Dallas — Born near Linz, Austria, in 1949, his résumé describes a fascinating career. The international trajectory of his career is demonstrated by his first music directorship, which was for the 1975-1976 season of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad. He was the music director of the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg from 1984 to 1994. Other major music directorships include the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (1995-2003) and Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine, France (1998-2004). The list of guest conducting assignments includes some of the best orchestras in the world.
Locally, he is best known as the Music Director of the Houston Symphony from 2001 to 2013, the longest tenure of any music director in the orchestra’s history. While he never held a directorship with an opera company, he is a frequent guest conductor in many of the international major opera houses.
Personally, I consider Graf to be one of the best conductors of our time. It is clear why he won the prestigious Karl Böhm Conductor Competition in 1979. His beat is incredibly clear, yet expressive. When the mood changes, his upbeat perfectly foreshadows the feel of the upcoming passage. He never exaggerates his motions and in the loudest parts, his beat contracts rather than expands, allowing his body language to convey the increase in dynamics. His tempi are unique, but none are exaggerated and all make sense in the big picture of whatever he is conducting. His opera experience shows in his approach to the symphony podium.
I sat down with Graf in his dressing room in the Meyerson Symphony Center, where this weekend he is the guest conductor for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on two works from Rachmaninoff. (My review is here.)
TheaterJones: Let’s start off where you started off: the symphony in Baghdad.
Hans Graf: It was back when Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was in power. It was a state-run orchestra and paid by the state. We played in a small venue, it only had about 500 seats, and so we were always sold out and could have repeated the concert a number of times. I was only there for a year, 10 concerts, but the orchestra played well. I made good friends and discovered good food. I was happy to have an orchestra and to be able to put 10 concerts in my pack.
Let’s talk about your time in Houston.
I was there for 12 years, which was the longest tenure of all of my predecessors: 8 years for Stokowski and 11 years for Eschenbach. When I go back, it is like coming home.
This DSO program features two of Rachmaninoff least known pieces for orchestra. Why pick these?
I want to complete the picture people have of Rachmaninoff. When I say that I am conducting Rachmaninoff 2, they ask, “Who is the pianist?” Well, I say “no one” because I am conducting his second symphony. That is how it is with the symphonies. They are incredibility well-crafted, like Brahms. The first symphony was a failure at its first performance. Rumor has it that the conductor, Glazunov, was drunk. Rachmaninoff didn’t even sit in the hall. The he took the score of the symphony with him to the United States then, returned it when he came back to Moscow. Then, it was lost. Sometime later, a set of parts was discovered and the score was reconstructed. I am trying to promote this symphony in my concerts.
The piano concerto was rewritten more than a few times, so it is an early and late composition at the same time.
True. We are playing the final version. Most pianists play it.
It is full of conductor/pianist traps.
Very true. It is complicated and hard to put together.
Looking at your résumé, and most other music director’s résumés, you can see that conductors have a short shelf life.
That is true [laughs]. As soon as a music director is chosen and starts his work, the search for the next one starts.