Major Maestro

By Dan Poynton
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #55
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New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Conductor Edo de Waart lets Dan Poynton into his hotel room for an exclusive interview.

Edo de Waart may be a top international conductor but he’s not the maestro of cliché. He doesn’t prance all over the podium tossing his hair about and he hates photo shoots.

Actually he’s not too keen on interviews either. “But I love talking about music,” he tells me, so last month I sat down in his hotel room with him and just talked about music (well, mainly).

It felt like a conversation with an old friend. I soon realised his tricky reputation with some journalists is probably because he doesn’t like nosy personal questions and showbiz gossip.

He just likes to get on with what he’s “trained to do” – no fuss. And right now that’s being the music director of the NZSO, a position he took up in 2016. He’s also the conductor laureate of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and guest-conducts other international orchestras too numerous to list.

So how did he end up here in this faraway little place? “I’ve always been interested in countries I don’t know,” he says. “I wanted to see New Zealand.”

And how does our national orchestra measure up? “I think we’re growing, and it’s a very good orchestra,” says the man who is known as an “orchestra builder”. “It’s very surprising because you’re so far away from everything. They have the willingness to keep searching, and when I challenge them in a rehearsal they’re right there.”

At one of his NZSO concerts in August he could have been mistaken for the triangle player if he hadn’t been on the podium. His movements were minimal, not the exotic dance-ritual of so many conductors, and he wasn’t even wearing a penguin suit. This small man’s stillness and subtle black attire camouflaged him, as if he was a commando in stealth mode rather than the commander-in-chief of a symphony orchestra leading his troops.

But de Waart has plenty of charisma, and a passion for making music – and talking about it. Officially this is his last gig as a resident music director, but when asked he hesitates. “I think so. I’m 77,” he finally says. “But I still conduct 60 to 80 concerts every season.”

So what drives a man to keep working so hard at an age when most are way past retiring? After all this is not a cushy corporate board job. It’s high-stress performance, with every nuance of your work continually scrutinised – adored by some, scorned by others in the notoriously bitchy classical world. And then you’ve got a hundred or so highly strung musicians to tame.

“I just had 10 weeks off before I came, and that got a little long,” he says. He found himself rattling around the house with nothing to do but helping his son with his Lego construction. “My wife thought I needed a project!” he laughs. “It was time to do what I’ve done my whole life – the only thing I really do well is being in music.”

Is he addicted to music?

“I could not live without it, but it’s not an addiction. It’s a need, which might be the same thing, but it has only good by-products.”

Lurking under his natural and charming modesty is a passion for life. He’s had six wives, reportedly all opera singers, which every journalist is dying to point out, and which unsurprisingly annoys him. “It’s very interesting to everybody, but not to me,” he says with a look in his eye of “Make my day!” so I quickly veer off onto another topic.

Tabloid gossip and sarcasm aside, it’s a testament to the energy of the man to conduct such a busy private life in the midst of a distinguished and full career. And with two older children from an earlier marriage, he now has a new family with his wife Rebecca and two children – Olivia, 17, and Sebastiaan, 14.

He met Rebecca, who is 30 years younger than him, on a conducting gig with the Santa Fe opera. “She has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice, but she wasn’t made for this life of travelling and being alone in hotel rooms. She wanted to raise a family.”

And he seems to have finally found home. “We are very tight,” he beams. “I am very, very happy.” But he misses his family a lot these days. Before the children were at school, they’d all travel together. Now they’re living in Rebecca’s hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, from where de Waart recently directed the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim.

He says this happy family life is probably the reason he’s cut down on conducting a lot of contemporary music. “I have two kids at home and I don’t want to sit in my study the whole time. I want to have a life.”

Despite his thriving family life, there is a feeling of the loner about de Waart. He’s a man who seems to yearn for the “symbolic homeland” universally expressed by the Romantic composers he has championed, such as Mahler and Rachmaninov.

“Madison is home, where my family is, but my sense of Holland has gotten stronger in the last three years,” and he loves going back every year to conduct and see his family, including four grandchildren. “Two of my best friends have died there so the world has gotten smaller, but the feelings between us all who are still here are stronger – a belonging together.”

His life seems to echo that of Rachmaninov, who spent 25 years exiled in the US, always longing intensely for his Russian homeland. De Waart has recorded all of Rachmaninov’s concertos and symphonies – twice. He has a particularly strong connection with this composer, who many serious musicians see as too über-Romantic and not exactly “northern European”. “That’s too bad, I love Rachmaninov. I know it’s a little bit opposite to the Dutch – we don’t have that…something,” he says. “His second symphony is very longing. He was homesick, and I can identify with that − always being somewhere else far away from your home.”

A couple of days after the interview he conducted this symphony with the NZSO. I don’t think the orchestra has ever sounded so pure and simply on-to-it. There’s something direct and human about his conducting, without “milking it” as he puts it. Critic Peter Mechen wrote that the playing “could only be described as sublime,” which pretty much says it all.

De Waart has an affinity for composers who write super-emotional, cosmically structured music – the big stuff. “Yeah, Mahler and Beethoven are my two,” he says, as if he’s their affectionate father. He’s conducting most of Mahler’s nine symphonies over his tenure with the NZSO, except for the notorious eighth with its ultra-mammoth forces. “It’s a little bit of a circus, and it’s expensive,” he frowns, as if the cat just brought in something disgusting.

And next year he will conduct the NZSO performing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies – some would say the towering achievement of all classical music – over just two weeks.

So where did he come from, this international conductor?

He grew up in war-torn Amsterdam. His parents were poor but musical “social democrats” who separated when he was 12. They sent him to a Montessori school, a radical thing for the time. “My mother was in the Social Democrat choir,” he laughs. “There were 450 in that choir and they did one concert a year, Handel’s Messiah. Very socialistic!”

Young Edo showed talent on the piano so his father took him to the head of the Amsterdam Conservatory. “I played some Mozart and he said I should definitely become a musician, but probably not a pianist,” laughs de Waart. “He got that so right! I can’t practise six hours a day on the piano. You’d have to lock me up!”

So he took up the oboe, a less competitive instrument. It was only with the help of scholarships, and a borrowed oboe, that Edo was able to study at all at the prestigious conservatory, ending up as associate principal oboe of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

But at 19 he heard Otto Klemperer conducting Brahms, and suddenly he knew what life was calling him to do. “I had no idea what I had heard but I knew it was special,” he says. “I was blown away.” His talent as a conductor meant that by the age of only 23 he was assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic under the flamboyant Leonard Bernstein, who de Waart calls “a flawed genius.”

The next year he was back in the Netherlands as assistant conductor to Bernard Haitnik at the Concertgebouw. After working with these two conducting legends he landed his first directing gig with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and the rest is history.

He virtually discovered superstar composer John Adams while he was the conductor at the San Francisco Symphony, although he modestly denies this. “He would have made it anyway, he’s such a talent. He walked in and we hit it off like soul mates,” he says, although he’d never heard a note of his music. Since then he has collaborated in many premieres and recordings with Adams.

But aren’t symphony orchestras just expensive dinosaurs on the point of extinction?

“We all say that but we should stop.” He’s irritated now. “For what one F16 costs you can run the whole arts budget of Holland. They just fly around in case the Russians come to shoot us. Ridiculous! Why don’t people say the military costs too much? $700 billion this year in America!”

He’s says he’s really angry that, for just a fraction of its military budget, the US could sort out all the problems in its broken medical and educational system – as well as run all its orchestras and opera companies.

“It’s our legacy – this is what makes us different from the animals,” he pleads. “This is what we are, what humanity is, and all we talk about is that it is so expensive!”

He loves living in the US heartland, but mention today’s polarised US politics and he gets really upset. “Don’t talk about it, it’s sickening. Trump sets us back many years. It’s a joke and it’s dangerous.”

He contrasts Trump with our perhaps more appealing leader, Jacinda Ardern, who recently came to watch him rehearsing the NZSO.

“She stood there for a while, so I said ‘Can I take you home with me?'” he says, bursting into naughty laughter. “She laughed and said ‘No, I don’t think so!’ I thought, look at this nice lady – to have just a normal good human being as your leader.”

I was left wondering if this was Edo the social democrat or Edo the man and artist speaking. Probably both. 


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