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Edo de Waart, Milwaukee’s New Maestro

September marks a new era for Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Sep. 4, 2009
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If there's one thing that leads to the creation of a good orchestra, it's bad weather. For Edo de Waart, new maestro for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin's blustery, frigid winters have helped nurture a body of musicians with the potential to one day become a world-class ensemble.

"All of the great orchestras of Europe took root in colder, less temperate countries," says de Waart, a Netherlands native who will raise his baton as MSO music director for the first time on Sept. 26. "The better the weather, the lower the interest in working together to create a strong symphony orchestra."

MSO fans have anticipated de Waart's arrival since his appointment was announced more than a year ago. Few of those fans have more enthusiasm than de Waart himself, who is pleased both with the orchestra and its potential for growth. Milwaukee's proximity to his home in Madison's Middleton suburb and the city's reputation in the arts world give the new position special appeal.

"The city's strong German and Scandinavian heritage means that Milwaukee is not a frivolous place," de Waart says. "This is a well-trained orchestra in a town with a reputation for supporting the arts. For me, it's a wonderful convergence of professional opportunity and family proximity."

Two years ago de Waart moved to Middleton, hometown for his wife, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Dopp, to escape the Hong Kong smog that had inflamed his son's asthma. (The asthma has since cleared up.) The maestro will maintain his 12-weeks-per-year contract with the Hong Kong Philharmonic through 2012 and has committed himself to 20 weeks-and, this year, 12 concerts-with MSO. His contract with the Santa Fe Opera, for which he was principal conductor, ended Sept. 1.

"MSO is a healthier orchestra than any of the others I have taken over," de Waart says. "It's smaller than many orchestras, which means all the musicians get to see each other virtually every week. With its support of the Florentine Opera and the ballet, it's also flexible. There are really no bad characteristics to correct."

Extensive Career

De Waart, who turned 68 on June 1, has an extensive classical music career. A graduate in oboe, piano and conducting from Amsterdam's Sweelinck Conservatory, he began his career in 1963 as associate principal oboe with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The next year he won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Conducting Competition in New York and served a year as assistant to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. His first MSO concert this fall features Bernstein's "Symphony No. 1," chosen partially in homage to his mentor.

During de Waart's early career he served as conductor of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. He was chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony, a position he held for close to 10 years, and has appeared at the Houston Grand Opera, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and others.

Although trained in piano like most classical conductors, de Waart's background with the oboe gives him a slightly different approach to the orchestra, putting him in the same class as conductor Rudolf Kempe, who also played the instrument.

"Mitch Miller was an oboist," de Waart is quick to point out. "Among classical musicians, it's always said that oboists think they can do things better, which is why we become conductors."

Propelling MSO Forward

De Waart hopes those tendencies will help propel the MSO in new directions, including featuring more contemporary composers. In addition to Bernstein, this season's program features works by Aaron Copland, Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and William Bolcom, a Pulitzer Prize winner who taught at the University of Michigan, sprinkled among the Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart. Despite his predilection for modern composers, de Waart sees himself as an ultimate classicist, one who believes in honoring the composer's intentions.

"I'm a stickler for playing the music as it was written," he explains, noting that musical interpretation, while occasionally interesting, is usually not in line with the composer's vision. "I find that sort of vanity in conductors and musicians very upsetting. I believe Beethoven was a better composer than I am and I am not going to correct his score.

"It's my job to find enough within the composition to make it sound fresh and new to the audience," he adds.

De Waart finds himself most at home with the composers of the Late Romantic Period and early 20th century, including Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Elgar, all of whom are prominently featured on this year's schedule.

"These are compositions that I feel, had I been a composer, I might have written," he says. "They hold secrets for me, but they are not frightening secrets. I find it difficult to conduct the music of the French Impressionists-the compositions have a floating quality much like the paintings-and I don't like conducting Bel Canto pieces or Stockhausen. He's too dry and cerebral."

Raising Appreciation

De Waart hopes his sensitivities will be appreciated in Milwaukee, and he hopes to raise the level of classical music appreciation for an audience that nationwide has dwindled in size due to the demise of music education in public schools.

As a noted critic of hall acoustics-he made his dissatisfaction with the acoustics of the famed Sydney Opera House well known during his tenure-de Waart hopes that over time necessary adjustments can be made to improve the acoustics at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, with the hopes of one day seeing the construction of a separate hall devoted entirely to classical music.

"Every hall can acoustically be better than it is," he says. "If we have to wait 10 years for a new hall, I hope we can revisit the MarcusCenter's configuration so that the audience has a good sense of what's produced onstage. That's most important."

Important, too, is de Waart's goal of raising the MSO's abilities and reputation to a world-class level.

"Right now, we're a little bit of a well-kept secret," he says. "We have to be financially healthy in order to take some artistic risks, but there's no reason we can't give the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a run for its money."

Photo by Todd Dacquisto


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