Michael Willens is an American conductor based in Cologne, Germany. He is the music director of Die Koelner Akademie, a versatile orchestra that performs on modern and period instruments.
I recently asked Michael questions about his career path, the orchestra he directs, and their recording project known as the Forgotten Treasures Series.
How did your career as a conductor lead you to Germany?
My move to Germany was based on two factors—personal and professional.
Prior to moving, I dated a German violinist who lived in Cologne. After a while it became clear to us that if the relationship was going to progress, one of us was going to have to make a move. At that time she had a job in a modern orchestra and a position at a music school. If she were to move to the states she would have had to start all over again, getting a green card, etc.
I was a free lancer at that point (still am) and had always wanted to live in Europe, as I felt (and still do) that the real center for early music is there [and] not in the States. Also, I had always wanted to start my own group and I felt my chances for doing that were better [in Cologne].
How did an orchestra of such versatility as Die Koelner Akademie come about?
The idea actually started when I was living in New York. At the time I was playing with many early and new music ensembles. The core players in this group were mostly the same people and we all had the same musical interests.
It seemed logical that we should form some sort of ensemble. This is the basic idea which led to the birth of Die Koelner Akademie.
Tell us about the Forgotten Treasures series
The whole project started from an incredible story:
Our manager in Holland got a call from someone who wanted an orchestra to play a concert for his retirement party. Initially, he wanted the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but they weren’t free, and after trying several other Dutch orchestras he finally agreed to have us.
The man who was retiring had very specific ideas about what he wanted at this concert—Haydn’s farewell symphony, a Mozart piano concerto, and an overture of my choice—and had rented a castle in Zeist (the whole thing turned out to be a very posh affair).
After the concert I spoke with the retiree, Ruud Van Ommeren. He complimented me and the orchestra on the performance and started to talk about the subtle differences between Mozart and Haydn. (I have to say that I was quite impressed; there aren’t many musicians that can do that!)
It was apparent that Ruud was quite wealthy and had a genuine interest in and knowledge of classical music. I asked my manager to try and arrange a meeting with him in the hope of having him agree to sponsor a recording.
The meeting was arranged and it was decided that we would all meet at a fancy fish restaurant in Holland. Before the meeting I thought carefully about what I would like to propose to him.
Initially, I was thinking about Mozart Symphonies or a Beethoven overtures CD, as he was clearly interested in this music , but something told me to go with my original idea for recording, namely, unknown music by unknown composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries on period instruments.
I made a list containing the following projects: the clarinet concertos of Bernhard Crusell, the bassoon concertos of Franz Danzi, music by Johann Wilhelm Wilms (a symphony and a concerto each for flute and piano), and a disc of 18th-century Viennese double-bass concertos.
I was hoping that Ruud would take one of them, and if I was extremely lucky, two.
The meeting started with the inevitable small talk, but when the main course arrived, Ruud asked me why I had set up the meeting. I explained to him that we were interested in making the recordings and that I thought he might be interested in sponsoring one or two of them. At that point I meekly gave him the list. He looked at it for about two seconds and said, “I’ll take the whole thing.”
I almost choked on my food!
After the first disc was completed, Ruud was so excited that he immediately decided to make a box of ten CDs. (It has since been increased to fifteen.)
Listen to a Harmonia episode featuring Michael Willens and Die Koelner Akademie in the first recordings of the Forgotten Treasures Series.