Hannes Richter

Interview with Houston Symphony Music Director Hans Graf

Hannes Richter


Known for his wide range of repertoire and creative programming, Hans Graf - a native Austrian and Music Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra since 2001 - is one of today’s most respected musicians. Maestro Graf has led the leading orchestras of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia, and has participated in prestigious music festivals in the U.S. and Europe. He was recently awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria. In an interview with AI, he spoke of his career and his experiences conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra as well as other orchestras from around the globe.

In the year 2000 you were appointed music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.  Meanwhile your contract was extended. How did your appointment come about and what is involved in your work in the United States?
I have enjoyed conducting many large orchestras in the U.S. since the 1990s. When Christoph Eschenbach left for Philadelphia, I was pleased to have been offered the opportunity of leading the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra has a great reputation and the rapport between the orchestra and me was and is excellent. I have, therefore, extended my contract until 2012. In terms of working with American orchestras, their musicians are open, unbiased, play very well and are very flexible. When some people say that the American orchestras have an American sound, I can only answer that the orchestras have the sound which one gives them, and the work with them makes me very happy.

What does your work involve as music director? And what are some of the major differences between Europe and the U.S. in terms of orchestra management, including marketing, fundraising, inviting guest artists and orchestra tours, etc.?
An American orchestra’s financial situation depends heavily on the business-structure of the city, and this is indeed a difference between European and U.S. orchestras. In the U.S. the music director carries more responsibility for the entire orchestra and has to participate in the efforts to sustain the orchestra. But he also has to determine the choice of guest artists, etc. In terms of artistic questions the responsibility is solely mine.

And as to fundraising and public relations?
There are some fifty staff members who assume responsibility for public relations, education, outreach and fundraising. As music director, I contribute by giving interviews and participating at various fundraising events. The financing of the orchestra is different from that in Europe. We have to generate more of the funds ourselves and have to do a lot more fundraising. But that is also a trend that is becoming more important in Europe.

What is the main focus of your repertoire? Can one summarize it?
No, it is impossible to summarize because as music director I cannot exclude anything. A big orchestra requires a large repertoire. My repertoire includes everything from Mozart to contemporary composers, but no Baroque: there are other specialists for that. I emphasize the Viennese classics - which, by the way is one reason that Europeans are invited to America - or the great Romantics, such as Anton Bruckner. In addition, I also include French composers in my repertoire. I have loved them since my youth; moreover,  I was Music Director in Bordeaux for six years. Finally, since I studied in Russia, I am deeply involved in Russian culture - and I am married to a Russian. Consequently, I developed an affinity for Russian music.
Have you planned any tours to Austria with the orchestra?
In 2004 a tour was planned but finally cancelled because of the high costs involved. Plans are being made, however, for one in the future. Financing a tour is a problem which is affecting most American orchestras.
I am happy that in our programs we are also incorporating pieces that are not easy to sell. For instance, one program has included the “Lyric Symphony” by Zemlinsky and the “Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite” by Alban Berg.

One cannot, however, afford often to have a concert hall that is only half full.

You have had a very interesting career conducting, for example, the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra or the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra. When you look back, what were the most influential experiences?
The Iraqi Symphony Orchestra was of course a great opportunity for me at the age of twenty-five to head an orchestra of seventy members, and I learned a great deal - and you learn from every orchestra. But what contributed most to my artistic development were my studies with Franco Ferrara in Siena, Italy, followed by those with Arvid Jansons in Leningrad and the years with the Vienna State Opera.  

In that life now centers around living and conducting in the United States, do you still maintain close contact to Austria?
I have made one or two appearances each year in Austria as a guest conductor. However, conducting an orchestra such as the Houston Symphony doesn’t leave much time for additional performances of the same magnitude. There are really not many orchestras in Austria which compare to the Houston Symphony. But Austrians are generally not aware that the Houston Symphony Orchestra is one of the twenty most important orchestras in the U.S. and among the great orchestras of the world.

In your many years of conducting orchestras in Austria and the U.S., have you discovered any differences in how music is received by the public?
Audiences in Vienna and Berlin are naturally well-versed in musical tradition and react correspondingly. In the U.S. audiences are more conservative, even in cities like New York and Boston. In fact, it creates a financial risk when choosing more contemporary pieces; therefore, one has to balance such a choice with more traditional repertoire. Empty concert halls are not good in the U.S. nor elsewhere in the world; long term, one also loses relevance. In Europe, however, an empty hall sometimes is interpreted as an indication of an interesting and sophisticated program  - a position I cannot share.
In the U.S., there is a growing tradition that the conductor tries to establish a close rapport with the audience. Therefore, I often explain the intricacies of some pieces of the program to the public. This proves to be very useful and is highly popular with the audience.  Our audiences are open and grateful for every help which leads to deeper understanding.

Born in 1949 near Linz, Austria, Hans Graf studied violin and piano as a child. He began his studies at the Musikhochschule in Graz in 1967 and continued his training under Franco Ferrara (Siena), Sergiu Celibidache (Bologna) and Arvid Jansons (Weimar, Leningrad). From 1975-1976 Mr. Graf served as the Music Director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad. His international career was launched in 1979 when he won the first prize at the Karl Böhm Competition. A great proponent of opera, Graf first conducted the Vienna State Opera in 1981. He has since led productions in the opera houses of Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Paris and Rome, including several world premieres.
Hans Graf is the current Music Director of the Houston Symphony, successor to Christoph Eschenbach. He was Music Director of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra for 10 years, and has also served as Music Director of the Calgary Philharmonic and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. In 2002 he was awarded the Chevalier de l’ordre de la Legion d’Honneur by the French government for championing French music around the world.