennese & more contemporary North American - UK & other string literature! Your count of 35 new works is grand, and you might actually get to Rostropovich's Number, but if not, it's the contribution for your instrument and all who play, perform or read to enjoy and learn about 'our time' in this 21st Century, spinning around as of late of which you you can be most proud ~

It seems John Adams is an authoritative, eloquent spokesman for the last few chapter's of the Twentieth & new chapter's thus far in this Twenty First Century ~ How about the John Adams 'Cello + Canadian Orchestra Concerto' to consider in the name of young Johannes Moser!?

Hoping to be in touch, Congratulations on your musical career thus far ~ The Best is yet to come!!!

Elisabeth Matesky / Chicago

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