Walter Proost, the 42-year-old Belgian maestro who will guest-conduct the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend, may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but he has certainly been turning heads in Europe lately.
Being the first non-Italian ever engaged as the permanent conductor of an Italian orchestra may not sound like much on this side of the Atlantic, but in Italy, where parochial political hacks have had a stranglehold on the arts for generations, his appointment was a real eyebrow-raiser. It took a revolt of the populace to do it -- voters and incumbents are handing entrenched incumbents their heads all over Italy -- but Walter Proost now finds himself snugly ensconced on the Italian Riviera at the helm of the Symphony of San Remo, one of Italy's top dozen or so orchestras.
"In Europe, you never ask for a job," Mr. Proost says. "They ask you. And when San Remo asked two years ago, I said 'no' because I didn't get along with the management. But in October, when they called again and said 'Walter, please, you must
come,' I had to think about it."
After assurances that the old regime would be sacked, he signed on. "The political scandals worked to advantage here," he says. "They figured it was the right time to try something new in culture too."
So things are changing in San Remo. The orchestra is touring internationally for the first time -- it will visit the United States in 1996 -- and the city has latched onto music as a means of promoting its horticultural industry. Tour audiences are likely to receive beautiful San Remo flowers along with their concert programs!
Mr. Proost, for the first time, can hire players from other European countries if suitable Italians aren't available.
"The best ones break dates all over the world to come here," Mr. Proost laughs. "They can get paid and go on vacation at the same time!"
Bookings in Prague, Tokyo, Seoul and Mexico City have come his way since his ascension in San Remo. "I must be better than I was before," he says with a laugh.
Mr. Proost also spends two months each year with the Flemish Chamber Orchestra in his hometown of Antwerp, where his father, a band conductor, proudly attends his concerts. His wife, a musical instruments importer, is based in the Netherlands.
This weekend, he will conduct works by Bartok, Saint-Saens, Faure and Beethoven.
Mr. Proost was a disciple of Leonard Bernstein and was encouraged by him to conduct the European premiere of Bernstein's revised version of his comic opera "Candide."
Mr. Proost has begun recording other Bernstein works for Sony/Holland, a project that had the late maestro's blessing.
His "Lenny" stories are classics. They fought for hours when Mr. Proost announced his intention to substitute a single bass fiddle for the several Mr. Bernstein called for in one of the funkier interludes of his "Serenade."
"He called me every name in the book," Mr. Proost says with a laugh. "Then, all of a sudden, he hugged me and said, 'Walter, I love you and you're damn right.' "