Fall Arts Classical - Eckart Preu

by Michael Bowen

The new music director of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra is seated with his knees up around his chin, making steering-wheel motions with his hands. "My first car was a Trabant," he says, acting out what it was like to drive one of the tiny East German "automobiles." (Trabants, literally, had plastic bodies wrapped around go-kart engines.) "It wasn't soundproof," he recalls. "You can hear the pedal when you push it. Then you whack the gears and off you go."

Eckart Preu has burst into the room, 6-feet-2-inches and almost gangly, with a two-day stubble and hair adrift. He rocks back in his seat as he talks, gesticulating. He's programmed a lot of German music this season - as a German, does he feel he understands it better? "I'm against everything that says you have to understand the music," he says, lining up against all those stodgy intellectual approaches to classical music.

"The thing that drives me crazy is when people [who don't attend classical concerts] say, 'I don't know the music, I don't understand it.'" Preu wants the music to bypass your head and go straight to your heart. He'll try out his theories on local audiences starting with Friday night's season-opener, featuring music by Prokofiev and Stravinsky. After all, we associate other forms of music with emotion, and think nothing of it. Why not classical, too?

"If you don't like what we're playing," he says to his audience, getting up and acting out the scene he's imagining - "I want you to 'Boo!' and stomp your feet." He wants listeners to respond to Mendelssohn and Schumann physically, kinesthetically -- because that's his own tendency, both in and out of the concert hall.

"After I've studied a score intently for a couple of hours, I want to do anything that is the opposite of what we do. I love to go hiking. I play tennis. And I'll confess it, I love action movies -- I've seen I, Robot, I've seen Hero.

"And I want to start dancing. I mean, I've done it before, but I want to take lessons. Because it is the only thing in life that really makes me happy.

"Besides, music and dancing go hand in hand. It's -- how do you say? -- 'barbarian.' It's in our roots. People who sing are happier. It makes us happy -- it's been proven in studies -- because you are using your body."

Preu exercised his voice and body in a boys' choir for eight years. Living in East Germany, he says, "I discovered how impaired I was. I was about 12 when I realized, literally, that there are so many things I cannot do.

"I was like a tiger baby in a cage -- you open the door, then he races out. That's me."

Born a generation after the end of World War II, Preu retains pride in his homeland -- "the war," he says, "brought my country into existence" -- while still laboring under a sense of misplaced guilt. "I've heard about Jews saying, 'You killed my grandfather!' and I think, 'No, I didn't. That wasn't me.'"

All of which makes Preu's next international guest-conducting venture significant. In April, he will travel to Jerusalem to conduct German music in Israel -- Schumann, Weber, Mozart -- but also to lead the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a piano concerto by Michael Damian, an Israeli composer.

Preu knows something about how to appreciate other cultures and about how to appreciate live performance, too. He goes back into salesman-for-the-Spokane-Symphony mode.

"People ask why they should spend $25 on a concert when they can spend less and get a CD and have that piece of music with them forever," he remarks.

"You know, every New Year's Eve, I take five minutes to reflect back on what I liked about the previous year. And it's scary how little I remember. But it's always life events -- a particular concert, a dance event, a play -- a life event.

"Of all the CDs I own" -- he makes an exasperated, sorting-through-the-piles motion -- "I have about three that were truly life-changing for me."

The rituals of concert-going are what we'll remember months afterward, says Preu, even if music is transitory by nature: "Music doesn't exist in the moment. You do it and it's gone. We are creating memories. We cater to the memory business."

He wants his Symphony to create life events for its audience. And for himself: At 34 and as the new director of a mid-level American orchestra, Preu must have some disposable income lying around, and they don't make Trabants anymore. How'd the new car shopping go, Eckart?

"Well," he admits sheepishly, "I am German. I looked at Audis, of course. But I got a BMW."

As for the speeds he's attained on Eastern Washington highways, he won't comment.

But he grins. Lately Eckart Preu has been enjoying his life events.

Publication date: 09/16/04

It Happened Here: Expo '74 Fifty Years Later @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.