Michael Alexander Willens

Michael Alexander Willens

Conductor • Double Bass

Biography

American conductor Michael Alexander Willens is unusual in that he has spent almost all of his adult career in Europe. He is the longtime music director of the Kölner Akademie in Cologne, Germany.

Willens was born in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on October 6, 1952. His two grandfathers, Alexander Olshanetsky and Herman Yablokoff, were both noted figures in the Yiddish theater tradition. Willens was raised in the Jewish faith but drifted away from it while studying in the U.S.; he reconnected with Judaism when he moved to Cologne. He attended the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied conducting with John Nelson and also took courses in double bass and composition. He went on for a master's degree in conducting at Juilliard, taking a master class with Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood music festival, and studying choral conducting with Paul Vorwerk. At Juilliard, he was introduced to the historical performance movement by harpsichordist Albert Fuller. Willens has traveled the world as a conductor, leading orchestras around the Americas, Europe, and Asia as far afield as Iceland, Brazil, and Azerbaijan. He has often championed the music of rising American composers. In 1996, he settled in Cologne when he was appointed music director of the Kölner Akademie, a historical performance group, and he has remained in that position. Willens has led that group in numerous recordings, including a complete cycle of the Mozart piano concertos with fortepianist Ronald Brautigam on the BIS label; the cycle began in 2009. He has also conducted the works of lesser-known Baroque and Classical composers such as Bernhard Crusell and Johann Kalliwoda. Many of Willens' recordings with the Akademie have been on the CPO and Ars Produktion labels, in addition to BIS. In 2019 alone, he released four albums, including a cycle of Beethoven's piano concertos on BIS with Brautigam.

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