by Marty Demarest

You don't even have to explain anything," Eckart Preu enthuses, discussing one of a symphony conductor's main jobs: choosing what music to perform. "If you program it well, a concert is self-explanatory."

Preu is the last of five candidates in the Spokane Symphony's search for a new music director. He's in town this week to meet the musicians, the administrators and the community that he hopes to work with after Fabio Mechetti leaves the podium after 11 years. Preu's thoughts on concert programming make it clear that he has absolute faith in the audience-pleasing power of the music that symphony orchestras have sustained for centuries. He also believes that there's a need for people to take the time and hear that music in a live concert setting.

"I used to think, 'Why should I spend $25 for a concert, when I can buy a CD of the music that I can keep for a lifetime. It's the music that matters, right?'" Preu asks, his words speeding up in his excitement for the subject. "But then I learned that when you're in a concert, you bring with you your day, your spirits and your depression. And you're faced with this sound and you can't escape. You can't make coffee or dinner. Very few people actually sit there and listen to an entire symphony from a CD player. The CD's not the danger. The danger is that there is always music -- in a restaurant, in the bathroom, wherever we go -- and we're trained not to listen. We hear it but we don't listen. At a concert, you finally have to listen."

If Preu is right -- and unless symphony orchestras have become completely irrelevant, there's no reason to assume that he's wrong -- the biggest challenge any music director faces is finding a way to get people to come to concerts in the first place. His ideas on that subject coincide with the Spokane Symphony's desire to increase its department of education's outreach spending as the symphony's financial position improves.

Preu's definition of education, however, is refreshingly expansive, and shows signs of targeting that elusive -- and lucrative - audience, young and middle-age adults. "I think the most important thing is to be aware of one's responsibility and be a community arts leader," he says. "That plays into several fields. Education is definitely one of them. But education is not only for kids. That's a big misconception. We do outreach for children up to middle school, maybe high school, and then we leave them alone. We do no education for colleges and young adults, and then we get them when they're 50 or 60. But when you look at the demographics of Spokane, there are so many people between 18 and 40 -- people who usually do not come [to symphony concerts]. We need to invest in the future, certainly. But there are other people who have the interest and the time right now, and so we need to make adult education a priority. It's an investment in the present."

Preu is excited to be conducting the Spokane Symphony, and he speaks at length about the things he's already learned from working on the two major works he'll be conducting this Friday night: Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" and Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony. He's also thrilled to be working with Elmar Oliveira, one of the world's most charismatic concert violinists. But it's clear that Preu's passions extend to the entire job of being a music director, and that he wants nothing more than to bring that feeling to members of the community.

"People are fascinated by the myth of the conductor," Preu laughs. "People ask me what I'm doing and why I sweat and if I work during the day. There's attraction there." Then Preu pauses, and shifts the topic away from himself. "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."

Making The Choice -- Conducting the Spokane Symphony in concert and giving interviews to the press isn't the only thing that each of the five music director candidates have done while in town. "They've conducted the Chorale in a rehearsal," says Annie Matlow, marketing director for the Spokane Symphony. "They've also been interviewed by members of the SAA, our volunteer auxiliary; they've interviewed with our staff; they've met with any number of our board members one on one. We've jokingly called it our weeklong interview. We've tried to make sure that they have many opportunities to meet the constituencies with whom they'll work."

The process now comes down to making a decision among the candidates. Some of the information that will be used is anecdotal and personal, drawn from the candidates' encounters with the local musical community. Other things are more objective. "The Chorale members fill out a survey after they have worked with them; the musicians fill out a survey; the staff as well. We also put a simple five-question survey in the program guide that night of the concert for the audience."

The final decision will be made by a search committee, comprised of six musicians and six board members. After they make their selection, the Symphony will offer the job to the candidate, and if everything is acceptable to both parties, the Spokane Symphony's new music director will be announced.

"We consider this decision to be the single most important decision we can make," Matlow says. "So we need to make sure it's done well. That means that I can't give you a definite timeline for the announcement. But this is springtime, and we're working on our publicity materials for next year. We want to tell people as badly as they want to hear."

Publication date: 1/22/04

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