Honeymoon over Milwaukee

We’ve just completed one of the more unusual introductions of a new
Music Director in American orchestral history. First of all, it is a
little different to have a new Music Director conduct his/her first
concerts after being appointed – but I’ve harped on that enough, and
there are good and sufficient reasons why that happened here and why it
was the right thing to do.

Our music director designate, Edo de Waart, conducted his very first MSO concert for an audience of high schoolers, which has got to be some kind of a first. This was not intended as symbolic, I don’t think – more likely it was an artifact of Edo’s taking over a concert previously to be conducted by someone who likely was on our short list, but who got a very respectable position a few months ago. The program was originally titled “Journeys” and the centerpiece was Holst’s Planets with accompanying NASA video, which of course was a natural for a high school concert. Anyway, 2,100 teenagers were a very appreciative audience.

Then that evening we did one of our Classical Connections concerts. This is one of the new-era programming ideas; an early concert, with a short program, lots of talking, and followed by dessert across the street at the upscale hotel. So management decided to use the occasion to introduce not only Edo but also the new hosts for the series, concertmaster Frank Almond and principal cellist Joe Johnson. Frank, Joe and our music director designate proceeded to do what amounted to a stand-up comedy routine, with Edo the straight man. It was really quite charming. (My wife thought it was a little over-the-top, but she’s from Minnesota, where they have a very low bar for over-the-topness.) Edo was very funny, with substantial doses of irony and self-deprecation; at one point he referred to being “world-famous in Holland” as a result of winning the Mitropolous Competition, and he told the audience that the orchestra plays the Mercury movement “beautifully – at least they did this morning,” which seemed almost compulsively honest. But I’m coming to believe that our new boss doesn’t pull many punches.

We did the entire program Friday and Saturday nights and this afternoon. It started with the Strauss Serenade for 13 winds, went on to the Strauss Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, and concluded with the Planets. For the lead viola operator, the Metamorphosen was the week. It’s not an easy piece; it’s very tricky to figure out who one is playing with at any given moment and it’s got lots of solo stuff for the first viola part (although nothing like the first violin part), including one of the most physically painful viola passages in all of Strauss – which segues with no break at all into the big viola solo. Strauss really was a piece of work.

When I first heard about the Metamorphosen, I thought that it seemed  (and not only to me) rather like an audition for the new boss. But in the end, it felt more like simply playing a great piece of music. And it seemed to go well – Saturday night in particular got quite intense. It’s one of the those autumnal pieces that are tinged with more than a little bitterness; it reminds me of nothing so much as the Vaughan Williams ninth symphony in that way. It’s a wonderful piece for Edo and a much better piece for us that I would have anticipated.

What impressed me the most about the week was how quickly the orchestra relaxed. People had been on edge about this week for quite a while, and for understandable reasons. A music director transition is a really big – and rare – event in the life of an orchestra  musician, especially the lead instrument operators (I’ve been through exactly three in a 35-year career). But by this afternoon everything felt remarkably comfortable, both in terms of playing together and of knowing what Edo wanted and responding appropriately and together. He is, of course, a consummate craftsman, but I think what happened this week went beyond that.

Predictions, as a wise historian once wrote, are very hard to make – especially about the future. But this looks like it’s going to be a success.

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