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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Andreas Delfs Takes His Final Bow in Milwaukee

Revered MSO music director heads to Honolulu next

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Morale at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1990s was at a low ebb. Attendance was off, the performances sometimes indifferent. The fortunes of the orchestra began to change with the appointment of Andreas Delfs, who first conducted as music director in 1997. The years seem to have flown by. Delfs conducts the last concerts of his tenure this weekend with Symphony No. 8 by Mahler, a piece he had long hoped to perform in Milwaukee. He will leave a vastly improved ensemble and a revitalized organization. Whatever heights are achieved in the future, the Delfs years will forever be the era in which the MSO went from pretty good to better than good.

Delfs and his wife, Amy, liked Milwaukee from the beginning as a good place to live with their young children. Through insistence on building an ensemble sound and making important changes to the musician roster, the MSO gradually evolved, reaching noticeably elevated results by 2003. Delfs reminisced about his years in Milwaukee recently over lunch. "It takes five or six years for a music director to establish artistic relationships and communication with the players. It's also very important that an orchestra of this quality always plays well. In the early years I tried to encourage that even by showing up at performances I was not conducting. It kept them on their toes."

Taking Risks

Any successful stay at an orchestra should involve some risks. "People thought I was nuts when I first suggested a tour of Cuba," states Delfs. It was a brilliant idea, attracting attention from the national and international press. He believes that in retrospect the Beethoven Festival of 2003 seemed an obvious concept, but was not a guaranteed triumph. "It was a risk to do nothing but two weeks of Beethoven in this city. The Brahms Festival that followed it was even riskier, because it's very difficult to replicate a success. And the iTunes venture was a bold gamble that paid off. We're still the leader in online orchestra music downloads."

Twelve years is a long time for a music director to remain with an orchestra. The average is said to be less than seven years. "I was tempted to leave twice. Both times I had very attractive offers elsewhere, but they were bad times for the orchestra, when organization leadership was unsettled and there were financial challenges. It would have been wrong to have left then. I owed the orchestra that."

Delfs is most proud about civic pride in the MSO. "I think the orchestra is more popular in the city than it used to be. When I came here the community was not behind the orchestra in the way it is now." His favorite performances have often included chorus. "I love that literature. The Brahms Requiem, Britten War Requiem, St. Matthew Passion, and others. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and I have a wonderful, rich relationship."

He has guarded optimism about future of MSO. "Artistically, the sky is the limit for this orchestra. But the future of the organization very much depends on the community, and what the community is willing to support. If the city grows, the orchestra will grow with it."

Delfs continues as principal conductor of Honolulu Symphony, a post he accepted a couple of years ago. He never saw it as his next move. "I signed on to Honolulu to have a sugar coating to the transition from Milwaukee to something else, but I found myself becoming involved emotionally there. They play well, and they need me because the orchestra is struggling financially." He becomes philosophical when asked about his future. "I feel our orchestra business is changing drastically. I'm not sure that subscription concerts will be the model forever. I want my next music directorship to be with an organization, most likely in Europe, that is willing to re-write the book on classical orchestral performances. I'm so interested in redefining what we do."

What will he miss about Milwaukee? "The people. I have felt loved and appreciated here, and I think it has allowed me to do my best work." After a pause and a sigh he adds, "And I will miss very much the orchestral sound we have developed together. Where else am I going to hear that?"

Revered MSO music director heads to Honolulu next

By Rick Walters

Morale at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1990s was at a low ebb. Attendance was off, the performances sometimes indifferent. The fortunes of the orchestra began to change with the appointment of Andreas Delfs, who first conducted as music director in 1997. The years seem to have flown by. Delfs conducts the last concerts of his tenure this weekend with Symphony No. 8 by Mahler, a piece he had long hoped to perform in Milwaukee. He will leave a vastly improved ensemble and a revitalized organization. Whatever heights are achieved in the future, the Delfs years will forever be the era in which the MSO went from pretty good to better than good.

Delfs and his wife, Amy, liked Milwaukee from the beginning as a good place to live with their young children. Through insistence on building an ensemble sound and making important changes to the musician roster, the MSO gradually evolved, reaching noticeably elevated results by 2003. Delfs reminisced about his years in Milwaukee recently over lunch. "It takes five or six years for a music director to establish artistic relationships and communication with the players. It's also very important that an orchestra of this quality always plays well. In the early years I tried to encourage that even by showing up at performances I was not conducting. It kept them on their toes."

Taking Risks

Any successful stay at an orchestra should involve some risks. "People thought I was nuts when I first suggested a tour of Cuba," states Delfs. It was a brilliant idea, attracting attention from the national and international press. He believes that in retrospect the Beethoven Festival of 2003 seemed an obvious concept, but was not a guaranteed triumph. "It was a risk to do nothing but two weeks of Beethoven in this city. The Brahms Festival that followed it was even riskier, because it's very difficult to replicate a success. And the iTunes venture was a bold gamble that paid off. We're still the leader in online orchestra music downloads."

Twelve years is a long time for a music director to remain with an orchestra. The average is said to be less than seven years. "I was tempted to leave twice. Both times I had very attractive offers elsewhere, but they were bad times for the orchestra, when organization leadership was unsettled and there were financial challenges. It would have been wrong to have left then. I owed the orchestra that."

Delfs is most proud about civic pride in the MSO. "I think the orchestra is more popular in the city than it used to be. When I came here the community was not behind the orchestra in the way it is now." His favorite performances have often included chorus. "I love that literature. The Brahms Requiem, Britten War Requiem, St. Matthew Passion, and others. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and I have a wonderful, rich relationship."

He has guarded optimism about future of MSO. "Artistically, the sky is the limit for this orchestra. But the future of the organization very much depends on the community, and what the community is willing to support. If the city grows, the orchestra will grow with it."

Delfs continues as principal conductor of Honolulu Symphony, a post he accepted a couple of years ago. He never saw it as his next move. "I signed on to Honolulu to have a sugar coating to the transition from Milwaukee to something else, but I found myself becoming involved emotionally there. They play well, and they need me because the orchestra is struggling financially." He becomes philosophical when asked about his future. "I feel our orchestra business is changing drastically. I'm not sure that subscription concerts will be the model forever. I want my next music directorship to be with an organization, most likely in Europe, that is willing to re-write the book on classical orchestral performances. I'm so interested in redefining what we do."

What will he miss about Milwaukee? "The people. I have felt loved and appreciated here, and I think it has allowed me to do my best work." After a pause and a sigh he adds, "And I will miss very much the orchestral sound we have developed together. Where else am I going to hear that?"