Pushing and Pulling Stamford's Orchestra in New Directions
30. Jul. 2005 – WHEN Eckart Preu was a student at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford in the mid-90's, he lived in Manhattan and commuted to Connecticut, where he took conducting lessons and was music director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony. For him, Stamford was just another stop on the Metro-North Railroad.
Now as the newly appointed music director of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Preu (pronounced proy) takes a very different view.
''For some people, if they want good music, they go hear the New York Philharmonic,'' he said. ''But I'm seeing that the level of the Stamford Symphony is so high, it's amazing. One of the great challenges will be to really find out what makes people identify with Stamford, and what makes the Stamford Symphony stand out from orchestras in the region, especially orchestras in New York City.''
Mr. Preu, 35, will begin his three-year contract with concerts on Oct. 8 and 9 at the Palace Theater in Stamford.
He succeeds Roger Nierenberg, who resigned in January 2003 after 24 years in Stamford, and who is credited with raising the orchestra from a semiprofessional community group into a fully professional orchestra that includes many New York freelance musicians.
Bringing a stronger identity to Stamford will require overhauling the entire concert experience, Mr. Preu contends. With this aim in mind, he plans to present thematic concerts of works that are less frequently heard, and to take the orchestra out of the concert hall and into nontraditional venues.
''I will not shy away from adventurous things, and neither should the audience,'' he said. ''Some people think orchestra music should be a serious thing. That's why I left Germany, because we took music way too seriously there. Music is supposed to be hard work there. I don't think that's true.''
Born in the former East Germany, Mr. Preu attended boarding school in Dresden, where for eight years he was a member of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, the eminent boys' choir founded in the 13th century. There he rose through the ranks as a soloist, rehearsal pianist and, eventually, assistant conductor. After high school, he studied conducting at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Weimar and at the Paris Conservatory. .
In 1996 Mr. Preu won a national conducting competition that brought him to the Hartt School, where he continued his graduate studies in conducting with Harold Farberman. He also met Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, which is known for its innovative thematic programming. Soon they struck up a working relationship, and from 1997 to 2004, Mr. Preu was a resident conductor of the American Symphony, which is based in Manhattan, and a guest conductor at the Bard Music Festival.
Mr. Botstein acknowledged that the traditional career path for a conductor -- working up through junior positions at regional orchestras -- required Mr. Preu to develop a niche in a crowded market.
''Eckart isn't interested in standard repertoire names,'' he said. ''What astonishes him is discovering the riches of the repertory. Instead of doing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, he might do the ''Joachim'' Concerto. Instead of doing a Brahms symphony he might do a Hartmann symphony.''
''He has a tremendously winning personality,'' he added. ''A lot of people in this business are narcissists. He doesn't get caught up in its theatricality.''
Along with his work with the American Symphony and at Bard, Mr. Preu served from 2001 to 2004 as an associate conductor at the Richmond Symphony in Virginia, a job he gave up last year after joining the Spokane Symphony as the music director. In his first year in Spokane, Wash., he introduced several works that the symphony had never performed before.
For example, in January, he paired Rimsky-Korsakov's ''Sadko,'' an opera set in a fantastical underwater world of sea kings and nymphs, with Alexander Zemlinsky's '' Mermaid,'' based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale. Other programs featured Janacek's ''Taras Bulba'' and the ''Metropolis'' Symphony by Michael Daugherty, an American.
Last November, Mr. Preu led Mendelssohn's seldom-heard Symphony No.2 (''Lobgesang''), a work featuring a large chorus and vocal soloists. As an encore, he returned to the stage along with the three vocal soloists, not to conduct, but to sing a four-part German lullaby a cappella.
Mr. Preu contends that encores have become all too rare these days and are another way of adding unpredictability to the format. Similarly, he often talks to the audience from the stage, telling his listeners what to expect or to explain why he chose a given work. In a performance of Vivaldi's ''Four Seasons'' last season at Spokane, for example, Mr. Preu prefaced each concerto by quoting from the text of each of the composer's descriptive sonnets.
Talking to the audience is a skill Mr. Preu developed in Richmond, where he led the orchestra's Sunday afternoon Kicked Back Classics concerts.
''It's a jeans-and-beer series,'' said David Fisk, the executive director of the Richmond Symphony. ''It required him to fill in between the pieces and work the audience. He has a great sense of humor and often plays to his German-ness, telling stories about his strict mother, for instance. You'd think he has this strong Old World training, but that's now in his past.''
In Spokane, Mr. Preu embraced a more casual format as well, starting a series at a downtown nightclub in which the orchestra dressed in jeans and polo shirts and played shorter upbeat pieces against a backdrop of rock-concert lighting and a video screen (yes, the bar was open). The series began as an experiment last season and will be expanded to two concerts in 2005-6. Mr. Preu noted that he would like to try a similar series in Stamford if the right sponsor and space could be found.
Although the general outlines of next season's programs in Stamford have been determined -- including ''Mozart's 250th Birthday Party'' and ''American Legends'' -- Mr. Preu is still planning the specifics.
''For the 'American Legends,' there are a couple of choices that could make an interesting connection,'' he said. ''I look for unlikely partners, not just all-Russian and all-German and all-American, but really bring the Russians together with the Germans and seeing how they thought about a similar subject.''
Mr. Preu will spend 10 weeks a year in Stamford, where he will also be involved with community outreach, education and fund-raising. He suspects that the weight of those added responsibilities may explain why there are not many young conductors like him leading American orchestras.
''Germany is known for engaging young conductors, whereas here people are little bit more careful,'' he said. ''The position of music director incorporates many more things in the United States than in Germany.''
He added that orchestras steer away from young conductors because they do not fit the image of the distinguished elderly maestro.
''The problem is, the image that the orchestra has for the younger generation is not good,'' he said. ''To people in their 20's and 30's, the symphony orchestra is for old people. It's stuffy, it's boring and it doesn't stand for what it's actually about: a deep emotional experience that will stick in your memory much longer than any movie or any party. It's important to remind people that it's not this high-class thing that's out of your reach.''