Obituary: Walter Weller, conductor of RSNO

Walter Weller, gifted principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the 1990s. Picture: Getty Images
Walter Weller, gifted principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the 1990s. Picture: Getty Images
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Born: 30 November, 1939, in Vienna. Died: 14 June, 2015, in, Vienna, aged 75.

In his years as principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Opera Walter Weller strengthened its playing of the classical repertoire and gained the RSNO an enhanced reputation throughout the musical world. His interpretations of Beethoven – luscious strings and clear tempi – were widely praised. Weller conducted the world premiere of a reconstruction of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony in London in 1995. His concerts of Schubert, Bruckner and Brahms have become legendary and figure high in the history of the RSNO. After his five years as principal conductor Weller was appointed the orchestra’s conductor emeritus.

Weller was a popular musician during his five years with the RSNO and often returned for concerts with the orchestra. In 1995 he was given an unusual honour for a musician. The Bank of Scotland issued a new £50 note and decided to celebrate “Arts and Culture”. A bearded Weller is clearly captured in white tie and tails conducting the violin section of the RSNO. He described it as a “much favoured honour”.

Walter Weller studied at the Vienna Conservatoire and was acknowledged as a prodigious talent on the violin. At 17 he became a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1961 was appointed joint concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic with the renowned Willi Boskovsky.

When Karl Böhm cancelled a concert in 1966 Weller stepped in and some weeks later he substituted for Joseph Krips – winning widespread acclaim – and his conducting career took off.

He regularly conducted at the two Vienna opera houses and in 1977 was appointed principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

In 1977 he made his debut with Scottish Opera conducting Fidelio in the acclaimed Peter Ebert production. He returned for a prestigious revival of Der Rosenkavalier in Anthony Besch’s memorable production. One critic gave Weller a glowing review, ending: “He obtained unmistakable rhythm from the players of the SNO, who gave the impression that (Blue) Danube blood ran in their veins.”

Weller’s time at the RSNO proved an exhilarating experience: his care at rehearsals – he always arrived knowing exactly how he wanted certain passages to be phrased – gave the orchestra a more European feel. The romantic sound came naturally to the musicians but Weller gave their playing a strident musical hue.

He made his debut with the orchestra in 1975 conducting the hugely demanding 6th Symphony of Prokofiev and the musicians were clearly impressed.

He returned for several concerts and was appointed music director in 1991. His profound knowledge of the 18th-century classics proved invaluable and the RSNO gained an international reputation.

In 1993, for example, Weller and the RSNO had the honour to open the Edinburgh Festival in a far from straightforward programme that included Janecek and a Schubert Mass.

He is fondly remembered within the orchestra – he conducted their first concert in the Glasgow Concert Hall and presided over the SNO gaining Royal status.

He led the RSNO on many hugely successful tours and in 2000 and 2005 while in Vienna he treated the whole band to a Viennese heuriger. As the maestro made his entrance at the famous Musikverein in 2005 Weller received a standing ovation before a note had been played.

In 1992 the writer Jilly Cooper was researching the world of classical music for her book Appassionata and spent a week on tour with the RSNO in Spain. She wrote with loving praise of the orchestra (“one of the best weeks of my life”) and was clearly a fan of the maestro who she described glowingly as: “Walter Weller, darkly urbane and charismatic.”

Other operatic appearances included Ariadne auf Naxos at English National Opera, with Donald Sinden as a flamboyant Major-domo, and mighty concert performances, both with the RSNO, of Elektra and The Flying Dutchman.

As conductor emeritus in 2000, Weller led the RSNO on a tour of Ireland in which he conducted works by Smetana, Elgar and Tchaikovsky.

Weller much loved his time in Scotland and always stayed in the same hotel in Glasgow. He always occupied the same room at the Hilton in Great Western Road and it is now known as the Weller Suite.

Weller brought to all his music a passion and a desire to realise the composers’ wishes. He had the ability and charm to galvanise and inspire the orchestra who, in turn, respected his total command of the score and joy in making music come alive.

Weller had amassed a large collection of conductors’ batons and was a keen member of the Magic Circle. He is survived by his wife Elisabeth (“Sisi”) whom he married in 1966, and their son.