A talk with Edo de Waart
The commotion at the Marcus Center Wednesday was all about Yo-Yo Ma, but music director Edo de Waart also had Mahler on his mind.
When de Waart arrived for rehearsal, he turned to tell the board members, orchestra staffers and Milwaukee Youth Symphony players who’d hoped to meet Yo-Yo Ma that they’d have to wait while he brushed up Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The MSO had played the epic work twice the weekend before and would play it again Wednesday to fill out the Yo-Yo Ma special program.
He spent the next 45 minutes patiently working through the score. De Waart made a few rhythmic corrections, but mostly worked on subtle interpretive details of tempo and articulation.
“We’re a little too quick on those hairpins,” he said to the first violins, refering to fleeting dynamic swells and fades on single notes, indicated by this sign: <>.
“Also,” he continued, “it should be very beautiful, like singing in the head voice.” He sang the very high passage in a pleasant falsetto and phrased it exquisitely. The violins responded in kind.
“Well then,” de Waart said, “Let’s plan on that tonight.”
He did a lot of singing by way of demonstration, and it always worked. What he didn’t do was tell anecdotes about the composer, lose patience or carry on in any way. Everything about the interaction was amicable and efficient.
After rehearsal, in the conductor’s green room, I asked de Waart how he managed to recall the two dozen or so fixes he’d made in rehearsal.
“I just replayed the concerts in my head this morning and made a few notes,” he said. “I just remember. And some places in the score are difficult for every orchestra. Saturday was a little hard, because of the (opening night) tension. Sunday, 80% of it fell into place. I just wanted to revisit it today so that they feel secure.”
“I’m having a really good time,” he said. “I was thinking during the Schumann how much I feel at home with the orchestra.”
A couple of weeks ago, I ran into an MSO player who talked about how the new conductor is changing the orchestra’s thinking about tuning. The musician said that de Waart’s predecessor, Andreas Delfs, thought vertically and concentrated on tuning chords just so. De Waart, the musician said, thinks more in tuning melodically, of fixing the horizontal lines that form the harmonies.
That made sense to de Waart. As a former oboist, he was once responsible for tuning the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.
“Tuning’s very tricky, and a lot of my colleagues won’t touch it,” he said. “I do. But I don’t mind saying, sometimes, that I can’t hear it. Sometimes, the overtones can be so weird that everything sounds wrong. The refinement of pitch and detail is always a work in progress. ”
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Qigang Chen’s “Five Elements” and the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello (featuring the MSO’s own Frank Almond and Joseph Johnson) are coming up on Friday and Saturday (Oct. 2-3).
Q: What’s the most important thing about Beethoven’s Seventh?
Everybody plays the Seventh all the time. It’s always pretty good. My goal is to lift it from pretty good to extraordinary. The key is that the tempi fit in relation to one another. There is no slow movement in this symphony. If you play the Allegretto too slow, it sounds great, but it’s Brahms.
Q: What should we listen for in “Five Elements”?
A: One key is that Qigang Chen was the last student of Messiaen and he lived in Paris. This piece sounds like a mixture of late Debussy and Takemitsu. It’s about very intricate combinations of sounds. It’s very indirect. One thing I learned since I’ve been conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic is that Asians don’t ever come out and say exactly what they mean. This music is like that: Tentative. Mysterious.
Q: Is there anything special or different when two of your own players take on the guest soloist roles?
A: No, not really.
That’s Edo de Waart. To the point, efficient, no baloney.
Who: Milwaukee Symphony, conductor Edo de Waart, violinist Frank Almond, cellist Joseph Johnson
What: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Qigang Chen’s “Five Elements,” Brahms Double Concerto
Where: Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Oct. 2-3
How Much: $25-$93; click here, or call the MSO ticket line, (414) 291-7605, or the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206.
Bonus Sidebar: Frank Almond keeps discovering all sorts of odd facts about the fabulous Lipinski Stradivarius he has on indefinite loan. The latest is the likelihood that the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was playing it at the premiere of the Brahms Double Concerto. Read about it at Frank’s blog.