Michael Gielen

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About Michael Gielen

The German-born conductor Michael Gielen was a widely recognized specialist in the avant-garde music of Central Europe, with an impressive ability to digest and interpret even very complex scores. He was also a noted composer. Gielen was born in Dresden on July 20, 1927. An uncle on his mother's side was pianist and Arnold Schoenberg associate and interpreter Eduard Steuermann. Gielen's mother, Rose, was Jewish, and the family's peril deepened in the late 1930s. When his father, a stage director, found a position at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the family fled there in 1940. Gielen studied piano there, worked as a rehearsal pianist at his father's theater, and began performing works by Schoenberg (still rare enough in concert at the time) and others. In 1950, the family moved to Vienna, where Gielen once again worked for his father at the Burgtheater while organizing and conducting concerts of avant-garde music on the side. Gielen was a staff conductor at the Vienna State Opera from 1954 to 1960, music director of the Royal Opera of Stockholm from 1960 to 1965, and then conductor of the Cologne Radio Symphony, the Belgian National Opera, and the Dutch National Opera. Beginning in 1969, he was principal guest conductor of the South German Radio Symphony, and from 1977 to 1987 he was chief conductor of the Frankfurt Opera. By this time, Gielen was well known for his advocacy of contemporary music and for conducting the premieres of major works such as Ligeti's Requiem and several works by Karlheinz Stockhausen. He also spent six years (1980-1986) as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, pushing that pops-oriented ensemble in a more progressive direction. From 1986 to 1999, Gielen served as music director of the SWF Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden (the Southwest German Radio Orchestra), identifying the group strongly with contemporary music through premieres of new works and appearances at the Donaueschinger Musiktage. He recorded extensively there for a variety of labels, conducting a complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies for the Haenssler label and remaining active well into the new century as permanent guest conductor of the SWF Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden, finally retiring in 2014. Over his entire career, Gielen composed music of his own; his output was not large but is well crafted, much of it written according to 12-tone techniques. Gielen died in Mondsee, Austria, on March 8, 2019. ~ James Manheim

Dresden, Germany
July 20, 1927