By Tom Consolo
Eckart Preu wants his audiences to know it’s OK to boo. Really.
Though it admittedly is not the reaction performers prefer, an audience that boos is offering a genuine response. That’s key for Preu, who takes over this season as the fifth music director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.
As a student in the late days of the German Democratic Republic – communist East Germany – booing was one of the few ways people could show dissatisfaction, Preu said over lunch in Cincinnati earlier this year. It was a liberating experience, the Erfurt native said, and one he finds surprisingly rare in the United States.
For a country that prides itself on individual expression, he said, “that pioneer spirit has disappeared a little bit” in the concert hall. “We lost all of that to civility.”
Preu – adhering to German pronunciation rules, it rhymes with boy, not brew – is a man on a mission to retrain American classical audiences not just to listen passively, encumbered by the strictures of concert hall rituals. “Audience members feel they have to do the right thing.”
That system of concert etiquette includes automatically applauding at the end of a piece. To be sure, applause is fulfilling, Preu said, but “if you clap, that signals to me that you like it.” In his other current conducting post, he said it took about five years to change listeners’ mindset that their genuine feelings are key to the concert experience – for the performers as much as the audience.
That other job is music director of the Spokane Symphony in Washington, a position he has held since 2004. In his years leading that group, Preu has added new music to his programming and taken the orchestra outside its main home, an ornate Art Deco former movie palace that reopened in 2007 after an extensive renovation.
It’s a response to the changing tastes of potential new audience members, especially millennials. Wooing that young generation with performances in nontraditional venues – particularly those that involve social mingling and, often, drinks – is hardly groundbreaking stuff among classical performing groups, but finding the right balance between serious content and social event has proven elusive.
It’s an approach the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra had already taken to heart. Indeed, the model of the CCO’s entire season has been turned inside out, rejecting a traditional series of performances through the indoor months (roughly September through May) for a late summer festival. It’s dubbed Summermusik, a mashup of English and German that simultaneously captures the feeling of classical music’s deep historic roots, Cincinnati’s German heritage and a more playful, modern attitude.
That willingness to experiment was a strong draw of the CCO job, Preu said. He believes the festival model positions the CCO well in the city’s musical community.
Cincinnati, he said, “is very lively, and there are lots of high-quality groups.”
Besides, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which can bring to bear much larger resources and is about to get its own newly renovated home at Music Hall, has pretty much cornered the year-long season model.
With Summermusik, Preu said, the CCO becomes the area’s summer classical entertainment.
Summermusik comprises a dozen performances in August divided among three series. Four are by the full orchestra. Series called (A Little) Afternoon Musik and Chamber Crawl fill out the month’s weekends in unique venues across the region, like the Drake Planetarium in Norwood, the new Hotel Covington in Northern Kentucky and Madtree Brewing in Oakley. Chamber Crawl concerts are curated, i.e. proposed and programmed, by CCO members.
Preu sees another benefit: He believes the concentrated season inspires a deeper sense of pride and yields a more committed effort from musicians. “We really consider this a festival for the audience and the players,” he said. He offers the famous Spoleto and Mostly Mozart festivals as examples of the high artistic achievement possible with intensive collaborative work.
If, in such a flurry of musical bounty, a few notes are left by the wayside, that’s OK. “We try, of course, to achieve a perfect performance,” Preu said, but the current focus on technical perfection yields performances that are “too polished.”
“If the goal is (technical) perfection, we’re missing the goal,” he said. “It’s what’s under the sheen that touches people.”
Another advantage of working with the CCO: It gives Preu the ability to expand artistically. Besides the obvious foray into repertoire written for a smaller ensemble, he said working with a smaller orchestra brings a different outlook to the act of making music. “It gets you away from big gestures,” he said, “and leads to deeper collaborations with players.”
Not to mention that the CCO “is a really good band.”
The musical affection and respect are mutual. According to Wes Woolard, Preu was a top contender for the CCO post from his initial Skype interview. Besides being the orchestra’s second trumpet player, Woolard heads the CCO players committee and is the player representative on the CCO board. He was also the player representative on the search committee that chose Preu from about 200 applicants.
“He was just full of ideas,” Woolard said. “Also, he was very curious about the orchestra.”
That initial reaction was reinforced by analysis of Preu’s recorded performances. (Like many conductors these days, Preu has a strong YouTube presence. A quick search yields nearly 500 hits.) “He was always in communication with the players,” Woolard said.
CCO players were just as impressed in person with Preu’s September 2016 audition concert. “He was in absolute control,” Woolard said, “but he let the players have freedom. He trusted the players.
“There was no pretense.”
Critics agreed. “Just when you thought the orchestra couldn’t play much better, Preu elevated the performance level to new heights. The best part was that he did it all while having fun.” (Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer)
The 2016 performance gave a pretty clear insight to Preu’s programming philosophy, too. Contemporary works by Miguel del Águila and Daniel Bjarnason were contrasted with music of Copland, Saint-Saens and Mozart.
Presenting modern music is important, Preu said. “The revolution didn’t start with Schoenberg,” he said, noting many works considered warhorses today were shocking at their premieres.
Some older works are still shocking, like “Chaos” from “Les Elemens” by the French Baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel. “It’s crazy!” Preu said. You can hear for yourself at the CCO’s Aug. 12 “Celestial Voyage” concert when this Baroque oddity is paired with Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and “Kepler’s Cosmos,” a world premiere by Preu’s brother, Hans-Peter.
Those juxtapositions are key to Preu’s programming, but he’s very careful to make sure that concerts don’t turn into musicology lectures. Being introduced to new works is exciting for Preu, and he wants CCO audiences to share his enthusiasm.
“You have to be yourself,” he said, “sell yourself as a genuine person. It’s the same for organizations.
“Programming is your calling card,” he said. It’s how orchestras build trust with their audiences.
Not everyone will like every piece, of course, but that’s true with Beethoven, too. And, of course, if you don’t like a piece, feel free to boo.
For a full list of Summermusik concerts, see Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra in our Music Events Calendar.
Tickets: 723-1182 or ccocincinnati.org