Producer’s Journal | 24 Hours in Salzburg

by Wesley Horner, producer/executive producer “The Mozart Festival”

We arrived only 5 days ago in this beautiful storybook city in the foothills of the snow-covered Alps. It’s not difficult, walking through the narrow cobblestone streets and passageways of the Alstadt (old city) on the banks of the Salzach River, crowded with an astonishing number of churches including the massive Dom (cathedral), and overshadowed by the mountaintop Festung (fortress), to imagine what it might have been like here in Mozart’s time, and for hundreds of years before then.

Our intense production schedule in the first four days already included location-recorded interviews on Wednesday in the formidable underground vaults of the Mozarteum with chief librarian Armin Brinzing for a close up look at some of Mozart’s original manuscripts by Mozart and his family; and early Thursday morning (still recovering from jet lag!) with the Mozarteum’s Ulrich Leisinger, who treated us to a performance demonstration on Mozart’s own piano; and with Gabriele Ramsauer for a personal tour of Mozart’s birthplace. All three are not only prodigious experts in everything Mozart, but are delightful conversationalists. It will be challenging, to say the least, to decide which of the gems they spoke about to use in the final edited version of the radio series.

Friday and Saturday were packed with artist interviews: the incredibly modest and warm-hearted French conductor Louis Langrée; the brilliant American scholar and pianist Robert Levin; the inspiring young conductor David Afkham; the beautiful and talented soprano Mojca Erdmann (who shared her own travel horrors of dealing with cancelled flights and a long car trip across the Alps from Switzerland to get to Salzburg for rehearsals); and the hilarious, charming, high-energy violinist Carolin Widmann.

And on Sunday morning: Wandered the half block distance from our apartment into the Dom – the huge cathedral that dominates the Old City of Salzburg, and that I see from the window by the table where I write this. Accidentally discovered that the mass will be Mozart’s “Credo” mass, with chorus and orchestra. Was it premiered here, steps from the Archbishop’s palace? Did Mozart visit an apothecary in business since 1300-something, across the square from the coffee house where Mozart complained that the coffee was horrible?

24 HOURS IN SALZBURG

Then – wow – starting Sunday evening: the beginning of our intense schedule of concert performance recordings. In the first 24 hours of music production, I sat in ORF/Austrian Broadcasting control rooms for recording of an astounding parade of concerts:

7:30p/ SUNDAY: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax, and the rising star young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Ax did a couple of surprise solo encores. In the control room, we played a guessing game to see who could name the composer and title to each of the encores, before producer Hannes Eichmann sent an assistant backstage to ask Ax himself. Weird to see the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the recording engineer (“Tonmeister”) deliver a big bag of McDonald’s Quarter Pounders for the production team (yes, there is a McDonald’s here, just a few blocks away on the same street as Mozart’s birthplace), with Ax himself far below us, on stage. I confessed to chowing down on Quarter Pounders for Boston Symphony and Handel & Haydn broadcasts years ago. Is this a radio production control room tradition, worldwide?

At every concert recording, a producer from the ORF is glued to a music score, watching for any and every detail of the performance. They know their stuff. For the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, there were not one – but two – producers. Bavarian radio (Bayerischer Rundfunk) sent their own producer, who shared producer roles with my old friend Hannes Eichmann, producer from the ORF. (Eichmann will host the radio series for the United States.)

11:00a/ MONDAY: Camerata Salzburg with Louis Langrée (Music Director of Mostly Mozart in New York AND Chief Conductor of the Camerata, AND unassuming Nice Guy), with brilliant violinist Carolin Widmann. When I interviewed Widmann late Saturday afternoon, she and I laughed about both of us having had the experience of going to school at New England Conservatory, loving Jordan Hall there, and her battle with rats in her Fenway basement apartment. I could relate.

3:00p/ MONDAY: Hugely talented Robert Levin from Cambridge/Boston and friends, performing chamber music on Mozart’s own piano and violin. Even Levin said it was a little nerve wracking to share a keyboard, as it were, with Mozart himself. How does this guy’s mind contain so much music, and so much information?

7:30p/ MONDAY: The Mozarteum Orchestra with Met Opera young soprano Mojca Erdmann, looking stunning, doing Mozart arias, and young conductor David Afkham, ex of LAPhil, with Chopin-esque long, fine hands and fingers. Both Erdmann and Afkham blew me away. Saw Erdmann and her boyfriend later at the supermarket in the natural foods section, shopping – as we were – for whole grains, trying to eat healthfully in the rich (but delicious) Austrian/Bavarian diet. Afkham waved me into his dressing room at intermission, to ask me how I thought the arias went. We talked about the special skills needed when conducting the orchestra as accompaniment.  And about how about much he enjoyed driving on the coast of California on his days off when he was working in LA with the Philharmonic there.

The Bavarian orchestra was in the Grosses Festspeilhaus, the giant concert hall that is the magnet for world-class music talent all year long. But I loved the site of the others: the intimate; 800-seat; all gold, white, and crystal chandeliers Mozarteum concert hall. Mind-blowing to have the Camerata and Widmann doing the Mozart Violin Concerto K 216 where you can feel every breath in your bones. Nothing like having top-drawer Mozart in a setting matching the original, authentic in-your-face experience.

This all happened in the first 24 hours. The production control rooms in Salzburg’s concert halls during Mozart Week have a non-stop, rotating cast of producers and technicians, running from the early morning until very late at night. And producers here: Wow. Thoroughly trained, really know the scores inside and out, making notes on every detail of the performance, thinking about editing between the performance and rehearsal recordings. And each concert production team had a bevy of technicians, sent onstage after each piece to adjust microphones. I was envious, and impressed. And drunk on top quality, live music.