Given a lineage that includes two Holy Roman Emperors -- Charlemagne on his father's side, Leopold II on his mother's -- it's fitting that eminent Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his reputation as a ground-breaking explorer of the noblest music from the distant past. And those all over the world involved in the early music movement now can trace their artistic lineage to him.
But that tells only part of the story about Harnoncourt. You can hear more of it this week when the Washington Perform-ing Arts Society presents the Vienna Philharmonic, one would argue the greatest orchestra in the world, in its first appearances in 10 years at the Kennedy Center. Today, at 73, the conductor is as notable for his interpretations of Brahms and Bruckner as for those of Bach and Telemann. His programs in Washington will include symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak, as well as a big bouquet of Johann Strauss dances.
At the very least, Harnon-court's career demonstrates the folly of stereotyping. After founding the intimately scaled Concentus Musicus ensemble in Vienna in 1953, he was invariably thought of as a specialist in the performance of baroque music on authentic instruments of the period. Some folks couldn't imagine that he would one day stand in front of a giant symphony orchestra, let alone conduct the likes of Verdi's Aida or Berg's Violin Concerto or Strauss' Die Fledermaus. It didn't fit the image.
"But I'm an absolutely normal Viennese musician," Har-noncourt says by phone from Austria. "When I started music-making as a boy [in Graz, Austria], it was Schubert and Dvorak. I never lost that interest. And when I came to Vienna to study cello in 1948, practically every evening I heard a concert by the Vienna Symphony Or-chestra or the Vienna Philhar-monic, or went to the opera. And, for 17 years, from 1952 to 1969, I played cello in the Vienna Symphony."
So, even when, through the Concentus Musicus, he was changing the way people heard and appreciated early music, Harnoncourt was still immersed in the "regular" classical world. Since 1970, he has been a welcome figure in that world on the best podiums -- the Berlin Phil-harmonic, the Royal Concert-gebouw of Amsterdam and, especially, the Vienna Philhar-monic. "Now in any orchestra I work with, they expect a very specialized approach because they know who I am," he says. "We have a very good relationship. There's no resistance."
Harnoncourt doesn't expect such ensembles to play the way his own ensemble does. But he doesn't expect them to ignore the lessons of his extensive scholarship, either. Such matters as tempo and tone can be rethought by a conventional orchestra as easily as a period instrument group.
"An even balance between emotion and knowledge is very important," Harnoncourt says. "A lot of musicians approach everything with emotion and don't know anything about what they're playing, not even how a polka or a waltz or minuet is supposed to sound, or how it is danced. I remember how most string players used to play the Bach suites, which are all dance movements, without knowing what each dance means. In the first years of my conducting, the greatest difficulty was getting musicians to ask why."
Looking for clues
The conductor is always trying to uncover the meaning of a score, to seek out every clue left by a composer, to look past mistakes and traditions that might have become standard practice over the years and find the truth. He's also interested in making music interesting, which was one impetus behind forming his Concentus Musicus 50 years ago. "I could not believe that music before Bach could be so boring; the other arts of the time were very exciting," he says.
Sure enough, when Harnon-court and his musicians (including wife Alice on first violin) got their hands on works by Josquin and Monteverdi, the results were anything but dull. "I felt like a missionary back then," the conductor says. "We worked three or four years before we did the first concert; our goal was to find out something about the music, not success. Other musicians thought we were crazy to use these 'primitive tools,' but by using the instruments of the times I learned a lot."
When it comes to Johann Strauss and the rest of the Strauss family, you might think Harnoncourt wouldn't have to bother with historical study, certainly not when conducting the undisputed authority on that composer -- the Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians know every nuance, when to hold back or rush the beat, just how to make the music sing. They couldn't possibly learn anything new. Or could they?
In 2001, when Harnoncourt was first invited to conduct the famous New Year's Concert in Vienna, Clemens Hellsberg, chairman of the orchestra, wrote that it was fascinating to "re-examine the Philharmonic's Strauss tradition through the eyes of this analytical, yet so impulsive, conductor."
Harnoncourt was invited back for the 2003 event. That second invitation, Hellsberg writes in the just-released Deutsche Grammophon recording of the concert, "signifies the orchestra's respect for this artist's ... exacting approach to the music of the Strauss dynasty, and is an acknowledgement of the undisputed authority he demonstrates even in a genre as specialized as this one."
Harnoncourt's flair for getting to the heart of Viennese music shouldn't really be surprising. "In 1948, I met a lot of musicians who played with Johann Strauss," he says. "And I played in the orchestra for [conductor] Robert Stolz, who knew Strauss. I have at least as much connection to Strauss as any player of the Vienna Philharmonic. But I can learn a lot from them. In rehearsal, I can get what I want in five minutes with them. With the Berlin Philharmonic, I will need an hour; they can play the notes fantastically, but the meaning needs more time."
The pause in question
Figuring out the meaning of the little things in a Strauss piece can be tricky. Harnoncourt sings over the phone the opening melody of the Die Fledermaus Overture. Just before the end of the tune, there is a delightful little break in the flow.
"Originally, it was just a comma, a very, very little bit," the conductor says. "I remember when Robert Stolz came back to Vienna after working several years in Hollywood, the gap [in that melody] was now three times as long. That became the tradition, even though it was a generation removed from Strauss. If I asked the Philhar-monic, there would be 70 different opinions about it -- whether there should be a little pause, a very long pause, or no pause at all."
So far, the Viennese seem quite content with how Harnon-court settles such interpretive matters. If you were one of the estimated 1 billion people who tuned into the broadcast of the 2003 New Year's concert (preserved in all its charm and sparkle on that new, two-CD recording), you couldn't miss the conductor's authoritative touch and winning style.
Those qualities have been apparent throughout his career, in whatever repertoire attracts his attention. They're well documented on several hundred recordings made since 1963, including an electrifying account of the nine Beethoven symphonies that brilliantly applies some of the principles of the early music movement to a modern ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Harnoncourt continues to stretch his boundaries, bringing his historically informed music-making to more composers. "Twenty years ago, if you asked me if I would ever conduct Bruckner, I would have said, 'I don't think so.' And now he is one of my most important interpretations. I never thought I would conduct Wagner, either, but I have begun to do so. I might even consider Tristan.
"I can only say that I don't conduct or don't like something at this particular moment, but I can't say that for the future. I surprise myself."
What: Vienna Philharmonic
Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington
When: 8 p.m. Monday (Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, works by Johann Strauss) and Tuesday (Schubert's Symphony No. 4, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9)
Tickets: $95 to $150