Arts & Culture News

Rock Star Cellist Johannes Moser Tells All

In conversation, cellist Johannes Moser is charming (and not just because he is young, good-looking and incredibly talented). He chats about his recent move to New York and his rock climbing and biking adventures with the same positivity and enthusiasm he brings to discussions of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. He is instantly engaging and seems to have endless energy to explore his passions.

This energy has served him well in his career. The list of orchestras, conductors and artists with whom he has collaborated is a virtual who's who of contemporary classical music: Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Gustavo Dudamel, Pierre Boulez, Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, and Jonathan Biss, to name just a few. Moser's facility and artistry on the cello have been highly acclaimed. If you get a chance to hear him perform with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra this weekend, expect to be wowed by one of the world's true virtuosic performers. Here are some excerpts from our conversation earlier this week:

Mixmaster: Your bio notes that your heritage is German and Canadian. Where did you grow up?
JM: I grew up in Munich and lived there all my life until very recently, actually. I moved to New York in August.

Well, welcome to the states! Ha ha, yes, I've been enjoying it very much! It's beautiful. When did you start playing cello? I was 8 years old when I took up the cello. I started playing violin when I was 5 and it was a terrible fit. My father is a cellist and the move from the violin to the cello was a no-brainer. My mother, who is Canadian, is a soprano. She had a very active performing career and now she is teaching at Julliard.

Did you ever take lessons from your father? He was actually my first teacher. Eventually, there was a little bit of a clash. There's no filter between a father and son -- which is very good as you can be very direct and get to the point -- but I think we decided at some point that for the sake of peace at home, it would be better for me to move on (laughing).

You recently rode your bike across the Alps. What's your next big adventure? My next thing will probably be on foot. Biking, as I've discovered, is a little dangerous for the hands.

Did that scare you? Well, the ride was a dream of mine that I wanted to accomplish and so I did it. Of course, I took all the precautions I could take and hoped that if I was really prepared, I would be safe. I was just fine. We can get so cautious that we stop doing anything. We can't say 'no' to life just because we're fearful of something. I was happy that I did it and it taught me a lot about myself. I highly recommend it.

Is this weekend's performance your first collaboration with Jaap van Zweden and the DSO? Yes, this is actually a debut on both parts. Before he was a conductor, Mr. van Zweden was a very good violinist. I've heard a lot about him in both capacities. So many of my colleagues who have worked with him have raved about the collaboration he is offering and I'm very excited to experience that. When I go to a new orchestra in a city I haven't visited before, of course I want to do a good job in my performance, but it is also exciting to get to know new people and to experience what collaboration can be like with them. That is, in essence, what makes music making exciting; when you feel like you're not just delivering your part, but you're actually creating something totally new through the means of communication. It stirs a lot of excitement on my part.

This weekend you will be performing Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33. In 2002, when you won top prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition, you were also awarded a special prize for your performance of the Rococo Variations. Has your interpretation of this piece changed over the last 10 years? I've played this piece so many times -- probably like 70 or 80 times -- but it's always fresh when you are willing to open yourself to collaborative ideas. A lot of people say classical music has the danger of becoming a museum. We can only avoid that by experiencing fresh human interactions, rather than just delivering some fixed idea we've had for years. My understanding of what you can create in the moment, rather than just relying on your practiced version, makes a lot of difference. It turns a well-performed piece of music into an experience, and I think that's what we're looking for here. It's not just that we want to deliver as good as possible, but we want to create an experience for the musicians. If the musicians have an experience, the audience will witness it and that is what makes it appealing.

What should the audience listen for when you are playing this piece? Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Mozart. In his Rococo Variations he tried to model the theme after what he imagined Mozart would have written as a theme for the cello. What we as cellists are missing very much in our repertoire is a Mozart cello concerto. That's obviously a big gap.

What is great to listen for in the Rococo Variations (and really this is just the nature of variations) is how a virtuosic composer works with the material of the theme, turning it upside down and inside out, changing the rhythm at times, and being really playful and almost improvisational with the original material. Of course, as a performer, I'm going try to pick up on that playfulness. Whatever Tchaikovsky thought would be fun to explore with that theme, I want to take up that spark and tune in with my own excitement.

Another element that is so wonderful about this piece is that, because its variations, the variety of emotions you will encounter is so wide; there are the wonderful slow movements that are so incredibly singing, and then, at the same time, you have these very challenging and virtuosic passages. It's really a big challenge for the performer, but it's also quite a roller-coaster ride for the listener because the emotional content is changing so quickly.

There's no time to get bored. Exactly. This is great for us because we are the MTV generation and we have such a short attention span as a group of listeners. That's where the variations hit the sweet spot.

What do you listen to in your free time? I usually listen to non-classical music. I decided for myself that I want to experience classical music in concert. Whenever I want to listen to classical music, I go to a performance. The great thing is that because I usually perform in the first half of a concert, I can stay and listen to the other pieces on the program. When I'm giving multiple performances, I'll try to stay and listen multiple times. [Doing this], you get to know the repertoire really well, which is hopefully a lifelong process. I hope there's never a point where I'm like, "Yeah, I'm done with this, let's move on." When I hear a symphony, I can guarantee it will somehow play into my performance. The same is true when I listen to jazz or rock or whatever.

Besides performing, how will you be spending your time in Dallas? I will be doing a little bit of outreach, which is something that I try to incorporate in pretty much every trip. I'm going to teach a little bit and have some group lessons. These opportunities for outreach are a great way to experience the community rather than just coming from the airport to the hotel and then to the hall and back to the airport. It's much more rounded and I really have the feeling I can arrive at a place and I can communicate with people, rather than just being in and out. That's much more fun for me and I think since I've taken that up my traveling life has a better quality.

You seem to really seek interaction on a variety of levels in your approach to your performing career. I think the description of a musician's life is moving away from being purely artistic, to something more artistic-slash-social. That's a description of the job that is definitely changing. We need to be more much more involved in the community and, maybe, fill a gap that has opened up because there's not enough money for musical education otherwise. Besides, why not!? It's fun!

Johannes Moser will be performing Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations with Jaap van Zweden and the DSO tonight through Saturday. All performances begin at 8 p.m. at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Tickets and more information here.