Stephan Pauly, Director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, on the common roots shared by his institution and the mdw, the Webern Symphonie Orchester, and jointly developed new concert formats.
If one exits the Musikverein’s Golden Hall on the right and heads over to the Gottfried-von-Einem-Saal, one crosses what’s known as the Schulgang [School Corridor]. How did this name come about? Lots of people pass by there…
Stephan Pauly (SP): And many of them have no idea that it’s even called the Schulgang, much less why. This name refers to the conservatory that the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde ran back in its early days, a place where numerous important personalities from the world of composing either studied or taught. So the mission of training the younger generation and passing on know-how is deeply rooted in our organisation’s DNA. This is evident even in one of the earliest versions of our statutes, in which the stated objective—“The uplifting of music in all its aspects”—includes the training of young musicians. In our history, this features as a central topos. And with the Conservatory having long since developed into today’s mdw and our organisation no longer being directly involved in the training role, we now pursue this objective in other ways; one of these is by organising concert series specifically for young artists, and we also maintain a close and outstanding cooperative relationship with the mdw in many areas.
So the original mission of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as an organisation was aimed at audiences as well as at performers, including training the latter—as a single organisation that covered everything, which might seem surprising when viewed from our present era of specialisation.
SP: Exactly right—and echoes of this unity can still be perceived today. The vision that existed back then, that of enabling musical life in its entirety to blossom, really is amazing, courageous, and substantively powerful. Back when the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde des österreichischen Kaiserstaates [Society of the Friends of Music of the Austrian Imperial State] was founded, its objectives were clearly laid out: a conservatory “for pupils of both sexes”, the performance of works, the organisation of competitions, the publication of a dedicated periodical (likewise remarkable at that time) as well as the establishment of a library (the origin of our present-day collection), and “providing support to individual outstanding artistic talents”. Training, however, was the primary mission where doing justice to the general objective of “uplifting music” was concerned. These days, of course, one couldn’t possibly unite all of these areas in one single institution. But it is indeed the case that the periodical mentioned back then continues to exist and flourish, as do our concerts and our world-famous collection. So we do still bundle several areas. And while the mdw is now independent and exists in its own right, we do share our roots in common.
There are also a number of strands on each side that frequently come together. What are the main joint projects?
SP: Our partnership with the mdw is very broad and rests upon a long tradition. The collaboration between our two institutions includes the annual final concert of the conducting class with the ORF’s Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, which is part of their diploma exams, and the subscription series “High Class I” where young artists not only perform but also actively help shape our programming—including concerts held as part of our festivals and, significantly, in the composer portraits that we put together as part of our contemporary music activities. The series “High Class II”, by the way, is the product a similar joint effort with the MUK. One new feature is our joint work with the mdw on concerts for people with and without dementia that address these people’s special needs and afford them individualized musical experiences. We developed this format together with mdw-based experts, the performing musicians, and the charitable organisation Caritas. And of course, there’s also the work we do together with the Webern Symphonie Orchester.
Is supporting young performers generally also part of the Musikverein’s DNA?
SP: Absolutely. Providing support to up-and-coming young artists represents a central component of our work in many areas. Not only in terms of our major artist portraits with young conductors, but also in how we programme our regular concerts so as to centre the younger generation and lend them a consistent presence—so that we aren’t simply administrating our institution’s great tradition from the standpoint of what’s already established, but instead also attempting to found new traditions that we’ll be able to count on thirty years from now. It’s similar with respect to the audience: for us at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, concerts for children and adolescents have become very central. We’ve already been running these offerings for 30 years, and we’re putting a ton of energy into their continuation. We now reach 50,000 people a year this way—which truly is a huge and comprehensive programme that’s intended to get young audiences enthused about music, too.
Let’s come back to the Webern Symphonie Orchester and its annual appearance at the Musikverein, which is a highlight of every academic year. What do you view as central in this respect?
SP: These concerts offer young people a fantastic opportunity to work together with world-class conductors. Professor Zehetner (mdw)—who’s been a great partner to us and with whom we love working—has played a central role in attracting these conductors. When you take a look at the music that these programmes have featured in recent years, you see both great breadth and a clear commitment to the pillars of the repertoire. In our 2021 concert with Andrés Orozco-Estrada, it was Beethoven’s 4th Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (Pathétique). 2022’s programme with Kirill Petrenko included Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-Sharp Major, and this year will see Daniel Harding present Bruckner’s 5th Symphony as well as Jörg Widmann’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. I think it’s great how the orchestra’s members can work on parts of the core repertoire with top-notch conductors—especially in our Golden Hall, which contributes greatly to how the orchestra plays before an audience. It’s not by chance, after all, that the Vienna Philharmonic sounds like it does: this hall has helped to shape that orchestra. And when the musicians of the Webern Symphonie Orchester experience just what all is possible here, what this hall gives back, how it provides a friendly home for every type of sound from pianissimo to fortissimo, the lustre it always adds—that, I think, is an experience that can be very moving. And if one has the chance to experience it in a symphony by Beethoven or Bruckner, the impressions left behind can be very formative. Which is one more reason why we do this so gladly!