I spent the 2002-03 season as Concertmaster of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a fantastic orchestra often overshadowed by the Concergebouw Orchestra (unfairly, in my opinion). At the time, the Music Director was Valery Gergiev, but there was a steady stream of wonderful guest conductors including Edo de Waart, who was their Music Director from 1973-79.
I worked with Mr. de Waart many times that season, including some regular subscription programs as well as several weeks rehearsing and performing “Fidelio” at the Netherlands Opera (that company has an interesting policy with regard to the orchestra- a couple of Dutch orchestras would rotate each production; there is no permanent “house” ensemble. So one time it might be Rotterdam Phil, next maybe the Netherlands Philharmonic, etc.). While obviously a first-rate conductor and musician, I also found him to be a warm and endearing personality, and enjoyed each chance I had with him on the podium. It was also a very positive atmosphere in general, since many members of the orchestra seemed to share that view, along with a rich history.
I remember after one concert asking him where he was headed next. He spoke of Hong Kong and some other dates, then casually mentioned that he was headed to Madison, WI for a couple of weeks. Observing the look on my face, he explained that his wife grew up there, and they really enjoyed spending down time in Madison with their two small children. I replied that there was a good orchestra about 75 miles from there, in case he felt like a drive sometime.
When he decided to relocate his family there, I immediately recalled this conversation (which was back in 2003), and at the same time the committee began to seriously consider the possibility of some kind of position; it seemed silly to ignore the fact that he was literally down the road from us.
Some discreet conversations took place, and we were all pleasantly surprised to hear of his enthusiasm on a scale we hadn’t really anticipated. We found ourselves in an interesting dilemma- there was an opportunity to end the search fairly quickly (and quite successfully), but that would require some very bold decisions to be made in a fairly short period of time.
For starters, we had to decide if we ultimately felt it was in the orchestra’s best interests to appoint someone with a slightly “elder statesman” status, rather than a blazing upstart (think Dudamel). This is a very fashionable (and endless) discussion these days, and to me the answer always gets down to specifics. The New York Philharmonic appointed Loren Maazel seven years ago, much to the consternation of many outside the organization who demanded someone “young and energetic”. But the orchestra as a whole felt very strongly about the appointment, and by most measures it’s been a great success (some music critic’s opinions notwithstanding). Now they’ve gone the other way with Alan Gilbert, and time will tell.
And of course the most over-reported example of this idea is the astonishing talent Gustavo Dudamel, the new MD in Los Angeles (in case you live under a rock someplace). No one has seriously questioned the brilliance of this move, least of all the musicians; it will be interesting to watch it unfold. But consider that even if it doesn’t go well in LA (unlikely, in my view), he’ll still only be in his early 30s when his contract is up and he heads for Berlin, Chicago, or someplace else.
Working on our search committee, I got really tired of hearing people ask when we’d find “our own Dudamel”. To me this was nonsense for lots of reasons, so I was gratified when things started to seriously heat up with Mr. de Waart. The more we looked at it, in so many ways it seemed ideal- an established, highly regarded conductor who’s appointment would attract a great deal of attention, a sincere commitment and geographic advantage, a seamless transition with great timing (if we acted quickly), and what seemed to be his genuine enthusiasm for working more in the US (by this time he had also accepted the Chief Conductor post at the Santa Fe Opera).
But none of that would mean anything if there was no chemistry with the orchestra. And as it turned out, he’d never conducted the Milwaukee Symphony. He’d never even heard us, so we had to find a way to get him in front of the orchestra, hopefully without any press finding out or the musicians thinking a decision had already been made.