|Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
It was a clear October day in 2007, and two of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s administrative top brass were driving west to Middleton to meet internationally renowned conductor Edo de Waart. They expected to have a routine get-to-know-the-orchestra chat. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The symphony’s fifth music director, dynamic and popular Andreas Delfs, had given notice, and the orchestra’s search committee was struggling to decide what direction to go in. Should it hire a young, exciting conductor who’d charm the community but lack podium experience? An elder statesman who’d offer the benefit of a long career but want for sex appeal? Something in between? With no candidates leaping to the forefront, the committee resigned itself to taking on an interim artistic adviser. Living close to Milwaukee, de Waart was a no-brainer for the short list.
Mark Hanson, MSO’s former executive director, and Larry Tucker, the symphony’s former vice president and chief program officer, cleared the first hurdle when de Waart agreed to meet. Experience told them there would be many more hurdles ahead.
At de Waart’s comfortable home in his wife’s hometown of Middleton, Tucker and Hanson chatted with the notoriously reticent maestro about the symphony’s background and needs, hoping to pique his interest. Two hours later, pleased that they’d presented the orchestra in a good light, the MSO execs were preparing to return to Milwaukee when de Waart dropped a stunner. He’d never been an artistic adviser; that job didn’t interest him. Before disappointment could register, de Waart continued: He’d like to explore becoming the MSO’s next music director.
Jaws hit the floor. It was as if Tucker and Hanson had been turned down for a mortgage only to have the bank offer to buy the house for them. “When we drove back from Middleton, we were about three feet off the road,” Tucker says. “It was such a coup to get Edo.”
Word of the coup spread rapidly. Shortly after de Waart’s appointment, Marcia Brooks, MSO board member and an alto in the symphony’s chorus, was attending an East Coast meeting that had nothing to do with music. “A board member came running up to me,” she says. “I was expecting some urgent business matter.” Instead, the board member asked, “How did you get Edo de Waart?”
The effect of Milwaukee landing “an international rock-star conductor,” as current MSO President and Executive Director Maryellen Gleason calls de Waart, isn’t underestimated by audience members enjoying the MSO’s vastly improved playing. Or by the rest of the symphony world abuzz over a conductor of his stature being hired to lead an organization still growing its reputation and talent.
“The recognition of this orchestra has totally changed,” says Frank Almond, MSO concertmaster. “National press is covering us, and we were invited to Carnegie Hall. That wasn’t going to happen four or five years ago.” Brooks equates de Waart’s appointment with the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition in terms of cultural significance for the city. “That addition was a huge leap of faith, and look what it’s done for us,” Brooks says. “Now, people know where Milwaukee, Wis., is. Edo can put that kind of ripple effect into motion for this orchestra.”