|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.”
A European Childhood
In 1941, Edo de Waart (AY-doh duh-Vahrt) was born in Amsterdam, the son of a professional chorister in the Netherlands Opera and a stay-at-home mother who sang in an amateur chorus. Holland was under Nazi occupation, and de Waart remembers the constant fear, eating tulip bulbs when food was scarce and having to keep lights out at night to avoid betraying Amsterdam’s location to Allied bombers en route to Germany.
During the last year of the war, his father, who had refused to sign the Nazi-required Aryan Declaration, went into hiding to avoid being sent to work in a German factory as a human shield. “Life was unimaginable,” de Waart says, recalling two vivid wartime memories. One is riding on the back of his mother’s bicycle through empty Amsterdam streets while hearing air raid sirens in a horrifying duet with a howling dog. The second – and more joyous – recollection is being hoisted up by a Canadian soldier on Liberation Day.
In 1950, when life had finally returned to normal after war’s end, de Waart started piano lessons. Two years later at age 11, his father had him tested with Kees van Baaren, the director of the Amsterdam Conservatory, who said he should continue in music but not as a pianist. “I didn’t have the discipline to practice the piano six, seven hours a day,” de Waart admits.
When he was accepted to gymnasium, a six-year honors high school that included studying Latin and Greek, van Baaren put his foot down. Too much homework – young Edo wouldn’t have enough time to practice – and he needed modern languages. It was a good decision, says de Waart, “though I would have liked to have Latin because so much music is in Latin.” Instead, de Waart attended a four-year Montessori school.
Along with piano, van Baaren nixed the study of any string instrument (de Waart was too old to begin). Three alternatives were presented: flute, oboe or bassoon. “I didn’t care for the flute very much, and the bassoon was too expensive,” de Waart says. “Oboe turned out to be a good choice. I had a good talent for it.” In fact, within 10 years of taking up the instrument for purely practical reasons, de Waart landed the co-principal oboe job with the
Amsterdam Philharmonic, a year before his 1962 graduation from the conservatory. The next year, he became associate principal oboe of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Most conductors received childhood training on at least one instrument, but few have de Waart’s performance experience, something MSO musicians can appreciate. “He was a professional orchestral musician, so he knows what it’s like,” says Darcy Hamlin, MSO third horn and founder of the Milwaukee Brass Quintet. “He knows what to say so that a musician will understand.”
Scott Tisdel, MSO associate principal cellist, sums it up more succinctly: “Edo is a musician’s musician.”
When discussing the switch from oboe to conducting, de Waart employs it-just-happened language, an approach that will prove typical. He remembers his father asking van Baaren, “What if he wants to conduct?” The answer was simple: “Then he should.” He began his study with Jaap Spaanderman at the Amsterdam Conservatory “because playing the oboe wasn’t enough,” de Waart says. “I wanted to be in it, to have the physicality of the music, the movement.”
His first experience in front of an orchestra came unexpectedly during a conservatory rehearsal under Spaanderman, with whom de Waart had been studying only a year. “We were looking at the Eroica, and I was playing first oboe in the orchestra, and suddenly he said, ‘Edo. Now you.’ He had not told me he would do that. So I conducted the first movement. I remember giving the downbeat at the beginning and the cutoff at the end, and that’s all. I have no idea how it went.”
In 1964, he made his professional debut with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Just 23, de Waart won the über-prestigious Dimitri Mitropoulos Conducting Competition, earning a year’s study under Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. Yet he claims to have led the orchestra a total of three and half hours that whole year.
Winning the Mitropoulos puts any young conductor solidly on the world’s orchestra map, and de Waart’s career took off: assistant conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, founder of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, chief conductor and artistic director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, guest conductor at major U.S. orchestras, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston.
De Waart landed his first big international job via what he, again, makes sound like a random occurrence. In February 1974, he spent a week guest conducting at the San Francisco Symphony. Then in the spring, he toured with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in London. While on tour, he received an unexpected phone call from his agent. The question: Would he like to be principal guest conductor in San Francisco? Recalling the moment, de Waart’s eyebrows shoot up, and he collapses back against the couch, miming astonishment. “Yes!”
There were still more surprises ahead.
“By the time my first week happened, Seiji Ozawa had told the San Francisco orchestra that he was leaving to focus solely on Boston,” de Waart says. “Suddenly, out of the blue, I got a phone call from the newspaper: ‘So how do you feel that you’re the No. 1 heir apparent?’ ” Again, miming amazement, de Waart recalls: “What? I had no idea.” From 1977 through 1985, de Waart would be San Francisco’s music director.
From there, de Waart went on to lead the Minnesota Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and, starting next season, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. His career hasn’t followed a traditional ascendant path, more like that of a house-flipper who buys rundown properties, renovates them and moves on.
When asked if he had a planned arc to his ambition, de Waart doesn’t hesitate. “No. I never thought, ‘If I push this and push that, I’ll get this person and that person, and then it will fall into place, and I’ll get Chicago.’ ” His voice drops to a comically greedy growl. “I’ve been asked so often, ‘Why there? Why here?’ and I answer, ‘Because I’m enjoying myself and can make a difference.’ No other reason, no second agenda.”
I smile. “So you’re not out to be God of the Conducting World?”
He bursts into laughter. “No, no, please. Nor of anything.”
A Balancing Act
Behind the throne of power lurks the little-known truth that, by necessity and design, a conductor is the lone wolf of the organization, neither part of the orchestra nor part of the staff. Conducting suits him, says de Waart, but the loneliness involved after performances is a lifelong battle. “You want the contact with orchestra members, but it’s not easy,” he says. “You walk up to a table, and the conversation stops. You are in the trenches together, but you’re treated differently because you tell them what to do.”
I liken the balance needed to that parents strive for with their children, and he brightens. “Yes, you don’t want to stay so far removed that they look at you as if you’re from outer space, but you also can’t be buddy-buddy,” he says. “I want to be friends with my kids, but ultimately, when they don’t want to do their homework, I’m not their friend. I’m their father.”
De Waart is currently on his second round of fatherhood. From his first marriage to Noor Terweij in 1962, he has an adult son, Boris, who works backstage for opera, theater and ballet productions in San Francisco, and a daughter, Marjolean, a violist living outside Amsterdam. Olivia, 11, and Sebastiaan, 9, are his children with his sixth wife, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Dopp, 30 years his junior, whom he met in 1998 while conducting at the Santa Fe opera. Multiple marriages earned de Waart the underground nickname “Edo de Vorce” and a joke about a nonexistent bumper sticker: “Honk if you married Edo de Waart.”
Yet instead of the Don Juan reputation and trail of broken hearts one might expect, many say de Waart has maintained solid friendships with his exes. Information about these women is scarce, a surprise for any modern Googler, but past wives include sopranos Roberta Alexander, Sherri Greenawald and the late Ruth Welting. William Barnewitz, former principal horn with the MSO, played in the Santa Fe Opera orchestra when de Waart was conducting. Among the performers was de Waart’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, with whom he had a six-year relationship. “There was a charged dynamic between the two of them, but never any hostility,” Barnewitz says. “It was one of those things that everyone knew about, but everyone handled it very professionally. Edo was very diplomatic.”
An intensely private man, de Waart is not open to discussing his romantic life. There have been murmurs that the years have mellowed him, that he is devoted to Dopp, whom he married in 1999, and to his children. “If there’s a donor event, his family is often there,” Marcia Brooks says. “It’s always charming because his kids are so cute, and it’s very clear they love their father and are happy to be near him, and vice versa.”
De Waart took a leave from his music directorship of the Sydney Symphony to spend more time with Dopp when she was pregnant with Olivia. He moved the family from Hong Kong to Middleton when Sebastiaan developed asthma from unhealthy levels of Chinese smog. And in summer 2011, the family moved abroad again, this time settling in Antwerp, Belgium, where de Waart will add to his conducting workload next season as music director of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.
Unlike the subject of his past wives, his children are decidedly not off-limits in conversation. In fact, de Waart unbends dramatically when they’re mentioned, saying how much his son misses their house in Middleton, insisting he return to kiss it before they left the country, and laughing about a contract they had young Sebastiaan sign: “I will never be too old or too cool to cuddle with my mom or dad.”
De Waart’s reputation, however, is most definitely not that of a precocious charmer. Some find him dour, difficult and demanding, while others label him shy and reserved with high artistic standards. More than once, I encountered a shrug and a simple, “He’s Dutch.”
“He’s not a warm and fuzzy personality,” Scott Tisdel says. “He’s demanding, and he’s not the most patient person in the world, though he’s never rude. He doesn’t want to waste time.”
When Larry Tucker and Mark Harmon were still hoping to sign de Waart, they flew to Germany to observe him conduct Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, “one of Edo’s calling cards,” according to Tucker. But what followed was anything but seamless. “The orchestra had never played it before and didn’t take Russian music seriously,” Tucker says. “Edo almost walked out. The committee chair came to plead with him and had a long talk with the orchestra. It was a tough week.”
Mentions of de Waart as a stern schoolmaster are balanced by respect for his talent and dedication, and an appreciation for the high quality of work he inspires – or rather, requires – from players and staff members. “Like a lot of great conductors, his ultimate goal is to have us play our best. He demands it in such a way that you want to,” Almond says. “When he’s being difficult, it’s for good reasons. He’s not complaining about the wrong brand of water in his dressing room. He’s complaining because we do something five times in a row, and someone’s not paying attention.”
De Waart does admit to being a control freak, though he maintains that, too, has mellowed. He’s less of one than he used to be, but he still has a flair for the dramatic. During performances, he says, “Just on the line of chaos is where it’s most exciting. I feel as if there are wires on each finger, but I’m not pulling them. We’re just in touch. Those are the best concerts.”
During a weekend’s run, de Waart will loosen up as the days pass, say several musicians. Friday, de Waart keeps the tightest control. By Sunday, he will allow the players closer to that line. Perry So, associate conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, says de Waart might hold the musicians to high standards, “but the moment everyone is doing what he’s supposed to be doing, Edo’s happy to let it fly.” It may take a while for de Waart to get comfortable, though. “I think it was his sixth year in Hong Kong when he said, ‘I finally fully trust these guys.’ ”
Musically, de Waart is as rigid with the pieces as he is with the musicians – devoted to the composer’s vision. “I tend to stick to the score and have been faulted for that, but that’s me,” he says. “The composers are dead, and I think it’s our task to represent them and not just say, ‘And now here’s Edo de Waart, Mahler’s Second, listen to this.’ I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t written it.”
Andreas Delfs, MSO’s music director from 1997 to 2009, was in sharp contrast to de Waart, a forceful public presence. But musicians grumble that Delfs was lax with personnel issues and more concerned with putting his personal stamp on programming than with the details of solid ensemble playing. They say he was inconsistent with stick technique, a sure way to sap performer confidence, and one player mentioned marking up the score with notes to not look at Delfs in certain places where he was invariably “damagingly unclear.”
If nothing else, de Waart is extremely consistent, something MSO principal trumpet Mark Niehaus appreciates. It “brings a sense of comfort to everybody on the stage, knowing what to expect, especially after what we had before,” he says.
Barnewitz agrees, emphasizing that, “Andreas was much more about Andreas. The music is now being served instead. Edo has had to reign in the orchestra, so sometimes it sounds a little reserved, but it’s always so clean and precise and balanced. It’s wonderful.” A survey of online concert reviews finds unanimous praise in phrases like “refreshingly unsentimental”
and “remarkably unflashy.” The less-is-more approach is a breath of fresh air in an age of look-at-me, bang-crash conducting. “It’s easy to think that you have to do something extra to a Beethoven symphony to add value to it,” Niehaus says. “You don’t have to add something. You have to play the crap out of it.”
Interpretation can only come, de Waart says, with appropriate depth when basic techniques are in place. “You can’t get to what you want unless the orchestra functions as an ensemble. If it’s rhythmically weak, the dynamics are wrong, it’s out of tune, no inner pulse, everything is blatant, there is no way I can stand there and think it’s beautiful.”
Few modern conductors, however, bother to work on the basics: playing together, in balance and in tune. “With many conductors, there’s room for musicians to get away with things,” Perry So says. “To have someone like Edo – who can tell immediately when someone isn’t giving 100 percent – is rarer than it should be.”
A common complaint Frank Almond hears is that there aren’t enough conductors like Edo. And as for the profession as a whole? He says it has “evolved, which is a kind way to put it.” De Waart is not that kind. Evolving? “Devolving,” he snaps, scorn and frustration evident. “I am not optimistic. Like life around us, it’s more and more about hype and big flashing, screaming headlines. They mean nothing if, when you step on the podium for rehearsal, you can’t do your job.”
As with so many of de Waart’s answers, what sounds like arrogance or ego has been backed up as simple fact by musicians, staff, critics and the inescapable truth that the MSO is playing better than it ever has. “He’s only been in Milwaukee for two years,” Perry So says. “There will be great things yet to come.”
Yet the stereotype of the tantrum-throwing egomaniac clings as stubbornly to conductors as it does to diva sopranos. “He’s not really interested in cultivating some kind of superstar persona,” Brooks says. “He’s all about the music, the music, the music.”
[PAGE] The Butcher
In the surprisingly small music world, de Waart is renowned for leaving every symphony at which he was music director in better musical shape, with a stronger reputation around the world. In San Francisco, he saw the symphony into a new hall and a longer season, and got the organization back on track touring and recording. “He’s a builder,” says Geraldine Walther, violist with the Takács String Quartet and former principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony under de Waart. “He doesn’t get stopped by things that might stop other people. He doesn’t even consider the problems. ‘Sure we can do that; why not?’ He was great for the San Francisco Symphony.”
Logically intertwined is his reputation as a conductor unafraid of clearing out musicians who are not playing at the level he envisions. When de Waart took over in San Francisco, Walther says, “The orchestra was good but not consistent at all. Edo was always very careful about hiring and firing. I thought it was all deeply felt.” Kenneth Jean, former associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony, is more blunt: “San Francisco had fallen on hard times. They needed a butcher. Edo did his job.”
When de Waart started at the MSO, he implemented an unusual rehearsal technique for professional musicians: sectionals – rehearsals of one section of the orchestra at a time. Given his penchant for cleaning out weaker players, the musicians were at first apprehensive about the smaller groups. “If you’re going to show up and there are no strings there, no barrier between you and the conductor, you are going to work really hard and come prepared,” Darcy Hamlin says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, five players retired at the end of the MSO’s 2010-2011 season. Musicians were hesitant to speculate as to why colleagues departed, but most felt the situation was handled well. “I think they were all good decisions for everyone,” one player said. “I think it was time.” Tisdel goes further: “Edo has the reputation of cleaning house in other orchestras and has confirmed that reputation here.”
As for the reputation? De Waart broaches the subject without prompting. “If someone doesn’t work well, you have to address it, try to make it better,” he says. “But if the [player’s] ability isn’t there anymore, or the orchestra is getting better and certain people can’t keep up, you have to make changes. Contrary to what people think, that is one of the hardest things I do. I lie awake and am not happy. But I also don’t shy away from my responsibilities.”
Having experienced sectionals for two seasons now and hearing the leap in ensemble quality, the musicians appear to be converts to the new process, speaking admiringly of de Waart’s extra mile, something nearly unheard of for a conductor, especially one of his stature. “By contract, musicians can’t have more than two rehearsals a day, but Edo sometimes goes to four or five,” Hamlin says. “He is so committed to the music that he puts in that kind of time.” The extra services replace what would be school or other concerts during the week, freeing the MSO players to concentrate on one program, a relative luxury.
“Those sectionals come out of his time and his hide,” Marcia Brooks says. “He feels he’s been hired to improve the orchestra, and this is how he’s doing it.”
This month, the MSO is performing at New York City’s Carnegie Hall as one of six orchestras chosen from more than 60 North American hopefuls. The contest presented an opportunity for conductors to choose art over marketing and financial concerns when developing programs.
As to whether de Waart’s name and reputation had anything to do with MSO’s invitation, the conductor hesitates. But Susan Loris, MSO vice president of marketing and communications, nods vigorously. De Waart would rather attribute success to the program he put together for the
competition, which features pieces by Olivier Messiaen, Claude Debussy and Chinese composer Qigang Chen. “They want unusual programs that have a certain angle to them, and I came up with a good angle.” Namely, that Messiaen studied with Debussy, and Qigang Chen was Messiaen’s last student, forming a solid musical, personal and historical connection.
“It will be wonderful for the players,” de Waart says of the opportunity. “I’m sure they will play very well, and if one [critic] recognizes that this is a really good orchestra, which he should, that’s good for self-confidence.”
Ideally, success will follow. “The people we are asking for support will want to help us,” de Waart says.
Many already do. There were worries that de Waart’s understated style and
personal reticence would not resonate with audiences or donors who were used to Delfs’ exuberant charm. But so far, that fear has been unfounded. In de Waart’s first year on the MSO podium, single-ticket sales went up 25 percent. The next year brought a further increase of 2 percent. “These new people are coming back,” Loris says. “It’s a testament to the orchestra and to Edo that we’ve been able to see increases during this economy.”
When it comes to the important job of wooing Milwaukee’s monied, de Waart made it clear before he was hired what the MSO could expect. “It wasn’t a priority for de Waart to run around and buff his image in the donor community,” Almond says. “He’s certainly aware of those responsibilities, but his focus is on the podium, in wild contrast to his predecessor. That was a huge part of Andreas’ tenure here, being a big public face of the orchestra.” Loris is more politic: “Edo prefers smaller, more intimate gatherings, so we’ve changed how we set up those interactions to honor his strengths and personality.”
Back in June 2011, Maryellen Gleason painted a decidedly non-rosy picture. “We have an underfunded legacy pension plan that’s a financial burden right now. Our contribution from UPAF (United Performing Arts Fund) has decreased, and the stock market is volatile.” There were rumors of more serious trouble to come. But Loris says the MSO ended that fiscal year with a balanced budget, 987 new donors and 894 who increased their donations.
Marcia Brooks is cautiously optimistic. “There have been some immediate financial benefits to Edo coming on board, but it’s going to take more time and more work. It’s not fair to make any music director out to be our savior, and no one is doing that or wants to. But when you deliver undeniable quality, people take note.”
This if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy is inevitably under debate between the conductor, who puts together a season for primarily artistic reasons, and marketing, which must concern itself with selling tickets. “When I started in San Francisco, I said marketing will be the death of the symphony orchestra,” de Waart says. “In Rotterdam, we didn’t do marketing. We got together and said, ‘What makes a good program?’” Now, he believes marketing departments have made programming all about blockbusters – Beethoven’s Fifth at every turn. He’d rather see promotional power focused on the lesser-known pieces. “We should be on the forefront taking risks, walking out there with the flag, even if not everybody is right behind us.”
So far, plenty have been. A concert version of Bartok’s difficult and dense opera Bluebeard’s Castle, played before stunning sets by glass artist Dale Chihuly, was a near-sellout weekend. Loris was excited to promote it and believes de Waart’s reputation has been a huge plus for the MSO. But still, she’s a realist. “In Edo’s heart, he would love to think, ‘I’m doing Mahler’s Second, and everyone should just come for that.’ I would love that, too. But in this day and age, there is a need for a marketing department. It’s our job to make sure we communicate all the wonderful things happening on stage.”
At a rehearsal in Uihlein Hall, de Waart enters, wearing a loose shirt and casual pants. He chats with musicians and shakes hands with Almond before mounting the podium and leaning on the chair set up behind his music stand. The musicians quiet. “Good afternoon. We’ll start with the second movement please.” They rehearse Mahler’s Second Symphony, stopping countless times. The strings are dragging. The orchestra sounds too apologetic. “Here you should be saying, ‘Enough!’ ” he says, pumping his fist. “Not, ‘Excuse me.’ ”
When he’s happy, he says so. “Good. Excellent.” When Tisdel asks for a moment to speak with his section, de Waart agrees, then adds, “But it better be good.” The orchestra laughs. When the off-stage trumpeters take a long time to return to their on-stage seats, de Waart impatiently breaks the expectant silence. “Maybe there’s something to eat back there.” More laughter.
For de Waart, stopping and starting are part of a clear plan. “I never rehearse just for the week. I rehearse to get rid of bad habits long term.” And they’re methods that are clearly successful – de Waart is still welcomed back to guest-conduct at the orchestras he’s left. Too few music directors whip their ensembles into the kind of shape he finds musically worthwhile, the kind of shape that is evident in a June 2011 MSO performance of Mahler’s Second.
The concert is a near-sellout, with a sense of excitement and energy that’s palpable throughout the theater. Silence from the rapt audience, no fidgeting, no dropped programs. Is anyone breathing? When the piece finishes with a loud flourish, the audience leaps to its feet, giving yells, cheers and whistles that wouldn’t be out of place at Lambeau Field. Yet the more telling response comes in the breathless silence after the first movement, when the woman next to me produces an involuntary sigh and whispers blissfully to no one in particular: “Oh my.”
Muna Shehadi Sill graduated from Yale and Boston University with degrees in music, and the Wauwatosa resident writes novels as Isabel Sharpe. Write to her at email@example.com.