The hopes of local opera lovers were shattered earlier this year when the Baltimore Opera Company announced that its financial difficulties necessitated canceling a production of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" and replacing it with performances of a much less expensive all-Wagner concert. What softened the blow was not that the concerts, which begin Friday, would be sung by the same cast hired for "Tristan," but that the concert would still be conducted by Alexander Sander.
Outside the Baltimore opera community, the 48-year-old Viennese is hardly a household word -- he is, in fact, almost unknown in this country. But Sander's local reputation is based on the superb conducting he did last year in the BOC's stunning production of Richard Strauss' "Salome." Sander conducted the enormously demanding score with power and clarity that never sacrificed the timbral beauty of the music. What was equally impressive was the way he was able to convey the music's power while still enabling the singers, with their single pairs of vocal cords, to sing easily and beautifully and to let the text be understood. When the performance was over, members of the audience were asking what the orchestra's musicians had been wondering ever since rehearsals with Sander had started: Who was this guy, how did he get so good and why wasn't he better known?
There's no mystery about him, said Sander earlier this week as he spoke by telephone from his home in Vienna.
"There are two ways to make a conducting career," he said. "The first, which is becoming less and less possible, is to be a coach in an opera house and have the good luck to be at the same time an assistant to a first-rate conductor. After a number of years one is prepared to fulfill many of the responsibilities of a real conductor.
"The second way is actually to study to be a conductor, get a position as a conducting assistant with a major orchestra like Chicago's, and, then, when the music director becomes ill, to conduct the Chicago Symphony 20 years too soon.
"The second way always produces a sensation, fame and a large -- although not necessarily lasting -- career," Sander added. "I chose the first way."
The first way is, of course, the one traditionally taken by European conductors and the way that has produced almost all the great European masters, whether Italian, German or Russian. After study at the University of Vienna and the Mozarteum at Salzburg, Sander had the good fortune and also the talent to come to the attention of such giants as Herbert von Karajan, Karl Boehm and Pierre Boulez, all of whom Sander eventually served as an assistant.
"Call it luck," Sander said. "It was my experiences with these guys that made me a conductor. I began working with Boehm after I left the Mozarteum in 1965 and it became clear to me immediately how much there was to learn even to think about approaching their level. That understanding set the standard for the musical ambitions that have governed the rest of my life."
From the three conductors -- he assisted all three at Bayreuth and worked with Boehm on most of his famous later recordings -- Sander said he learned different things.
vTC "Boehm paid great attention to every small detail, whereas Karajan concentrated on the bigger things and Boulez seemed to have a little of the qualities of both," Sander said. "It was especially fascinating to compare Boehm and Karajan because they were most famous for a very similar repertory. Karajan, of course, made the bigger career, but his interpretations always seemed a little self-serving. I think Boehm was the greater man."
Sander, who made his American debut in Columbus, Ohio, only three years ago, is well-known in Europe (he conducts regularly in the major opera houses of Berlin, Frankfurt, Florence and Hamburg) and he would like to become better known in the United States. He considers American orchestras the best in the world.
"The level of playing and the sense of cooperation a conductor gets from an American orchestra he cannot get from the orchestras of any other country," Sander says. "American musicians do not take their jobs for granted, they work incredibly hard and the result of their attitude is brilliant playing. I will be a happy man if the music directorship of an American orchestra is in my future."
Sander has less to say about other differences between American and European musical culture. When he was asked if opera companies in Europe faced financial problems similar to those in the United States, Sander replied that "art is always hard to afford."
"One of the main differences is that in Europe opera is subsidized [by the government] and that in your country it isn't," Sander said diplomatically. "Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, but that's a topic for a 10-hour discussion."
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