Last Thursday morning, onstage at the Opera House, Spokane Symphony board president William Simer greeted a gathering by holding up an iPod -- Apple's digital music device -- and remarking that people could now take thousands of pieces of music with them wherever they went. "But," he added, "there's no substitute for hearing a live performance."
With that, Simer introduced the group -- and the region -- to the Symphony's new music director, Eckart Preu (pronounced "proy"). Beaming, the 34-year-old East German native with a lanky build walked onstage and accepted his welcome from the assembled musicians, community members and reporters.
Preu had been in town only two weeks earlier, as the last of five candidates the Symphony was considering for the organization's most visible -- and arguably most important -- position. During his visit, like the other candidates, he conducted the orchestra and met with community and Symphony leaders.
Something he did resonated.
"The orchestra sounded luxurious," was how Simer, clearly excited by the choice, described Preu's performance. He added that he felt confident that Preu would "take this great orchestra to the next level of artistic achievement."
The selection was made by a committee of six board members and six musicians, each of whom met with and worked with each candidate. And even though they did not meet until they had heard all five candidates, Simer says the choice was unanimous.
"[Preu] made a connection with the players that was extraordinary," remarked Dr. Richard Strauch, a bass trombonist with the orchestra, and a member of the search committee.
That connection is even more extraordinary considering that Preu had not encountered the Spokane Symphony before his appearance here. "It's my first encounter, and I'm very curious," Preu had told The Inlander in an interview prior to his visit. "But I've only heard good things: that it's a good orchestra, the musicians do an excellent job, and that it's very motivated. It's also great to look at an orchestra that's in the black, instead of having to come in and being asked how to save it."
Nevertheless, Preu joked at Thursday's announcement that he had tried not to worry too much about the orchestra after he conducted his audition concert: "You don't want to fall in love with a woman you can't get."
With the hard work of selecting a new music director finished, Preu will begin the process of moving to Spokane and scheduling his next season. Aside from deciding what music to perform, selecting guest artists and preparing to conduct most of the concerts, Preu will also be preparing for his role as an artistic figurehead for the community. A music director can shape the focus that a community brings to its arts scene, determining whether it's ancient or modern, European or American art that the region will encounter over time. And in that position, Preu will have a rare and remarkable opportunity -- to draw people into the concert hall.
"You come into contact with your audience in different ways," Preu had observed in his earlier interview. "There is the old-fashioned way of giving pre-concert talks or post-concert discussions. These are things that still work and are important. But musicians should be included in that, too; music directors should not be the only ones. People are fascinated by the myth of the conductor -- people ask me what I'm doing and why I sweat and if I work during the day. There's attraction there. But there's also the attraction to the music itself, and the people who make the sounds. They should be involved, and celebrated by the community as well. They are representatives of the orchestra. You have to showcase everything -- that's a conductor's job."