June 23, 1926 – February 25, 2016
Iconic. Legendary. Esteemed. Inspiring. Acclaimed. Demanding. Honest. Life-changing. Beloved.
These words have been used to describe Otto-Werner Mueller, the German-American conductor and music professor who helped shape orchestral training programs of distinguished musical institutions in the United States and Canada. Maestro Mueller headed the orchestral studies and conducting departments at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, The Juilliard School in New York, the Yale University School of Music in New Haven, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A tribute from Curtis, where he received an honorary Doctor of Music, read, “More than a gifted maestro with a distinguished conducting career, he is widely regarded as the most important conducting pedagogue of the last 50 years.”
Not one to consider himself as a conductor “relegated” to teaching, Mr. Mueller thought of himself as a teacher first. An imposing figure who towered above his students at a height of 6’7”, the Maestro approached music in a human and honest way. One of his strongest and most admired values was integrity—to the music, to the musicians, to the composer, and to himself—and there was nothing phony about his teaching or the way he made music. In his unique way, he not only taught musicians how to be better at their craft, but also helped to make them better people. He has had a profound influence on musicians who now carry on his legacy in orchestras throughout the world.
The path to the Maestro’s illustrious career began in his hometown of Bensheim, Germany. At age 13, he became a student at the Musisches Gymnasium, Frankfurt-am-Main, where he studied conducting, composition, piano, trumpet, and viola. In 1945, at age 19, he became director of the chamber music department for Radio Stuttgart and was founder and conductor of the celebrated Radio Stuttgart Chamber Choir. Two years later, he served as conductor of opera and operetta for the Heidelberg Theater, where he also founded and conducted an orchestra for dependents of United States military forces stationed there.
After emigrating to Montreal in 1951, Mr. Mueller worked extensively for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio and TV as a pianist, composer, arranger and conductor. He conducted numerous opera, ballet, and symphonic presentations, especially for the programs “CBC Wednesday Night” and “L’Heure du concert.” In 1965, he conducted the CBC TV production of The Barber of Seville which won an Emmy Award in the United States for best foreign production.
While living in Montreal, Mr. Mueller developed a friendship with Igor Markevitch, Music Director of the Montreal Symphony. He considered Markevitch to be a wonderful, older colleague who not only taught him about conducting, but also influenced him as a teacher. Markevitch asked Mr. Mueller to study with him at his conducting course in Mexico and eventually developed a deep trust in the younger Maestro’s abilities to teach conducting. In 1963, Markevitch invited Mr. Mueller to spend four months with him as a guest professor at the Moscow State Conservatory where Maxim Shostakovich and Rudolph Barshai were among his pupils. At the conclusion of that course, Markevitch arranged for Mr. Mueller to conduct several concerts in Russia.
In 1958, the Maestro won second prize in the Pan-American competition for conducting. That same year he was appointed choirmaster of the opera class at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec and also became a teacher and conductor at the Montreal Conservatory. By 1963, he became the conductor of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra in British Columbia and founded and served as dean of the Victoria School of Music. During his years in Canada, the Maestro conducted premieres of several Canadian works, including Pyknon and Diallèle by André Prévost, the Symphony-Concerto by S.C. Eckhardt-Gramatté, and the Symphony No. 27 by Malcolm Forsyth.
Mr. Mueller began his academic career in the United States in 1967, as a conductor and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From 1968-1973, he also served as music director of the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra. The Maestro continued to perform internationally and toured the Soviet Union in 1968 and 1970, conducting the Moscow, Leningrad, and Riga symphonies.
Relocating to New Haven in 1973, Mr. Mueller was appointed to the faculty at the Yale University School of Music and became resident conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale. In 1986, while still teaching at Yale, Mr. Mueller joined the faculty of The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia as head of its conducting program. The Juilliard School in New York then selected him to head its orchestral studies and conducting program in 1987, and he departed Yale to take on this new position. For the next 17 years he “lived on the New Jersey Turnpike,” as he would put it, travelling weekly between New York and Philadelphia to teach his students and conduct concerts at Juilliard and Curtis. He retired from Juilliard in 2005 and from Curtis in 2013, and was appointed Conductor Emeritus at both conservatories.
Mr. Mueller also taught at the Aspen Music Festival, the American Symphony Orchestra League’s conducting seminars, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, the American Choral Foundation’s Summer Institute, and Le Domaine Forget. He has trained conductors of major orchestras, including the New York, Los Angeles, and Munich philharmonics; the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Louisville orchestras; the Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Fort Worth symphony orchestras; Swedish National Orchestra; and Auckland (New Zealand) Philharmonia.
The Maestro conducted in every major city in Canada and had guest appearances with the Scottish National Orchestra; Krakow Philharmonic; the San Diego Symphony; and the National, Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, Fort Worth, and Hartford symphony orchestras, among others.
As a conducting teacher, Mr. Mueller considered score preparation to be the most important lesson for his students and often said, “The most insulting thing for an orchestra is to have a conductor step in front of them without being prepared.” He believed that a conductor’s first rehearsal takes place at one’s desk where he should study and learn every detail of the score. Part of the Maestro’s success as a conductor, and what he taught his students, was how to organize the score in a way that the music can be studied in detail. He also emphasized the importance of preparing the parts—editing; correcting; and adding rehearsal numbers, rehearsal letters, bowings, articulations, and any other details which can save time in rehearsals.
Teaching his students to learn on their own was another hallmark of Mr. Mueller’s pedagogy. He wanted his students to know how to organize the material in front of them when they had to prepare a new piece and how to get ready for a rehearsal without a teacher beside them because once they went out into the “real” world, conductors often became isolated. He exposed his students to a vocabulary of gestures and score analysis skills they could apply to other pieces of repertoire. Guiding his students to use an economy of gestures, he stressed that every gesture had to have meaning.
One of the Maestro’s unique characteristics as a teacher was that he was serious about his responsibility to educate and train all of the players in the orchestra, not just the conducting students. As a result, his influence reached well beyond the podium as he taught the players about style, how to listen, and how to relate to the music as more than a “one-liner” who is only focused on his or her instrument.
A gifted and efficient arranger with a reputation for completing a score and parts quickly, Mr. Mueller’s writing skills were in demand while living in Montreal. The word around the city at that time was, “If you need an arrangement, go to Mueller.” A few of those arrangements remain in his library, as well as the arrangement which was most dear to his heart. In 1969 he wrote a hauntingly beautiful arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner for orchestra which was premiered at the first performance in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin. He revised the arrangement for chamber orchestra in 2001 so that it could be performed at a Juilliard concert he conducted soon after 9/11.
Mr. Mueller is survived by his wife, Virginia Allen; his sons Bernie (Melanie Bednash), Michael (Elizabeth Mueller), and Peter (Rachel Myers); and his grandchildren Christina, Peter and Sophie. He is also survived by his brother Horst, his nephew Christopher, and his niece Rasamayi Victori. Mr. Mueller was preceded in death by his beloved wife of 56 years, Marga (Margarethe Burchart Mueller); his parents Otto and Gertrud; and his sisters Hiltrud and Jutta.
Details for memorial services in Charlotte, Philadelphia and New York City will be announced when they are available. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right side of this page to receive more information. Condolences may be sent to the family care of Virginia Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that memorial gifts in honor of Otto-Werner Mueller be made to one of the following institutions or organizations:
The Curtis Institute of Music
The Juilliard School
Yale University School of Music
University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Music Fund
Hospice & Palliative Care, Charlotte Region
The Ivey, Charlotte