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The Milwaukee Symphony embarks on the hunt for Edo de Waart’s successor

It’s transition time for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. For several years, the company has been led by internationally renowned music director and conductor Edo de Waart, with the aid of associate conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, but 2015 marks the beginning of the end for that partnership — and the beginning of the hunt for a new leader to guide Milwaukee’s premier orchestra.

De Waart, who joined the MSO in 2009, announced in February that he would step down from his position at the end of the 2016–17 season, becoming the company’s conductor laureate. In June, Lecce-Chong announced his own departure, leaving to join the larger Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this season.

Lecce-Chong’s successor, Yaniv Dinur, is in place, but MSO president and executive director Mark Niehaus says he and the official search committee are taking their time seeking out and appointing someone to follow de Waart.

“What’s really been quite wonderful in this particular process is how thoughtful Edo was in discussing his future plans,” says Niehaus, “and that we have over two years to plan for his departure which gives us the time to do a thoughtful search and really look at a lot of candidates.”

So what will it take to choose de Waart’s successor? For the search committee — consisting of musicians, board members and other staff — the process will be one of evaluation. Every possible perspective will be explored in the vetting process of each candidate, from ensemble members’ reviews of prospective candidates’ time on the podium to evaluations by audience members, who will see likely candidates perform as guest artists throughout the coming seasons. 

“We do 18 weekends of subscription classical music concerts. Edo has done eight of those weeks, which means we have 10 weeks available for guests,” explains Niehaus. While the MSO’s schedule and candidates’ schedules need to be aligned, he suspects candidates will be invited to perform more than once, to make an educated choice.

Niehaus says the potential candidates’ qualifications vary. Some will be conductors who have worked with the MSO and demonstrated chemistry with the ensemble. Others are specialists who prefer a particular repertoire that would work with the MSO. And some are talented conductors who have established careers. “It’s really about inviting conductors who we think have a musical voice, have a strong sense of community entanglement and will do great artistic work for the city of Milwaukee and our orchestra,” Niehaus says.

To be sure they’re doing all they can to make an educated selection, Niehaus says he and other members of the search committee will be hitting the road, observing candidates with other ensembles and talking to their peers in the orchestral community. “We’re going to depend on the wisdom of our colleagues in other cities to inform our process,” Niehaus says. 

And Dinur, an Israeli conductor coming to Milwaukee from Washington, D.C.’s American University, will be a particularly important colleague to consider. 

“His energy is amazing,” says Niehaus. “Yaniv is an accomplished pianist. He speaks eloquently about music, He has a body language as a conductor that is familiar to our orchestra and I think he is going to be an inspired choice for us.”

It’s a process that will stay largely behind the scenes, unfolding week by week even as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra continues performing with its world-class musicians. But if you keep a close eye on them, you should be able to catch the occasional glimpse behind the curtain — a precursor to the new era only a couple of years away.

Conductor De Waart makes most of streamlined MSO

Edo de Waart, music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, has logged a lot of miles in the past few months. Yet the 73-year-old maestro remains remarkably vibrant and ready to take on his share of the MSO’s 2014–15 season.

A native of Amsterdam, de Waart splits his time as music director between the MSO and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in Antwerp, Belgium, where earlier this fall he spent two weeks of his annual 12-week commitment conducting works by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. After that, de Waart flew to Kuala Lumpur for a two-week series with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, made a brief stop in Madison (where he lives with his wife Rebecca and their two young children), and then headed to the Twin Cities to conduct an all-Strauss program performed by the Minnesota Orchestra.

“I am wildly jet-lagged,” says de Waart, just a week after his return to Madison. He’d already opened his sixth season with the MSO in September. The opening came in the wake of a financial crisis.

Back in 2012, in order to eliminate its long-term debt and try to stabilize its finances, MSO was forced to pull $6.5 million from its unrestricted endowment funds. 

That proved not to be quite enough. MSO posted a $2.1 million revenue deficit at the close of its 2012–13 fiscal year in August 2013, a figure that added to the orchestra’s $2.5 million structural deficit. Without many options, the company sent out a call in December 2013 asking old and new donors to help fill the immediate need for $5 million to staunch the bleeding bottom line.

“People had been telling us for years to get our house in order, and they were absolutely right,” de Waart says. “We have been through 18 or 19 years of red ink and have always teetered on the brink.”

Fortunately, the donors came through. After some tough negotiations with the orchestra’s musicians that ultimately resulted in reducing the number of musicians from 79 to 68 and changing their health benefits, the MSO continues to survive, albeit on a smaller scale with a more restricted repertoire. 

Other orchestras and performing arts groups have not been so lucky. Budgetary woes and musicians’ strikes have affected the Minnesota Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in recent years, with the latter agreeing on Nov. 8 to a four-year contract, after a two-month lockout. In 2013 alone, the San Diego Opera and New York Opera ceased to exist, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra nearly joined them, avoiding foreclosure by mere days.

De Waart says he was not aware how dire MSO’s financial situation was when he took over as music director in 2008. He originally planned to pursue building a symphony hall designed specifically for orchestral concerts. 

Obviously the hall never materialized, and MSO still calls the Marcus Center home. But being in “survival mode” has helped the company hone in on cultivating the musicians who remain. 

“We’re in a carefully optimistic mood,” de Waart says. “Artistically, we have not lost anything and the orchestra still plays wonderfully.”

Still, the downsized orchestra forces de Waart to be cautious when he programs his seasons. Big symphonies by composers like Mahler, Anton Bruckner and Dmitri Shostakovich can only be scheduled once or twice a year, when MSO can hire freelance performers to fill out the various orchestral sections needed to do the compositions justice.

Other than that, de Waart says, programming for MSO is much like programming for other orchestras, requiring a mix of audience favorites — Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, for example — and new works. 

“Programs that work offer a good balance between what audiences know and would like to hear again, some pieces that they know by name only, and some that they have never heard of before,” de Waart says. “You also want to make the program appealing to the orchestra, because if they enjoy playing it, the audience will enjoy hearing it.”

Audiences in general enjoy a mix that leans heavily on a blend of European classicists, including British, French, Russian and Scandinavian composers, he adds. However, the heavy lifting is still done by middle-European composers from Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia.

“There’s a general aversion among audiences to composers with names they can’t pronounce,” de Waart says. “If it’s a name they haven’t heard before, it’s like serving up a new fruit. They’re less apt to bite into it, so we serve it up in little pieces.”

Milwaukee audiences are no different, but their relative acceptance and appetite for new works pleases the conductor.

“They know their stuff and are pretty sophisticated,” de Waart says. “It’s nice to do your work in front of people who have a good ear for it.”

De Waart’s favorite composers include Hector Berlioz, Bruckner, Edward Elgar, Mahler, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and others of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “I like the Romantic and late Romantic style very much, because the writing for the orchestra is so sublime,” de Waart says. “It’s music that has a beating heart and comes right out of the emotionality of the composer.” 

Despite the MSO’s continuing financial challenges, de Waart believes his orchestra can offer performances that are greater than its reduced size would suggest. 

“MSO does an exemplary job on those works, both the classics and the contemporary,” de Waart says. “The musicians are adroit and flexible, which is a prerequisite for the modern orchestra. It’s the ability to creep into many different skins, as it were, that makes MSO as fine an orchestra as it is.”

On stage

Edo de Waart returns to the MSO to conduct Beethoven’s Sixth “Pastoral” Symphony Jan. 16-17 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For more information and tickets, visit mso.org or call 414-291-7605.