Looking for Maestro

Over the wall: Born into oppression, conductor found freedom in music

05. Mar. 2005 – This is part of an ongoing series of articles following the search for a new music director for the Stamford Symphony Orchestra. Candidates will take turns conducting the orchestra during this season, after which a permanent director will be chosen.

Eckart Preu realized there was something different about his country when he was about 10 years old.

In the former East Germany, he was not allowed to eat or say what he wanted. He could not travel without restriction. It was a world where music became an outlet.

"It is the only expression that cannot be manipulated," says Preu, now 35 and music director of the Spokane Symphony and associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony. "Ugliness is not something that music expresses. ... It expresses what you feel about ugliness, but it's not ugly itself."

Preu is one of five finalists for the Stamford Symphony Orchestra music director to be chosen this spring. Each candidate will meet and greet the community and perform an audition concert this season. Preu will appear March 12 and 13 at the Palace Theatre.

The SSO pared down more than 200 applications in the search for a new maestro after longtime conductor Roger Nierenberg announced his retirement in January 2003. The new music director will take the podium for the 2005-06 season.

A resident conductor with the American Symphony Orchestra and the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra, Preu previously served as music director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony and principal conductor of the New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra. He has been associated with the Bard Music Festival as both assistant and guest conductor since 1997.

Preu's father, who had wanted to be a musician himself, insisted that his son pursue voice at the age of 3 and piano at the age of 5.

"He grew up in Dresden during the war. ... He lived actually in the ruins there," Preu says. "His education and his opportunities were very limited."

His efforts with Preu were met with tears and objections.

"I hated it. I hated every second of it," Preu admits. "I would cry like every single time."

But just a few years later, a love for music kicked in.

At the age of 10, Preu joined the Boys Choir Dredner Kreuzchor in Dresden and went on to work with them as a soloist, rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor. He remained at the school for eight years.

Preu remains grateful for that fatherly nudge.

"If you want to become a musician, there is a certain artistic process" that can be painful, Preu says.

He compares it to the impediments one can encounter when learning a new language: If one stops at the barrier, one will never break through to see the other world beyond.

At 70, Preu's father has lived out his own dream -- he now conducts a mandolin orchestra in Germany.

When the Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany was taken down in 1989, Preu, then 20, discovered he had options.

"After that, all of a sudden the world was open," he says. "And you don't know where to go."

Preu stayed in Germany for another three years, starting his orchestral conducting study from scratch. In 1993, he earned a scholarship as music director of the Orchestre Internationale de Paris, a post he held until 1995.

The culture shock between France and Germany was substantial, especially since Preu didn't speak a word of French when he arrived.

"That was when I learned that you can't change people, you have to change the way you work with people," Preu says, noting how his systematic German approach at first clashed with the French laissez-faire attitude.

Americans, he says, have the right balance of both worlds -- a mixture of discipline and ambition with musical appreciation.The program Preu will offer next weekend is titled, "Between Heaven and Earth," featuring Haydn's Symphony No. 30, Berg's Violin Concerto and Schumann's Symphony No. 4. It examines the thematic interplay of religion, death, the concept of an after-life and an earthly hope for a better future. Violinist Jennifer Koh is the soloist.

Preu tries to give the audience different levels of approaching a concert: musical, intellectual and historical.

"We have to show them a door and then they have to walk through it," he says. "And usually they do. Usually they are very appreciative."

As a music director, Preu considers himself part conductor and part ambassador, and must walk the narrow line between ritual and routine. He says that some perceptions of orchestras as dusty and stiff are well-founded. To attract a new audience base, orchestras must learn to reinvent themselves and welcome change.

He loves boo-ing, for example.

"If you don't like it and you clap, you give the wrong signal," Preu says. "If it's lukewarm, you know you haven't touched people."

He also believes that the division between artist and audience should be softened -- the orchestra should be accessible.

"Music is just part of the job. It's not the main part of the job."

There is a German expression, "davon lebe ich haute noch ," that Preu says accurately depicts his thirst for conducting.

Roughly translated it means, "I still live from that experience" or "I could eat from that experience forever."

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