Growing up in 1970s East Germany, Eckart Preu was, by his own account, no wunderkind.
“I was always in the middle,” he recalled. “The lower end of middle.”
But his father, a speech therapist, insisted Preu study piano and voice, and when he was 10, Preu was accepted in the prestigious Dresdner Kreuzchor Boys’ Choir.
That eventually led to conducting lessons. And in 1996, Preu won a German national conducting competition, which brought him to America for graduate studies.
This Saturday, Preu begins his ninth season as music director and conductor of the Spokane Symphony. During a recent interview, he discussed his job and the challenges of sustaining public enthusiasm for classical music.
S-R: What was your introduction to music?
Preu: My father, who grew up in the ruins of Dresden, was very adamant about music education and the arts in general. I began voice lessons when I was 4, piano lessons at 5.
S-R: Did you enjoy it?
Preu: No, I’d sit at the piano in tears, screaming. But he basically made me do it until I was 10. And then I joined the Dresden Boys’ Choir. After that I was on my own, which was good because the pressure was off. I realized I was pretty good at singing, and noticed if you practice, a little bit of talent can take you pretty far.
S-R: Do you remember the first time you conducted the choir?
Preu: Yes. There were a whole bunch of assistants in the choir, and when the main conductor guy was gone, someone else had to conduct. When it was my turn, we were in a big church with the whole choir. To this day, it’s still one of the most amazing experiences I ever had – lifting my hands and bringing them down, and people responding. It was magical.
S-R: What is a symphony conductor’s job?
Preu: To make musicians play better than they would otherwise. To determine who is important; the tempo; how loud to play – to balance all these things.
S-R: Sometimes when you conduct, you hardly move a muscle. Why?
Preu: It’s a sign of trust. Traditionally, conductors have been in constant motion, but I think that is an overestimation of their own importance. It creates dependence by the orchestra on you, which is totally unnecessary. It’s a mistrust toward the orchestra.
S-R: At 43, are you in your conducting prime?
Preu: I still have no idea what I’m doing. Twenty years from now I’ll be in my prime. And after I’m 70, I’ll probably be too old to lift my arms.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Preu: Not really, and I regret this. That’s how many conductors became great – by having a great mentor. I’ve had some really good teachers, and I’ve taken something valuable from each.
S-R: Such as?
Preu: One taught me the importance of being at ease. Even if the music is tense, the conductor must relax so the musicians can relax. Otherwise the music sounds forced.
S-R: You conduct all over the world. Do you and the musicians need to share a language?
Preu: No. I just conducted in Chile for two weeks, and I don’t speak Spanish. All I learned while I was there were numbers. Everything else I communicate by singing, looking, gesturing, whatever. And we communicate in the standard Italian words, which we all know.
S-R: How many professional conducting jobs are there in this country?
Preu: Not enough. Conservatories turn out hundreds of conductors every year, and there aren’t that many conductors dying. But it’s the same for almost every instrument. There are so many people waiting on the sidelines, ready to take over.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Preu: When you can take something on paper and make it three-dimensional, four-dimensional – shape it – then anything is possible.
S-R: What’s your least favorite part of the job?
Preu: The pressure, which sometimes is self-inflicted. I try to put that aside, but I still struggle with it.
S-R: Does it worry you that so few young people attend your concerts?
Preu: Symphony audiences have always been old. If you’re 20, I totally understand why you don’t go. You have girlfriends and bars and other things to do. But as people get older, they start looking for something more fulfilling – ballet or opera or symphony. Nevertheless, we are trying to attract younger people by, for instance, doing the Video Games Live concert on Nov. 10; by creating series that are not as long as a concert, per se; and by offering music that is more intriguing, more contemporary. We’re always trying to come up with new formats.
S-R: You talk about the importance of “humanizing” music. What do you mean?
Preu: Many people think understanding music is a prerequisite to enjoying it. But you don’t need to know anything about cooking to appreciate a good meal. The same is true with classical music, because if it’s well done, it comes from the heart and goes to the heart. The whole point is not to think about it too much. As soon as you start analyzing it, the magic is gone.
S-R: Are there programs you’d like to do in Spokane but won’t?
Preu: There was a piece I was really intrigued by, but it was based on songs by Rammstein, a German rock group and had some lyrics we found inappropriate. So we’ve put that off. If you’re sitting in the middle of row 10 and you have to listen to a 20-minute piece you hate, it can be a horrendous experience. So we choose repertoire very carefully.
S-R: Audience reaction typically falls within a narrow range – from polite clapping to the occasional “bravo.” Would you prefer something less predictable?
Preu: I like the old-style concerts where there was much more give and take, including tomatoes. I remember as a teenager booing at concerts in East Germany. And I had fun doing it, because they would play stuff that was ugly. Here I’ve gotten used to everybody being so polite. But I’m OK with someone saying, “I don’t like that.”
S-R: Any changes ahead for Spokane Symphony?
Preu: We’re always morphing. It’s a tricky time, because we want to maintain what we offer in this unpredictable economy. Most people would be shocked how much it costs to put on a concert – to rent a piece of music and pay musicians a decent salary in order to attract the level of talent we have.
S-R: Any changes ahead for you?
Preu: I hope so. As an artist, you don’t want to settle down. But I like it here very much, and there are a lot of things we haven’t explored yet. That’s what I like about Spokane and the people I work with – they’re always trying to push the art forward.
S-R: Is there anything about you that would surprise people who only know you in the formal setting of a concert hall?
Preu: I’ve always made a point of not developing a stage persona. Some people think conducting is a calling, and conductors should be quirky or crazy. But I’m a totally regular, average guy, and this is just a business like any other, where you have to work really hard to be good. It’s basically a job with very unusual working hours.