Otto-Werner Mueller, former professor of conducting at the Yale School of Music and music director of the Yale Philharmonia from 1973 to 1987, died Feb. 25 of illness at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was 89 years old.
Mueller was an important figure in the conducting world for decades. The New York Times has called his conducting “splendid” and “elegant,” and his former students include the current music director of the New York Philharmonic and the principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. During Mueller’s time at Yale, he was known for his contributions to the Yale Philharmonia, helping it emerge as one of the nation’s leading university orchestras. Mueller, who was born in Germany, is survived by his wife and three sons.
Yale School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said the first performance he ever heard from the School of Music was when the Philharmonia performed on NPR under Mueller’s direction, giving him a lasting, positive impression both of Mueller and of the group.
“Perhaps Mr. Mueller’s greatest contribution was that he freely shared his gifts, knowledge and principles with everyone he met,” said his wife, Virginia Allen, who is also a renowned conductor and a former dean of the Juilliard School in New York. “He believed that if you were true to music and committed yourself to it, then music would be true to you.”
At nearly 7 feet tall, Mueller exhibited an impressive musical and physical charisma, both on and off the stage. Juilliard composition professor Robert Beaser ’76, a former student of Mueller’s, said Mueller was an intimidating and demanding teacher. Mueller had more to offer than anybody but did not suffer fools gladly, Beaser said, as he was famous for being somebody who would not hesitate to throw someone off the podium.
“Mueller’s relationship with his students was that if you cared about the things he cared about, he was the most incredibly caring mentor you could ever find,” Beaser said. “If you didn’t, the highway was that way and he would even pay your tolls.”
Allen said Mueller considered score preparation the most important lesson for his students, often reminding them that an unprepared conductor is the highest insult to an orchestra. He wanted his students to learn how to independently organize and prepare the materials for a new piece, she said, so that they could eventually get ready for a rehearsal without a teacher beside them. She added that he shared a mutual respect with his students, often continuing to mentor them long after they graduated.
His former students said some of Mueller’s most important impartments to them were clarity and attention to detail in conducting. Wake Forest University Orchestra Director David Hagy YSM ’92 said Mueller demanded that his students thoroughly know their music scores and conduct entirely from memory. His mind was stronger than many of his students’, and it was more vigorous than that of most young adults, Hagy said, adding that Mueller was “moderately conversational” in 20 languages and could often count for his students in their native languages.
Before arriving in New Haven, Mueller taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founded the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Following his time at Yale, Mueller went on to teach at Juilliard and Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“Mueller was here at Yale a while before I came, but I met him years later at Juilliard. In the field of music he was considered one of the great conducting teachers of the time,” Blocker said. “His students are first-rate conductors who conduct important orchestras throughout the world, and that is his legacy.”