A Conversation with Eckart Preu,
Music Director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra


portrait photography MICAL HUTSON

Tall and lanky, with straw-colored hair that falls in wisps over the collar of his morning coat, Eckart Preu strides onto the stage as if sent by Central Casting—for a period piece set in 19th century Berlin. Then he disarms the audience with a warm smile. And when he introduces the program, he’s surprisingly relaxed, conversational, even funny.

Maestro Preu wants his audience to be as excited about the music to come as he is—whether it’s is baroque, classical, or the pop he admits he knew nothing about (think contraband) as a kid growing up in East Germany. And while his heart may be rooted in the classics, he’ll tell you that conducting John Williams is “lots of fun” (even if his arms get tired), and that audiences around the world go wild for Frank Zappa’s “G-Spot Tornado.”

Maestro Preu has officially been Music Director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra since fall of 2019. Along with his PSO position, Eckart Preu is Music Director of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra (CA), and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra (OH). Previous roles include Music Director of the Spokane Symphony (WA), the Stamford Symphony (CT), and Associate Conductor of the Richmond Symphony (VA). As guest conductor, he has worked with Jerusalem Symphony (Israel), Symphony Orchestra of Chile, Auckland Philharmonia (New Zealand), Radio Philharmonic of Slovenia, Pecs Philharmonic (Hungary), Varna Philharmonic (Bulgaria), and throughout Germany with philharmonic and chamber orchestras.

I spoke with Eckart via Zoom in early fall.


You have affiliations around the country. How did the PSO catch your interest?

Robert Moody, who was Music Director of the PSO for ten years, was one of the first people I met when I came to the States. And we became really good friends. A few years ago, he invited me out to guest conduct a Bruckner symphony. And I felt an immediate rapport. I found the orchestra flexible, the musicians excellent—willing to take an idea and run with it. We all had a really good time. So when the opportunity came up, the PSO was already on my radar. And of course, Maine is such beautiful state.

What’s it like - stepping in front of an orchestra for the very first time?

Well, it can be the scariest thing in the world. But every orchestra is different. So I never go in with rigid expectations, which could prevent all the wonderful things an orchestra can open up. I’m more: “Here’s a piece we all want to play. And I’m going to help you do that the very best you can. So let’s have fun and let’s connect on a human level. That’s super important to me.

You’re music director and conductor. Can you talk about those two roles?

Sure. The music director is like the chef who comes up with the menu. In a concert, we might have four courses. So you start with a little appetizer—an overture that’s fun. Then maybe a concerto that’s a little flashy. After that, something different: could be a commission by a new composer. And finally the main course that’s heftier, longer, more complex. It’s a balancing act. You want variety, but with some kind of common denominator.

And as conductor, what do you do?

That’s where I bring together all these different ingredients to create an experience that feels like a coherent whole. A lot is written in the music itself. But because composers’ markings are ambiguous, there’s flexibility. So I go in with ideas. But I adapt them to the orchestra, not the other way around. My goal is not “perfect”, because perfection is not an artistic concept. Beyond that, I never want to play a piece the exact same way twice.

You’ve conducted orchestras around the world. How are they different and how are they alike?

Around the world, the attack of the notes can be different or the brightness of sound, even the tuning. Still, there are more similarities than differences. Wherever you are, musicians expect the conductor to come in prepared. And everyone works hard. Audiences are also surprisingly similar. Whether it’s a Beethoven symphony or Frank Zappa, you’ll get pretty much the same reaction.

How would you characterize the audience in Portland, Maine?

We have people who are highly sophisticated and knowledgeable. But we’re a regional orchestra, so there are also those without much musical background. Interestingly, sometimes the best comments come from people who have no idea who Bach or Mozart is. In a few words, they can say something more original, more satisfying than a review by a trained critic.

What’s it been like for you–these long months of shutdown? Can I read from your food analogies that you’re spending more time in the kitchen?

You can. Before COVID, I was traveling and eating out a lot. These past few months, I’ve been cooking more and exploring food, especially with my older daughter. We’ve discovered Jacques Pepin, and we're trying out his recipes together.

Cooking is such a learning curve. What are some memorable hits and misses?

Hits: Cassoulet. A chicken with a ton of garlic and parsley. And a potato gratin. Misses? Maybe that soup we made with turkey necks. That one didn’t go too well.

Outside of the kitchen, how have you been handling the shutdown?

It was rough in the beginning— suddenly so much time on my hands. At first, I thought I’d get to things I’d put off, like painting, gardening, home repair. But I quickly realized I’m not great at any of that, although I’ve been painting a rock garden with my girls. I started to learn Spanish online for some guest conducting dates in South America that, of course, have been postponed. And I’m listening to a lot of music—for example all of Haydn’s hundred and four symphonies. Ultimately, I went back to music programming, because that I could do.

What’s next for the PSO?

Luckily, we’re one of the few orchestras that’s started back up this fall. So we’ll continue to employ our musicians and bring music to our audiences.

Still, things will be different, right?

Of course. For one thing: no singers. So we can’t do [Bach’s] St. Matthew Passion, which we’d all been all looking forward to. We’re starting small, streaming only. Then we’ll slowly and carefully open up, assessing and adjusting to make sure we keep everyone safe.

Why is it important to keep creating music when so many recordings are already out there?

First, the musicians: if you take away the music, they lose their identity. For us, it’s not just a job. This may sound cheesy—but it’s more like a calling, what we live for. Then there’s our audience. And this comes back to the human connection and finding ways to keep that strong, even when we’re not all in the same space.

You mentioned listening to Haydn symphonies. As conductor, do you have a sweet spot among composers or genres?

Well, at PSO we cover everything, from baroque to brand new. Our bread-and-butter is in the more romantic pieces that attract audiences, along with some of the pop. Personally, I gravitate toward Brahms and Bruckner, also Beethoven. Not just because I’m German, but because the music is honest and soulful. It speaks to the human struggle. Music expresses feelings we can’t put into words. That transcends genre, century, where the composer lived, and how about all of that an audience member knows. For every listener the real question is, “Does this music touch me?” And if the music is good, it’s good.

. . .

Favorite …
Guilty pleasure?
I like to watch action movies and Spaghetti Westerns.

. . .

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