„Mozart is like brushing your teeth“

„Mozart is like brushing your teeth“

Interview with the new chief conductor Petr Popelka
Petr Popelka

Petr Popelka on his visions for the Wiener Symphoniker and the programme for his inaugural season 

Petr Popelka, just before your first season as Chief Conductor, what do you think when you wake up in the middle of the night? 

Generally, I sleep well. But I have this feeling of high enthusiasm. This tingling sensation that it’'s about to start. The anticipation that we can finally perform together, that our journey is about to begin. Naturally, there are also thoughts of the responsibility and the awareness that at some point there will certainly be problems to solve. However, above all, there is this sparkling excitement about the beginning.

You have a very long relationship with the Wiener Symphoniker ... 

 ... already as a teenager I used to come regularly from Prague to Vienna with my parents to hear the world's greatest orchestras in this city. For me, the Wiener Symphoniker are the musical embodiment of Vienna, an orchestra that captures and expresses the spirit of the city, an ensemble with a long-standing tradition, but most of all an orchestra that has always personified the modern pioneering spirit - both in terms of repertoire and the role of an orchestra within society. When people ask me how I imagine my journey with the Wiener Symphoniker, I think of my young son: Which orchestra would we like to hand over to the next generation? How does a modern orchestra work, in which we play music on an equal footing? How can we nurture and strengthen the virtues of the Wiener Symphoniker together?

You like to talk about a „modern orchestra“, what do you mean exactly? 

An orchestra that, with all its musicians, knows every evening why it’s performing which programme. An orchestra that reaches out to people with its passion and quality. An orchestra that appeals to everyone through diversity: children as well as classical music novices and music experts. An orchestra that inspires by the quality of its playing, by its precision and clarity. An orchestra in which everyone’s part is heard, in which every single voice counts. An orchestra in which everyone feels involved. Unfortunately, we are currently observing that classical music is not doing so well in many places, and that some orchestras are even up for debate. All the more important that an orchestra as deeply rooted in its city as the Wiener Symphoniker should take on a leading role. 

You played double bass in the Staatskapelle Dresden. What did you learn about the profession of conductor there? 

There’s a great danger that music becomes routine for musicians who play almost every evening – it becomes „duty“. That is in the nature of things. And, indeed, I have experienced this myself: there are conductors who don’t really communicate why this particular programme is so important in the place where it is being performed. They are afraid to address mistakes directly so as not to jeopardise the harmony in the orchestra. But I believe that’s the wrong approach. As a musician, I wanted nothing more than to be inspired, to take in ideas and to work intensively with all my colleagues towards the best possible interpretation. I want to be on board, I want to develop – that’s why we took up this job in the first place. From passion! In my work with the Wiener Symphoniker, I felt exactly this curiosity in the orchestra, the joy of the shared „birth“ of music, of these moments when everyone realises: „Something is happening right now!“ And these moments can only be achieved through honesty, when we really get down to business, when everyone senses that we are about to reach a new level. For me, it’s about optimising the interplay within individual groups as well as the collaboration between them. In the end, that’s what defines the quality of an orchestra.

By what means can a conductor achieve this? 

The conductor must know exactly what she or he is doing, when and why. In the long run, I am also convinced that it is important to develop diversity and flexibility in the orchestra. Whether baroque, classical, romantic, modern or contemporary - there must be not a single genre that an orchestra like the Wiener Symphoniker cannot handle. It wouldn’t be expedient for us to neuter ourselves.

That’s interesting, because for a long time we used to have specialised ensembles focusing on one musical form in particular: the Romantic period or the Baroque ... 

It’s important that these ensembles continue to exist. Music history would be different without experts like Nikolaus Harnoncourt! What I particularly admired about him, by the way, was how he inspired very different orchestras with his enormous knowledge. Conductors should always find answers to the „why?“. But I also believe that an orchestra like the Wiener Symphoniker, the orchestra of an entire city, should understand music as a whole, music history as the great arc in which the periods inspire one another. Knowing Bach makes me play Mozart differently, my knowledge of Mozart changes my Beethoven and my knowledge of Beethoven influences my Wagner – who in turn influences my Schönberg. I am also firmly convinced that playing Mozart should be like brushing one’s teeth for an orchestra. Mozart is part of the daily sound hygiene! 

Let’s have a quick look at your programme for the anniversary season. You are bringing one of your great heroes to the inaugural concert: Béla Bartók ... 

 ... oh yes: quite intentionally!


Because Bartók represents so many things that also inspire me as a composer. I will open one of his scores and it's always a source of inspiration. The remarkable thing about Bartók is that, on the one hand, he composes in a highly complex style, but that complexity is never a purpose in itself for him, but always a way of achieving an even more accessible expression. Bartók fuses the playful and the sensual aspects of listening. I hardly know any composers who have written such ingenious music that simultaneously appeals to and captivates the audience. Of course, Bartók played an important role in my inaugural concert, because in his music every section of the orchestra is called on to perform, because in his music sound is only created when everyone works together.

We will also experience great classics this season that everyone is familiar with. For example, the „Four Last Songs“ by Richard Strauss. 

For me, this music is part of the core repertoire of the Wiener Symphoniker, and exactly the way we are performing it: with one of the best singers for this repertoire today – Asmik Grigorian. We contrast Strauss with Gottfried von Einem. The result is a dialogue of many small and entertaining parts. It is not a long programme, but a deliberate series of small musical moments that are linked together.

The Mozart programme you will conduct seems to carry a secret message: Prague! 

You recognised that quite rightly! Not only because the „Prague Symphony“ is on the programme. I have to say that I am very, very proud of this concert programme. My home country, the Czech Republic, was not without significance for Mozart. We are also playing the concert aria „Bella mia fiamma, addio“ that evening. Mozart composed it in 1787 for one of his benefactors and hosts, or rather for the man’s wife. Josefína Dušková was a well-known singer, and there is an anecdote that she locked Mozart into a small room until he composed this aria for her. I played in the orchestra myself for a long time and never quite understood why concert arias are so rarely on the programmes of symphony orchestras. I have to say: I love this genre, and this aria by Mozart is incredibly beautiful. And then we also perform Busoni’s „Idomeneo“ Suite. Idomeneo is one of those Mozart operas that I particularly adore. 

You probably didn’t have to be locked into a room until you had put together the anniversary programme for 30 October 2025, did you? 

Of course not. The entire anniversary season is based on this programme, which is a big part of the Wiener Symphoniker’s identity: Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs are works that the orchestra premiered, and Mozart’s „Jupiter Symphony“ is a piece that I personally wanted for this occasion. Our intensive exploration of the orchestra’s history in this anniversary season is a good start to taking the tradition of the Wiener Symphoniker into a new phase.

What also strikes is that you will be travelling a lot with the orchestra: two times across Europe, with residencies in Trieste and China in between. 

Nowhere else can you work as intensively as on tour. Usually one rehearses a programme, plays it twice – and then comes the next one. Tours are different, they tie the orchestra together. The repertoire is rehearsed and then performed four, five or six times. The same notes every evening – and ideally: every night with the same and new enthusiasm. It’s like having the same dish every evening, but always with different table settings and new guests. I think that’s a great, collective challenge. Not to mention the fact that there's no better way to get to know one another than by travelling, living together, experiencing shared adventures and showcasing the sound of the Wiener Symphoniker around the world anew every evening. I'm really looking forward to this time, but I’m just as much looking forward to finally getting started and to fill sounds into our concert halls in Vienna, the Wiener Konzerthaus and the Musikverein.