Unlike pianists and violinists, cellists simply don’t receive as many opportunities in an orchestra’s solo spotlight. Considering the number of fine touring cellists, such as Zuill Bailey, Gautier Capuçon, Matt Haimovitz, Daniel Müller-Schott and Alicia Weilerstein, to cite five in their 30s and 40s, the competition can get tough. But Johannes Moser is undeterred.
“I will not lie,” he said. “My agent regularly rolls his eyes, because cello is just not as hot a seller as piano or violin. But certainly, I’ve been lucky that for 10 years, I’ve had a constant number of 75 concerts a year, and that’s it. I can’t do more to keep a healthy lifestyle.”
Moser, now 36, credits arguably the world’s most famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, who “really transcends the medium,” with helping to boost the instrument’s popularity, especially in the United States.
Proving that nice guys can finish first, the affable Moser regularly appears in the world’s most elite venues. This fall alone, he has engagements with such prestigious ensembles as the Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg, London Philharmonic and Orquesta Nacional de España. And 11 years after making his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in what was his first-ever appearance in the United States, Moser returns for four performances beginning Jan. 6 under guest conductor Jonathan Nott.
“So, that for me, of course, is really a very personal, very memorable day,” Moser said. “I’m looking forward greatly to coming back, because since then, I’ve been around the block once or twice, and it will be nice to come back to where it all started.”
Unlike some artists catapulted onto the scene by a competition victory or a last-minute substitution for an ailing star, this son of a German cellist and Canadian soprano has built his career gradually. Indeed, he did even not consider a solo career until 2002, when he won the top prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the same event that made pianist Van Cliburn an instant sensation after his victory there in 1958. “It was really more like a psychological wake-up call for me than really anything else,” Moser said, “because the phone didn’t start ringing at all after this competition. But I was thinking, ‘Well, now that I have this prize, maybe I can do something with it.’”
He painstakingly began setting up auditions with major conductors, knowing that a favorable hearing could gain him an engagement. But, of course, such approach was a risk — one that Moser felt he had to take — because if he bombed in such private encounters, his solo career could be over before it began. In all, Moser estimates that he undertook 30-40 auditions, and most were successful, including one with Riccardo Muti, which led to engagements with orchestras in Germany and Italy, and might even have helped gain him this return to Chicago. “That really was the foundation of my career,” he said of the auditions, “and it’s still something that I base my relationships on.”
While Moser, like other cello soloists, predominantly performs the standard repertoire, he has never been afraid to venture out and try other things. In 2011, for example, he joined conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in premiering Magnetar, a concerto for electric cello by Mexican composer Enrico Chapela that was inspired by the vast magnetic fields in outer space that surround certain pulsars. The cellist continues to perform the piece, a co-commission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, including at a recent outing in Mexico City. “What I like to do with such a piece,” he said, “is go to an orchestra where I’ve been a couple of times, so when I come with the electric cello I’m not known as the ‘electric cellist,’ because that’s obviously not what I do most of the time. But certainly, it’s a little bit of a niche in addition to my normal cello repertoire.”
He is also involved in two new commissions: a work by Los Angeles composer Andrew Norman that is set to premiere in 2017-18 and a Franz Schubert-inspired string quintet by 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Wolfe that is scheduled for completion in 2016-17. “To be sort of the mid-wife for some pieces,” Moser said, “that’s make this very personal and very dear to me, but, of course, I hope that once I’ve played all these pieces that are written for me that other cellists pick them up and do their own versions of them.”
Moser’s musical adventurousness can be seen in his repertoire choices for his nine albums for Hänssler Classic, including a group of little-known concertos by 20th-century composers Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger and Bohuslav Martinů. Perhaps most inventive was his unusual three-volume set of recordings, titled “Brahms and his Contemporaries,” which earned him the 10,000-euro Brahms Prize in 2014. The award has been given annually since 1988 by the Brahms Society of Schleswig-Holstein to honor the great German composer’s continuing artistic legacy. On each album, the cellist juxtaposed works by Brahms with those by well-known and not so well-known contemporaneous composers such as Robert Fuchs, Theodor Kirchner, Richard Strauss and Alexander Zemlinsky. “It was a really interesting journey because, obviously, for a composer, you are never a one-way street,” Moser said. “You also are what you hear, and so to hear what Brahms liked and, especially what he disliked, because he was a very critical thinker, that really brought me closer to his music.”
Moser recently moved to the Pentatone label, attracted in part by its high-quality five-channel sound. After gaining considerable experience with nearly a decade of his more experimental efforts in the studio for Hänssler, he felt ready to begin recording some of the classic works for cello. His first Pentatone disc, released in September, features the familiar cello concertos of Dvořák and Lalo with the PKF-Prague Philharmonia. “It doesn’t get more core repertoire than that,” Moser said. Next up will be Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. “I felt like to record a Dvořák concerto, to record an Elgar concerto, you just really need to know how to record, because once you are in the recording studio, it’s a totally different experience than being on stage.”
In his upcoming CSO engagement, Moser will be the soloist in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major — a well-known work but one not performed as often as such Romantic era favorites as the Dvořák Cello Concerto or Brahms’ Double Concerto. “The Haydn, both its charm and probably its difficulty is that it is fragile and it really needs a group that can be both very flexible and also [possess] the ability to play very refined. It’s more a piece that I do with chamber orchestras, obviously, but I have no doubt that the CSO is going to be absolutely marvelous playing this music.”
Mozart never wrote a cello concerto, but if one were compare Haydn’s work with Mozart’s violin concertos, one key difference emerges. Moser believes that Haydn trumps Mozart when it comes to his ever-present humor. “He is such a fun guy,” Moser said of Haydn, “and even if his humor is not so much in your in face all the time, there is always a cheekiness when he tries to alter the form in a strange way. Once you study the piece closely, it hits you that there is a lot of hidden humor that is so genius, and he must have had a ball composing it. That is something that I put a huge emphasis on when I play this piece — the beauty and style and, of course, classicism are very important, but one should never forget the humor about this piece.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.