In America, Macal is always at home

September 28, 1995|By STEPHEN WIGLER | STEPHEN WIGLER,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Zdenek Macal, born in Brno in the Czech Republic, likes people to call him "Denny" or "Dennis."

"This is my home," the conductor says of the United States in his accented but fluent English, "and Denny or Dennis is less difficult [to pronounce] than Zdenek."

Macal, who conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight, tomorrow and Saturday morning, made his first guest-conducting appearance in this country in 1973. It was love at first sight. He and his wife, Georgina, became legal residents in 1983, when he accepted the post of music director of the Milwaukee Symphony. They became American citizens 10 years later, at about the time Macal decided to leave Milwaukee to become music director of the struggling New Jersey Symphony.

Macal's not the only European-born music director of a major American orchestra; in fact, except for Baltimore, Washington and San Francisco, almost all important American orchestras have foreign-born conductors. But few, if any, have tried so hard to Americanize themselves. Instead of the Lexus, Mercedes or BMW driven by most music directors -- with the obvious exception of the Detroit Symphony's Neeme Jarvi -- Macal drives the biggest Cadillac General Motors makes.

When asked several seasons back to throw out the first ball for the Milwaukee Brewers' season opener, Macal bought a Brewers' uniform, took lessons for weeks on how to throw a baseball, and he pitched the first ball on the field instead of from the stands.

"I know this is my country, I know where I will die and I like to show the way I feel," Macal says.

"For 15 years after we left Prague, my wife and I were without nationality," he continues. "Even though I speak six or seven languages, I was a foreigner everywhere. The only place where you feel comfortable with an accent is in America -- because almost everybody is from somewhere else."

It is almost impossible to dislike "Denny" Macal -- perhaps PTC because he wants so much to be liked. His unself-conscious enthusiasm for his musical projects is disarming. He is eager, for example, to introduce this writer to all of the interpretations in his recorded set of the Dvorak symphonies.

"Do you have all my recordings of the Dvorak symphonies," he asks. "Do you have No. 6? You don't? I'll bring you one."

Macal talks a lot. And his penchant for run-on discourse occasionally lands him in trouble. There was the time he was asked to introduce a new piece at a concert. His rambling talk went on for more than 20 minutes, so lengthening the time of the concert that the musicians had to be paid $2,000 in overtime.

"Any time Macal began to talk to the audience, management began biting their fingers," says Milwaukee Symphony hornist John Lounsbery. But, he adds, Macal always delivered the goods musically. Always prepared, he recognized the weak spots that needed work and he never wasted time.

"He's a conductor with a lot of integrity and even more technique," Lounsbery says. "With the stick [baton], he is like a dog with a bone. He never misses a beat."

Macal's intense, choreographic style on the podium can drive audiences to frenzy. And unlike many music directors, he's willing to get his hands dirty. At a fund-raising party in Milwaukee several years ago, for example, when Macal learned that the group had just missed its $400,000 goal, he announced that no one was leaving until they made it over the top. He went around the room with his hat, collecting enough cash to meet the goal.

Also, in his first two years at the troubled New Jersey Symphony, Macal has not only raised artistic standards, but also, he says, helped the orchestra eliminate its accumulated deficit and operate on a balanced budget.

But while Macal has achieved a significant place in the American symphonic world, it's probably not as large as the ambitious 59-year-old conductor had hoped. For more than 10 years after his flight from what was then Czechoslovakia, the young conductor's career seemed to be coming out of a cannon. He was appointed music director of the Cologne Radio Orchestra in 1970, he made a 1973 debut with the Chicago Symphony, then the world's hottest orchestra, and he was engaged shortly thereafter by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.

Several European conductors who followed Macal, however, acquired more prestigious positions: Mariss Jansons (Pittsburgh); Christoph Eschenbach (Houston); Hans Vonk (St. Louis); Neeme Jarvi (Detroit); and Valery Gergiev, who now leads the A-list whenever a top American orchestra looks for a music director.

In his typically heart-on-sleeve style, Macal campaigns enthusiastically for such jobs -- and it may be his openness that hurts him.

"People in the [symphony] business like and respect Denny, but they also joke that the first thing Denny always asks is 'what's happening' at other orchestras," says the executive director of a major American orchestra.

But Macal's not about to change his style.

"Building an orchestra is a little like working in the circus," he says. "If you don't have enthusiasm, people won't support you and they certainly won't come to see you."

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