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August 2014
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Carlos Kleiber, A Reclusive Genius


Friday, August 29 at 8:00 pm

Carlos Kleiber: A Conductor Unlike Any Other, a new WFMT production by Jon Tolansky

Playing for Kleiber is one of my most beloved memories of being in the CSO – EVER.

—John Bruce Yeh, Assistant Principal Clarinet, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

“Carlos has a genius for conducting, but he doesn’t enjoy doing it. He tells me, ‘I conduct only when I’m hungry’. And it’s true. He has a deep-freeze. He fills it up and cooks for himself and when it gets down to a certain level, then he thinks ‘Now I might do a concert’.” That oft-repeated quip by conductor Herbert von Karajan effectively summarizes the career of the enigmatic maestro Carlos Kleiber.

“For him to conduct was a religious act. Something extremely deep that required a lot of honesty. And most of the time, especially with some music – very deep – he felt always that he was too inferior to the music.”

Riccardo Muti, Carlos Kleiber: I am Lost to the World,
a documentary film by Georg Wübbolt

KleiberMontageOver a 40-year career, invitations from major orchestras and opera companies were abundant. Kleiber seldom accepted; his conditions were exacting. He was as skittish as he was inspiring; and famously walked away from performances for seemingly trivial reasons. Nevertheless, when Carlos Kleiber was on the podium, it was an event; a highpoint for musicians and audiences alike.

Conductor Erich Kleiber, father of Carlos Kleiber

Conductor Erich Kleiber, father of Carlos Kleiber

Only one American orchestra successfully lured the publicity-shy maestro into making appearances: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He appeared with the orchestra on two separate series, in 1978 and 1983. He did admire the orchestra and its then music director Sir Georg Solti; though it was CSO Artistic Administrator, Peter Jonas, a personal friend of Kleiber, who is credited with bringing him to Chicago.

In the biography Corresponding with Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber by Charles Barber, Mr. Jonas described the conductor’s mental state: “He was absolutely in panic before a concert. This happened throughout his career.” The experience on-stage belied that anxiety, however. Chicago Symphony clarinetist John Bruce Yeh said that with Kleiber’s conducting there was “no technique involved. It was like breathing.”

Mr. Yeh laughs as he recalls playing the Schubert 3rd Symphony with Riccardo Muti for the first time since playing it with Kleiber: “Kleiber put a stamp on that piece and it became how I hear it forever.


Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004)

“There’s this trio, a “beer garden theme.” When we got to it, I played it the way Kleiber taught me – he really insisted I play it like the house band in a German beer garden – and Muti said, ‘What–?’ At the break I told Maestro that the last time I played the Schubert 3rd was with Kleiber, and I told him about the beer garden. And Maestro said, ‘Well time does funny things to the memory.’ I said, ‘yes, but not this one. It is seared on my brain.’ I ended up playing it the way Maestro Muti wanted it, but I told him I’d be thinking of Kleiber.”

John Bruce Yeh also recalls being impressed by Kleiber’s humanity. Mr. Yeh recalls that the wife of principal bassoonist Willard Elliot was having a baby at the time Kleiber was in town. Eliot explained to the maestro that he was on edge, and Kleiber addressed the orchestra, explaining the bassoonist’s situation, cancelled the afternoon rehearsal and let them all go for the day.

Son of the renowned Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber and of an American mother, Carlos was born in Berlin in July of 1930. He was raised in Buenos Aires – his father refused to cooperate with the Nazis and moved the family to Argentina. According to his obituary in The Telegraph, Carlos spoke English, French, Italian, German, and Slovenian. He died on July 13, 2004, in Konjšica, Slovenia.

Carlos Kleiber: A Conductor Unlike Any Other premieres Friday, August 29 at 8:00 pm on WFMT.


  • tomservua

    This is a lovely piece about a very great musician. Barber’s book is the first written by someone who actually knew him (for 15 years) and carried on a tremendous correspondence over those years. What comes through, as in this article, is Kleiber’s great humanity and endless wit. We will not see his like for many, many years. Chicago was so damn lucky to get him.

  • Geoffrey

    Will this be rebroadcast? Unfortunately, I only now found out about this wonderful program?

  • ounbbl

    Inspiring! I was almost moved to tears. What a privilege it would have been for those to have and know a master like him! Listening to music is no longer same fore me with greater appreciation of music and people of music. Thank you so much for this program, however, it should not be let simply disappear after once aired. How we can get a copy of this program?

  • Valerie Smith

    How wonderful to read this; thank you.