‘I don’t think in history there’s been a music director who opened his tenure with a children’s concert.’
That’s not my comment, it’s the words of Omer Meir Wellber, the young new chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, on his first public appearance with the orchestra at its home in Salford since officially entering on his realm.
He’s proud of it. He conducted the Phil in two Proms concerts in London this summer, but as far as its North of England base is concerned, a children’s concert to launch the BBC’s ‘Bring the Noise’ school music streams and podcasts, and a studio concert live-streamed on iPlayer and the Philharmonic website and shown for passers-by on the BBC’s big screen outside its MediaCity studio (it will be broadcast on Radio 3 later), have been the only inaugural events for the new maestro. The Bridgewater Hall audience in Manchester will have to wait until December for his series concert appearance.
Of course it’s all to do with existing contractual commitments and scheduling – but he says he asked for these inaugural performances because he had one week available in the early autumn to be on-site with the North West band – and it’s also symbolic of the spirit of youthfulness and a zeal to communicate that comes with Omer Meir Wellber at the helm. The Phil are only just beginning to find out what hit them when he got the top job.
That studio concert, for instance. He conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (the latter from memory) in the second half – pretty much what you might expect from a new chief conductor with a strong track record in the Austro-German classics (he did Mozart’s ‘Linz’ symphony and Act 1 of Die Walküre in a Bridgewater Hall concert last October on the day his appointment was announced).
But the first half had not only the Summer movement from The Four Seasons with a mandolin solo instead of violin (Jacob Reuven, with whom he works in an educational project called ‘Strings of Change’ to help Bedouin children, based in Beer-Sheva, was the soloist), but also the most off-the-wall version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 (K414) I have ever heard. He was his own soloist for it, but instead of the variety of contemporary written cadenzas available for each of its movements (of which there are a number), Wellber produced a succession of improvised interpolations – based on the written ones, it is true, and one of them really just a transcription for three soloists in succession – for a jazz-klezmer group including trumpet, clarinet, solo violin, accordion, bass, drum kit and his piano, which took us stylistically a long, long way from 18th century Vienna. He’s at home in these idioms as much as any other, and soon had his audience tapping their feet and smiling at the wail of the clarinet and accelerating dance beat that finally adorned Mozart’s restrained Andante.
‘I’ve done this on a smaller scale before, when we asked the public to vote on what sort of cadenzas they would like – I think even Mozart would approve.’
There may be fun in it, but Wellber takes fun seriously. ‘If you have spontaneity in yourself, it’s wrong to cover it,’ he says. ‘My background is that of a gypsy. If there’s something in you, then this is what you bring. When I was younger I used to do magic shows with music – I would do the tricks and play my accordion. I’m now at a point in my life when I can bring out new things as a conductor.’
So who is this self-confessed gypsy with an accordion, preparing to do magic with one of the UK’s top broadcasting orchestras? It goes back to a childhood in the south of the state of Israel, a family with a remarkable range of talents and connections, and a musical training that gave him a rock-solid grounding and respect for gifted teachers.
His mother and family were both from ‘Eretz-Israel’ families – those who’d lived in the land for generations before the founding of the state in 1948, and answered the call of David Ben-Gurion to make the desert bloom, moving from Tel Aviv to Beer-Sheva, which was where Omer and his sisters grew up.
‘That was the biggest decision made in my life – the kind of thing that makes you a different person. My school wanted me to go to Tel Aviv as a kind of prodigy, but my parents wouldn’t have it. I grew up in a place where you have people from 20 different backgrounds and a basically poor economic environment. And my upbringing was in a free style: each of us did what they wanted to do, we were never pushed into anything. I was ambitious, but I have one sister who is not and one who is as much as me.’
‘Music was always there for me. But so was the theatre – in my family about 70 per cent were involved in teaching, including my parents, and the rest were in acting, so I was familiar with the backstage side of theatre life.’
His cousin, Eli Danker, is well known in Israeli theatrical life, and is set to visit the Philharmonic to perform in a future season: ‘He was the most important influence on me, in a way, as my father died when I was young.’
Omer learned to play piano – and accordion – from the age of five, and the violin and mandolin from the age of 12, because, he says, he was already a composer and wanted to find out how those instruments worked. He stayed in ‘normal’ schooling, with extra teaching at the music specialist school in Beer-sheva until the time came for national service in the army (as all Israeli youngsters do) – but his time in uniform was cut to a year and a half so that he could join the national Jerusalem Music Academy.
He studied with Michael Wolpe (himself taught by Alexander Goehr at Cambridge) because at that point he wanted to make composing his main interest (and he does have a string of compositions to his name), but gradually shifted to conducting.
From 2008 to 2010 he was assistant to Daniel Barenboim, both at the Staatsoper in Berlin and La Scala (he and his family now have their home in Milan), and he acknowledges the importance his mentors have had in his development: ‘Since the age of eight I’ve benefited from really big people as teachers – I don’t think an artist can ever be an auto-didact, and I still speak to my first teacher back in Beer-Sheva.
‘Oscar Wilde said “A fine artist imitates, but a brilliant artist steals”, and I took as much as I could from Barenboim, but now I imitate him less and less. I’ve been professionally conducting for 15 years, but in the past five I have found what is my priority and what “fits” for me.’
Those 15 years have included a remarkable range of experience and activity – music director at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, conducting Verdi operas in Vienna three years running, appearances at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and frequently at the Semperoper in Dresden, where he is now principal guest conductor; and he’s been seen a number of times with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted at Glyndebourne (Madame Butterfly last year), in addition to orchestral concerts worldwide.
Oddly enough, he has memories of a brief previous stay in Manchester as a 12-year-old, when his father, a trade union leader and socialist politician in Israel, was offered a diplomatic job in the UK and came to the city. ‘He hated the job and went back to Israel after a year, and I was not here all that time anyway, but I attended King David School and got to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time!’
He says he also started making model railway sets as a hobby then – another unexpected characteristic of a man of many parts, so it’s almost no surprise to learn that he’s a published author, too. He’s written about Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan Tutte), in a book called ‘Fear, Risk and Love: Moments with Mozart’, and has a novel about to appear in German, Italian and English. The title in the German version translates as ‘The Four Times that Chaim Birckner Fainted’, which he describes as ‘an alternative story of Israel … about a tired, incompetent Holocaust survivor who goes to Israel: he’s a big liar and he lives a strange, passive, crazy life.’ The politically conscious aspect of his heritage is coming out here, he says, in the light of a new emigration from the country on the part of those of left-wing convictions.
And what will the BBC Philharmonic see in terms of future programmes and projects from Omer Meir Welber? It’s early days yet: his 14 December programme at the Bridgewater Hall includes the UK premiere of Sophia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and bayan (a Russian kind of accordion), along with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, and he’ll be back in March with a Beethoven programme and in April with Richard Strauss, Schnittke and Shostakovich (also toured to Nottingham): the rest of the autumn-winter-spring season was pretty well sorted when he was offered the top job earlier this year.
He says in the programme booklet for Manchester: ‘In every concert, I want to try to tell a story’ and refers to ‘political themes we’ll be exploring over the next few years’. As we spoke he was discussing plans for next year’s BBC Proms and the season to follow them with the orchestra’s general manager, Simon Webb, and his staff. But it’s probably safe to say, ‘Expect the unexpected’.
Philharmonic trumpeter Gary Farr was asked on camera about the experience of working with him on those improvised Mozart concerto cadenzas in the studio concert. He said: ‘Much of it was Omer’s imagination – and it took all of us to orchestrate it!’
Omer Meir Wellber rehearsing with the BBC Philharmonic. Picture: Mark McNulty