'Why go to New York?' asks finalist in SSO conductor search

19. Mar. 2005 – I liked Eckart Preu. The fourth of the five finalists vying for the position of music director and conductor of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, Preu led the orchestra last Saturday through a dazzling and diverse program. He demonstrated a deep musicality, a strong sense of communication, and the ability to organize and coordinate a substantial program.

The evening began with the "Alleluia" Symphony by Haydn (No. 30). Single winds and a reduced string section joined Preu, who conducted from a single-manual harpsichord.

The violins were set up in stereo with firsts stage right and seconds stage left. This created beautiful movement of the sound as the violins wove lines around each other. There was also a color difference between the first and second violins because the second fiddles were facing away from the audience. All of the unison playing had dimension because of the stage placement.

Elizabeth Mann came across very well as she managed the fiendishly difficult flute solos in the andante and finale. I am still not sure how she projected the lowest register of the flute to such an extent; it almost sounded like some kind of recording pyrotechnic. Preu plays solid continuo, and was able to communicate with the ensemble as he supported them.

The jewel of the evening was the Berg Violin Concerto. Addressing the audience, Preu thanked the symphony for the opportunity to work with them and recognized the quality of this orchestra. "Why go to New York?" he asked. His introduction to the Violin Concerto covered the essential background information, but stressed connections to the Corinthian folk tune in the first half, the Bach Chorale in the second half, and the disguised Viennese popular music that permeates the score. It was a wonderful introduction designed to get past the stereotypes and make us eager to hear this piece again. To emphasize the Viennese connections in the concerto, Preu first offered us the "Blue Danube Waltz" by Strauss, not listed on the program.

Jennifer Koh joined the orchestra for the Berg Violin Concerto. It is not an easy piece. The orchestra worked hard to produce the constantly shifting colors and textures. There are very few moments in that score when the orchestra plays tutti; everything is about intertwined strands and rich complex textures. Koh played the piece aggressively and made it stick. She was most at home in the second half, where her flawless technique was able to shine. But she also was able to hear and communicate with the orchestra, and was particularly effective in gradually losing and regaining her identity in the section strings near the close. The orchestra was impressive; many passages were memorable. The section clarinets (and how great to have a family of them!) commanded our attention frequently, but particularly coming out of the violin cadenza and during the Chorale quotations.

The second half of the program matched the refinement of the first and was equally detailed from a musical point of view. Preu gave the well-known Schumann Fourth Symphony an intelligent unity by playing all four movements attaca and relating brisk tempi using clear metric relationships between the movements. This made the overall conception of the symphony very apparent.

One of the marks of a well-designed program is that it allows us to make new associations between the pieces that comprise it. Unlike the Berg Concerto, where the orchestra is fragmented into kaleidoscopic patterns, the Schumann Fourth is made from larger gestures and motions. Hearing these two works together causes us to understand each of them differently. The whole in a good program is more than the sum of its parts. It also allowed us to hear very different objectives accomplished by this conductor.

On the third call, Preu had one final surprise in store for us; the "Pizzicato Polka" by Strauss. In addition to being a lovely after-dinner mint, this also connected to the "Blue Danube" that we heard just prior to the violin concerto, creating an unexpected frame around the Berg and Schumann works on the program. This is a conductor who can have fun.

Eckart Preu is an impressive and charismatic musician. I believe he would offer the intellectual substance and the passion that have always distinguished the Stamford Symphony in the past. I would be thrilled if he were our new Maestro.

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