A passion for cello

German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser. Photos: Supplied
German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser. Photos: Supplied
German-Canadian Johannes Moser, praised by Gramophone magazine as ‘‘one of the finest among the astonishing gallery of young virtuoso cellists’’, is visiting Dunedin for the first time. He tells Rebecca Fox about his passion for the cello.

If there is not a cello at his side, Johannes Moser is probably out running, hiking or mountain biking.

He describes his ideal day off as being in the mountains - not surprising for someone who grew up in Germany and spent his summers in Canada.

''Hiking till the mind shuts off and the only thing that matters is the next step.''

It is his escape from the pressures of a fast-passed music career which he loves - apart from the travelling. It is the only part in his profession he considers to be work.

''It is getting worse and worse. Especially travelling with Mrs Cello [who gets a seat and a meal on planes].''

Based in Cologne, Germany, where he holds a professorship at the conservatory, Moser performs around the world - last month he travelled to the United States, back to Germany and then to New Zealand.

''I find people lack the respect and education in airports and certainly at security checkpoints to really understand what it means to have a 300-year-old piece of art with you.''

His cello is precious to him and has been since he discovered it when he was 8 years old.

Back then he was playing violin, but the deep frequencies and the physicality of the cello ''spoke to me immediately''.

''I think the violin didn't like me. We just didn't get along.

''I remember feeling very at home with the cello, and I have been obsessed with practising and just being close to the instrument ever since.''

He grew up in a musical family and credits his mother, who was a singer, and growing up in Munich with its ''fantastic orchestra'' and museum for the inevitability of his musical career.

''So being exposed to meaningful art was part of my upbringing. I was exposed to music before I was born.''

His Canadian mother went on tour when she was pregnant with Moser.

''So I think it's safe to say I got my first singing lessons at a very, very young age. I think these sounds have influenced me deeply.''

Born in 1979, Moser became a student of Prof David Geringas in 1997. He was the top prize winner at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, in addition to being awarded the Special Prize for his interpretation of the Rococo Variations. In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Brahms prize.

''[Playing] the cello from an early age was a great way to express myself in a way that I otherwise could not.''

Conductor Peter Oundjian
Conductor Peter Oundjian
He liked the idea that a career as a cellist could be varied and creative, although admits he was fascinated by the theatre and had thoughts of becoming a director or actor.

''It's not just playing music, but being an ambassador of music, engaging in social projects and communicating over sound.''

His first major tour with a large orchestra sticks in his mind. He was 23 and touring with the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

''I was really lucky because an American promoter heard me on that tour and suggested me to the Chicago Symphony, which led to my debut two years later in the United States.''

But it was his concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto that was a personal milestone for him.

''Growing up with the recordings of that orchestra, it felt like such an honour to be part of that sound.''

Moser, like many instrumentalists, enjoys whatever music is on his stand at the time, whether it's classical or modern.

''It sounds corny, but I think I can find something fascinating and beautiful in almost every piece of music.

''On the rare occasion that music doesn't speak to me, I stop playing it. I see no point in endorsing music that doesn't speak to me.''

He is a dedicated chamber musician, performing with numerous musicians and playing at several music festivals each year.

Moser often performs new works by contemporary composers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Julia Wolfe.

He has also played the electric cello, including in 2011 on Magnetar, by Enrico Chapela, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

His favourite composer is Beethoven.

''He, like no other, understands the human condition at the same time as having the greatest mastery of composition. Or should I say Mendelessohn? One of the greatest geniuses of all time. Or Wagner with his drama? Or the endless riches of melodies by Dvorak?

''I realise it's hard to pick a favourite. For now let's stick to Beethoven.''

His 2016 performances with the NZSO were hailed as ''an act of pure musical alchemy''. The repertoire he is bringing to New Zealand this time is close to his heart.

''I have been playing these pieces for most of my career and they really define who I want to be as a cellist and as a musician.

He loves the energy of Dmitri Shostakovich as well as the ''pristine perfection and elegance'' of the suites by Johann Sebastian Bach.

''I also love that there are multiple performances, so I can really experiment and go on a journey with these pieces, which is probably what I like most about performing.''

His New Zealand performances will be conducted by Peter Oundjian, a former violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet, who has just finished six seasons as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and a 14-year tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony, where he revitalised the Canadian orchestra.

Moser recently won his third ECHO Klassik award as ''Instrumentalist of the Year'' for his Russian Recital album. His latest recordings include the concertos by Dvorak, Lalo, Elgar and Tchaikovsky, which have garnered prestigious recorded music prizes in Germany and France.

He finds recording challenging in that he needs to make the recordings sound spontaneous and fresh even though he might be doing multiple takes of the same passages.

''Giving a recording the energy that translates through the medium of speakers is something that can be quite challenging.''

Moser is looking forward to his time in New Zealand and has arranged to have some time off after the tour to travel around the South Island to ''experience the beauty'' of New Zealand.


Johannes Moser on the spot

Your favourite food?

Anything organic, home cooked, where I know what the ingredients are.

What musician/group is at the top of your playlist?

At the moment anything Walton and some classic Jamiroquai.

Aisle seat or window seat in plane?

Cello gets the window, I am stuck in the middle. Life is not fair sometimes!

What do you drive?

I drive everybody nuts.

What are you reading?

Right now anything from Kadare, and Here I am, by Safran Foer.


To see

• Johannes Moser Plays Shostakovich with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin Town Hall, October 11, 7pm.

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