Edo de Waart, master builder Music: Director of Australia's Sydney Symphony is known for bringing orchestras to the top of their form and sometimes earning resentment along the way.

November 18, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Edo de Waart admits that when he was invited to become music director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra six years ago, "besides kangaroos and koalas, I didn't know much about Australia."

Nevertheless, the Dutch conductor arrives at the Kennedy Center this evening as the music director of that orchestra in its 11-city, coast-to-coast American tour. Although Sydney's is the finest of Australia's major orchestras, it is still something of a surprise that de Waart, 60, should be its music director. Most people in the music business 25 years ago would have predicted that by now, de Waart would have been music director of one of the most prestigious American or European orchestras.

From the middle 1960s onward, de Waart's career was meteoric. He started as Leonard Bernstein's chief assistant with the New York Philharmonic; a few years later, he became one of the world's youngest music directors of a major orchestra when he took over the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

After making a series of acclaimed recordings with that orchestra and increasing its prestige, de Waart moved to the San Francisco Symphony as Seiji Ozawa's successor. He took a good orchestra and made it even better, leaving after 10 years to become chief conductor of the Netherlands Opera in the early 1980s.

That's when de Waart's problems began. The administration had promised de Waart a free hand in transforming the opera into an institution that would rival London's Covent Garden or New York's Metropolitan. But when the musicians in the opera orchestra rebelled at the changes he wanted, de Waart quit and returned to the United States, becoming music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. In Minneapolis, the conductor accomplished much of what he had in San Francisco, restoring the quality and burnishing the reputation of an orchestra that zTC had fallen below the level it had once achieved.

But if in nearly three decades of music directorships at three different orchestras, de Waart had acquired a reputation as a consummate orchestra builder, he also became known as someone whose uncompromising efforts to achieve excellence created discord over his attempts to replace aging or failing players. It is scarcely a secret that de Waart would have risen much higher had he been easier to get along with or willing to lower his standards slightly.

"Some people are born conductors, others are born music directors," de Waart says. "I have always been more interested in building orchestras than my own career. I knew that this was my destiny. I wanted to be someplace where, if I needed to, I could spend an hour making sure that three minutes of music sounded right. If musicians are blase enough not to care, then they regard making music not as a profession, but merely as a circumstance."

Just as de Waart was in his final seasons in Minneapolis, Sydney beckoned. Although he had never conducted in Australia, he was intrigued. A 10-day guest-conducting engagement in Sydney persuaded him to take the job.

In just five years, de Waart has managed to increase the number of the Sydney Symphony's concerts, built its size to 106 players from 96, increased salaries by 25 percent and taken the orchestra on several international tours.

"He is extremely committed to the music-making, and this has led to pressure on all of us to perform at a very high level constantly," says Kees Boersma, the orchestra's principal double bass player. "You can't argue with the results he achieves."

De Waart also likes what he's been hearing. He has just signed another contract that will keep him in Sydney until 2003.

"I love being there," the conductor says. "Australia reminds me of the United States in the 1950s -- it has a wonderful newness and innocence. And I'm conducting an orchestra that is eager to get better."

Sydney Symphony

Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues Northwest, Washington

When: Tonight at 7

Tickets: $15-$47.50

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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