courtesy of Teldec Records
Mozart: Symphony No. 40--1st Movement (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)
How do conductors become conductors? Some of the famous ones— like Arturo Toscanini, or Leopold Stokowski, seem born for it — with their shocks of white hair, waving their arms and shouting directions to the orchestra. But Nikolas Harnoncourt ascended to the podium under very different conditions, and it had to do with a single piece of music.
Harnoncourt was a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and was tired of disagreeing with conductors. One day, they performed Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in a bright, cheerful interpretation he couldn't stomach.
"When this piece was played," Harnoncourt recalls, "the audience started to smile a wave their heads, and it was a familiar situation that I hated. I was sure that we were doing everything wrong." That's when Harnoncourt began to think he needed to do the conducting himself.
"One day, I said I dont want to ever play it again in that way and the next morning I went to the director of the orchestra and said I quit the orchestra and I will do it myself," Harnoncourt adds. "This was not easy, because I was a young man with four young children. But my wife and I agreed, and this was a very concrete reason to change my profession."
Harnoncourt created his own early music group called Concentus Musicus. He followed with recordings (he now has over 500 to his credit) and began conducting orchestras around the world.