Speaking with Maestro Edo de Waart, it is clear just how much he loves music. When he assumes the helm as music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in March next year, they will perform Mahler’s Symphony No.3 chosen, he says, “because I absolutely love it, I think it is one of the greatest pieces he wrote”.
“After the 2nd, he came back and turned around and wrote another magnificent, fantastic, long, beautiful piece”. He adds, too that, “I’m of an age when you want to still do things a few times that you have loved doing your whole life”. It is in this vein of ‘revisiting’ that de Waart will grace our shores in the coming weeks. He will conduct the last two concerts of the season with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As the orchestra’s chief conductor from 1993-2003, it is a chance to spend time with “old friends”, be they the musicians or the works themselves. In December they will perform Elgar’s Symphony No.1 because “it was one of the things we played in my time there,” says de Waart.
“I love Elgar, he’s a stunningly fantastic composer and the orchestra has always done it well, so it’s nice to re-visit an old friend, so to speak.” The first half of that concert will see the wonderful juxtaposition of Ross Edwards’ White Ghost Dancing and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. De Waart specifically chose the Edwards because “I wanted to do something Australian and… it needed something a little whimsical. Mozart is, with all that he was, a whimsical man and this works very well”.
“I wanted to do something Australian…”
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 is considered by many to be among his best, but de Waart won’t commit in such a fashion: “Well I’m always astounded” he says, “I mean you do one concerto and you think this is absolutely divine and then a few weeks later you get the chance to do another one and you think how’s that possible? “And it was particularly clear in the movie Amadeus when… Salieri has gotten a hold of a folder of Mozart’s music and he looks at it and he turns the pages and then when he turns the pages you hear what he sees and then you realise that every single piece that he was looking at was a masterpiece, was a world-class masterpiece,” said de Waart. As much a Mozart enthusiast is fellow Dutchman, Ronald Brautigam who will be the soloist in this concert. Concertgoers will be lucky to witness someone de Waart describes as “a wonderful pianist, a great, great musician” with wonderful taste and “the heart to give great performances”. When they performed the piece together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in May 2009, it was to great acclaim. By sheer coincidence, the next concert that season featured Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante with the soloist Olivier Latry and that concert, too, will be revisited in Sydney.
Depth of experience
It is fascinating to compare the Hong Kong programs with the Sydney programs to see just how much thought de Waart gives to his selections. Where in Hong Kong the Jongen was preceded by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony this time it is Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra that will intone nature.
To de Waart, music and nature have a synchronicity, both possessing a complexity of “emotions and feelings (as) nature can be incredibly violent and do horrible things”. “It can also be most peaceful and inspiring and it’s totally unpredictable, you can’t control it. And so music tries to portray a lot of that.” Thus Spake Zarathustra might draw the crowds (especially those familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey) but audiences will not be disappointed with the Symphonie Concertante; not just because it is one of nine original compositions written for the Wanamaker Organ of the Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) department store in Philadelphia. It has become well established in de Waart’s oeuvre as he explains how he made one of the first recordings: “It’s a very unusual combination because the organ is already so complete in itself, such an enormous powerful instrument, so is the orchestra. The organ can actually drown out the orchestra and so that was quite a challenge.” It is a challenge, too, in that the soloist is separated from the orchestra and conductor and thus requires a “bit of give and take and enough rehearsal time to work out… cause he only hears himself and when he plays he doesn’t hear the orchestra”. It helps too, that de Waart has worked with Latry before. He recounts how after their last collaboration Latry invited him to see him in his ‘day-job’ as one of the organists at the Notre Dame in Paris. With joy he explains how he went “with the family and he invited us up to the organ loft where you could look down to the Notre Dame and see the church and he improvised and it was quite a wonderful experience”.
One gets the feeling that de Waart loves sharing such musical experiences with his young family and that this contributes in part to his sense of currency. He may be of an age where he can relish in re-visiting but he is also still very much looking forward. Whilst Mozart and Beethoven may be among his favourite composers, so too is John Adams. It is why he admires a musician such as Latry, a musician with “a fertile mind” and who has chosen, quite specifically, to not specialise in music of any given time period.
So what does the future hold for this time straddling conductor? As mentioned, 2016 will see him begin his position as music director of the NZSO, taking over from Pietari Inkinen. He looks forward to spending time in the island nation explaining that it is not all that different from his home in Middleton, Wisconsin which he describes as being “very rural and green and a little bit more low key so there is a calmness and a peace that is not totally unlike rural Australia and New Zealand”. Next year will see the long awaited opening of the new Elisabethzaal (Elizabeth Hall) by de Waart with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. “It will be a busy year”, he says, “but not too busy, I’m trying to calm down a little bit, and that’s working out very well”.
After more than 50 years on the podium, winding down is just another stage in the evolution of what has been a very rich career. De Waart explains how his career has unfolded “very naturally and organically” starting out as conductor of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble whilst also holding “orchestral engagements in the Netherlands and other places”. “After a couple of years I had to give up the wind ensemble because it was no longer possible to schedule together. That is just a normal expansion, you know you start with one thing and then guest conductor things are added and so you spread your wings so to speak.” Every position was seen as a chance to expand his skills and musical vocabulary. He acknowledges that his experience as an oboist and with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble has helped him “to have an understanding of what goes on back there you know with the boys and the girls on the wind instruments”.
When he conducts the preludes to Lohengrin in the November concert it will be as a conductor who has “done Lohengrin many times”. This is a great asset as de Waart believes that “when you do an opera you get great inspiration from the text”. “So I think it’s absolutely a must to know the text well, no matter what opera you do but especially with works by composers such as Wagner when the text and music are so, so one part.” Even though they will just be performing the preludes, he remarks that the opera means a lot to him.
“From the very first notes it brings up something, you know the whole atmosphere at the beginning of that opera and especially also the end. It’s wonderful to do those things.” Wonderment is never far from the mind of the conductor who loves his job: “I’m very fortunate”, he says. And so too, are we.
– Nicky Gluch