Hitting the Right Notes
As music director for the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, Eckart Preu draws all eyes each time he raises his baton. He’d prefer that you listen carefully to the sounds of the music performed. It’s what makes classical cool.
Eckart Preu dresses the part as conductor of the Stamford Symphony at the Palace Theatre
Please don’t call me the maestro,” Eckart Preu requests, in the first of many times he will dispatch with formalities. “I am not the maestro,” he continues, mimicking the pretentious air of someone who might actually want—or expect—to be addressed that way.
When left up to the Stamford Symphony Orchestra’s music director, a classically trained musician who has built a reputation as a world-class conductor, he describes himself as a “hard-working guy.” He leads his orchestra in a tuxedo with tails but after concerts unwinds with a hamburger and a beer. His repertoire includes all the great composers but he is just as engaged when talking about the cultural impact of Lady Gaga as he is Ludwig van Beethoven. (Although, it should be stressed, he much prefers the latter.)
Preu may not view his podium as a platform for aloofness, but he is the conductor credited with making the SSO stylish, relevant and even cool. “He is a modern maestro, perfect for these times,” says Barbara Soroca, the symphony’s executive director. “And I would describe him as brilliant.”
Still, the dynamic East German, who spent nearly the first half of his forty years cultivating his talent on the other side of the Berlin Wall, refuses to define his impact on Stamford in those hyperbolic terms. “I am not any of those things,” he says. “What I am, if anything, is very disciplined. I work hard. I don’t pretend to be a great conductor. I don’t pretend to be the second [Leonard] Bernstein. I don’t pretend to change the world of music. If I have a gift, it’s that I don’t pretend.”
A Modern Movement
Five years ago Preu, the conductor of the Spokane (Washington) Symphony, was hired to replace Roger Nierenberg, then the SSO’s longtime musical leader. The chance to inherit Nierenberg’s legacy, an orchestra considered the finest regional symphony between New York and Boston, attracted 250 applicants. Preu was an immediate frontrunner.
“Of course he’s very handsome and charming, but it was more than that superficial first impression that made him stand out,” says Soroca. “It was his attitude. He doesn’t have this Old World sense of what a symphony orchestra should be. You could sense he intuitively got the direction in which we needed to be going in.”
Preu’s enigmatic style hit all the right notes for an orchestra looking for a tempo change, says Steve Parrish, chairman of the symphony’s board of directors. “Even though he is very serious about the music, he’s not what people expect of a symphony conductor, which in his case is a very good thing.”
Good because Stamford’s symphony was at a crossroads when the expatriate came to town. Like almost every regional classical orchestra in the country, Stamford’s audience was graying and dwindling. Despite the classical gravitas of Nierenberg, the iPod generation wasn’t filling the empty seats at the Palace Theatre.
What Preu proposed for Stamford was something visionary yet rebellious for a classical conductor: to lead concerts that included all the symphonic standards Stamford’s conservative audiences rightfully expected but also introduce the works of obscure and neglected masters. He wanted to engage a program of up-and-coming guest soloists. He wanted to face his audience and talk to them, engage them in a dialogue about the music.
“In the world I come from, talking from the stage is a big no-no, but I always do it,” he says. “What’s important to me is to humanize music. People need to connect and I try to help them connect. I want them to understand what they are hearing and why they should be listening. If you think about it, everyone else who’s responsible for most of the music we perform is dead. It’s my job—and the orchestra’s job—to make it mean something.”
“Eckart is a very, very smart man,” observes violinist Erica Kiesewetter, the symphony’s concertmaster. “He does a lot of things to engage the audience that are very fun and appealing, but he never loses sight of the music.”
So when Preu conducts the works of a relatively unknown talent, such as the concerto by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu˚ that the symphony performed last spring, he pauses to explain the genesis of its maudlin tones: Martinu˚’s isolated childhood living in a small room at the top of a church bell tower, and the grim period at the end of World War II when he composed the piece. “He was a pretty miserable guy,” Preu says, as his audience laughs at his bone-dry bluntness. “And you can hear it in the music.”
The First Act
Preu knows something about growing up in austere surroundings. Music was a form of salvation for Otto and Ellen Preu’s two sons. “Living behind the Iron Curtain, you had two choices,” explains Preu’s older brother, Hans Peter Preu, a classical conductor based in Germany. “You could accept your limitations [and] lead an uneventful, modest life, or you could reach for the stars, find the great teachers and push yourself to be the best. When the opportunities came for Eckart, he took advantage [of them.]”
Eckart Preu was reluctant when his father insisted on daily piano and voice lessons. “I wanted to be a boy and just play and do those stupid things boys do, like putting nails under car tires, but my father, a speech therapist, made me practice. He could be harsh with the lessons, but you have to understand [that] he was raised in the ruins of Dresden. My father sang. He could play the piano. But he had no opportunities. It is understandable that he wanted them for his sons.”
When he was just ten, Preu followed fifteen-year-old Hans Peter into the boarding school of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, the acclaimed East German boys choir founded 700 years ago. “Like any little brother, my world revolved around my big brother,” says Preu, “but I had no idea what I was getting into. I think I still have scars from leaving my parents when I was so young.” His cloistered world became a succession of rigid rehearsals—five hours of singing a day—soccer and “very little schoolwork.” He saw little of his older brother, “who was a typical teenager, not terribly interested in his nagging little brother.”
Preu excelled in spite of his isolation, and his eventual status as a top-ranked vocalist earned him a rare opportunity for a teen living under an oppressive regime: “I got to leave East Germany,” he says, and his travels throughout Europe, “confronted me with a sense of what my world could be.” He considered defection and watched wistfully as some choir members simply walked away from the tour bus. “We called them traitors, but I would have gone too if I had somewhere to go.”
His lifting the conductor’s baton rose out of a desire for liberation. Eckart again followed Hans Peter, into their school’s conducting program. “If I were to have continued singing, I would have had my whole life planned out for me. You audition for an opera, there you stay and sing what people tell you to sing. I was drawn to conducting—not at all for the glamour—but the idea that you call the shots. There was freedom in that. And that’s what I wanted most.”
Preu was nineteen in 1989 and serving his compulsory military service on the East German border with Czechoslovakia when the Berlin Wall fell. For all the symbolism its destruction meant to the world, it was a profound relief for him. At the time, even though he was a clerk for his regiment’s medical unit, he was being mustered to the wall with orders to shoot protestors. “And that is something I don’t think I had in me to do,” he says.
A New Development
The fall of communism erased the boundaries drawn around Preu’s musical career. He took advantage of scholarships for East Germany’s liberated youth to study abroad and earned a place at Hartford’s Hart School of Music as the winner of the German Academic Exchange’s National Conducting Competition. Preu would commute from New York City to Hart, determined that “the best place for me to be in this country was a place like New York, to soak up all the opportunities.”
And opportunities came his way. One of his first appointments was as music director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony. He went on to work with the American Symphony Orchestra and got his first big break when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Richmond (Virginia) Symphony. Preu’s kinetic baton style—which fans say makes his performances compelling—evolved here.
“America has made me more expressive,” he says. “I am as exuberant a man as an East German can possibly be. And the role of the conductor is different here. In East Germany, sometimes they are hidden away from the audience, not very important, but here the position is much more exposed.”
Watching Preu conduct is a bit like watching a ballet, observes board chairman Parrish. “If you focus on him exclusively, which I like to do, you can enjoy the music in a whole new way.”
The real test for any conductor, of course, is what the musicians he leads experience. “We tend to know from the first downbeat whether someone lives up to their reputation,” says Kiesewetter, the concertmaster. “He keeps you on your toes, but not in a way that is like a crazy, amusement-park ride. He can be incredibly spontaneous, but there is an order to his method. The bedrock of his musical understanding is amazing.”
Preu spends weeks preparing for performances, approaching each score as a “skeleton that needs meat put on it.” To successfully lead an orchestra, “you have to become the score. It has to come out of you. The orchestra doesn’t really need the one, two and three from me. They need to know what to do with the one, two, three. I have to become the music, but do it in a way that is not self-conscious.”
Because his family has produced two accomplished conductors, Hans Peter Preu says, “much has been said about the Preu genes, but I don’t know that it is a gift. I think it is just very hard work.”
Most of Eckart Preu’s painstaking musical research is done in his Spokane home, where he lives with his wife, Neeley, and three-year-old daughter, Sophia Helena.
Two conducting posts are common for music directors at Preu’s level, and the family lives in Washington because Neeley, who is not a musician, is from the area. “We can’t live in both places, so we have to choose and we like to be near family.”
It makes for limited time on the East Coast, though Preu’s fondness for Stamford’s “smart” audiences and symphony colleagues is genuine. When he’s in town, he lives in a guest cottage courtesy of a symphony patron. On rare family trips east, Preu enjoys showing his wife and daughter the New York City sights, and, yes, there is an occasional concert. “I don’t force music on my daughter. She is very young. I say let her be a little girl. If she enjoys it, I want it to be something very organic and natural for her.”
Preu also spends a lot of his time here performing small concerts at country clubs and private Fairfield County homes as part of a tour to build interest in the SSO. Those lucky enough to attend say these intimate settings capture Preu at his best, when he is charming new fans. “I marvel at the way people respond to him,” says Soroca. “He seems to be able to connect with anyone.”
Yet Preu confesses that, as much as these appearances are essential networking, being the center of attention can be uncomfortable. “I understand my role, but I want it to be about the music.”
Next year Preu’s SSO contract expires, which raises the question: Will he continue here? “We have what I consider a wonderful problem,” Parrish says. “We have a man of such talent, other people may want him. We understand that, but we certainly hope to keep him.”
Preu concedes ambition but says he has never plotted his career in terms of what comes next. “I don’t really think about the next job,” he says. “I think about the next symphony.”