Michele Hewitson interview: Edo de Waart

By Michele Hewitson

US-based Dutch conductor Edo de Waart is conducting NZSO's Mahler 9 series. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife, former mezzo Rebecca Dopp, and their two children. Photo / Mark Mitchell
US-based Dutch conductor Edo de Waart is conducting NZSO's Mahler 9 series. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife, former mezzo Rebecca Dopp, and their two children. Photo / Mark Mitchell

And this is The Maestro, said the very nice young woman who looks after things to do with the media and maestros for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

How fabulous! I thought. Never having met a maestro before - they being rather thin on the ground - I was quite excited about the idea of an interview with Edo de Waart, the famous Dutch conductor.

And as introductions go, that one was unbeatable and, I'd guess, unrepeatable. Quite right too, because he is a very big wig in the world of classical music. He is in New Zealand for the NZSO's Mahler 9 series - after Mahler's ninth, and last, symphony - which is described, if hyperbolically, as "death-defying".

This is something to do with it being his last symphony and that there is a superstition about composers carking it after completing their ninth. I did ask but by then the maestro was cross with me and had administered a thorough ticking off. He now wished he had never done the interview and grump, grump and so on about "the press" - which is to be said in the tone you would use after stepping in something nasty on the footpath.

So I'm still not quite sure about Mahler's ninth being death-defying, but I can say that an interview with a grumpy maestro comes fairly close. Hyperbolically, of course; that stuff is catching.

But it began well enough, with that introduction - and he does have his charms, which are mercurial. I said, later, sucking up and before the ticking off: "You must have great charm." He laughed and said: "Maybe I had it!" He has had six wives, which I was not to bang on about and did, according to him, which was what earned me the grumping.

But that was later. The first thing I wanted to know was whether he was really addressed as Maestro. I thought it must be some sort of orchestral in-joke. He said: "I think, normally, you don't call someone by their first name where I come from [he meant in the world of the orchestra]. It's not done to call me Edo, although I couldn't care less. But nobody really does that." But why don't they? "It's just a habit. It is just a tradition."

And it is preferable, he said, to shouting at the conductor: "Hey! Hey you!" Still, it must be strange to be so addressed, and you think, I thought but didn't say, that it could very easily go to your head, or at least do strange things to it. I didn't need to say it because he is very clever and also has had enough years of therapy to spot incoming cod psychology a mile off. He said: "It took me a long time to get used to it because in Holland we are not so big on titles. It's a translation of Master and in Holland we don't do that very easily, you know. We don't talk to each other like that. So of course when I was 25 or 6 or 7 or 8, when someone would call me Maestro, I would just about fall off the podium!"

That is a lovely, mad image: A maestro falling off his podium.

He can be very charming and funny, and even almost chatty. This was a relief because everything I'd read about him portrays him as a tetchy and reticent character. He is supposed to hate interviews about anything other than the music and has long refused to talk about his personal life - which of course makes it all the more tantalising for nosy people like me. And, honestly, if you have been married six times, you might expect that nosy people, like journalists (or almost anyone, actually) might be intrigued.

He did once say that his upbringing had not been the ideal training ground for a settled domestic life. Also - and nature or nurture? who knows? - he is a complicated character. He was once described as tense and touchy but he says he is more relaxed than he used to be. "I'm less tense. I might still be touchy. Yes. When somebody says something that I think is wrong and dishonest." He lets them know. "Yeah. You know, the way I grew up. There was a lot of confrontations in my youth between my parents. And then when my father left my mother ... My mother, she was not easy and she didn't like the fact that my father had gone. She could go angry very quickly and, yeah, shout and say: 'You're like your father.' But she also took good care of us, so ... "

His parents separated when he was 11 and he stayed with his mother, which was difficult. "I didn't have any great sense of loving her. I adored my father, partly because he wasn't there but partly because we were kindred souls. He was the singer. I was the musician. My mother was not a musician. She was a housewife. It's a terrible word to say but ... "

So he is a complicated character who is interested in other complicated characters. He was talking about conducting Mahler and how he hadn't tackled the ninth symphony until "I'd done all the others. I felt that you [then] had a chance of understanding what makes him tick". And what did make him tick? "Oh, he had a passionate, passionate love for music. And he was a very uncompromising person. He was always searching, searching, searching for answers." He might have been describing himself. "I think many artists have that."

His therapy was many years ago and he says now that he's not sure what it was he wanted "sorted out"."It's hard to say. But I know that the whole history of psychiatry has always interested me: What makes someone tick? Why do you ask the questions that you ask? Why do you live like that? Why do I live like that? Why do I repeat myself in certain things?" These are all very good questions. I asked too many of them.

Anyway, he's presumably cured of whatever it was that needed sorting out and is happily married now, to the former mezzo Rebecca Dopp, an American, and they have two children (he has another two, much older, obviously, from his first marriage) and live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is, he said, beautiful and "they make cheese, but not as great as Dutch cheese".

They live in the "Blue" part of Wisconsin which is just as well because they are both Democrats and his parents were social Democrats, which Americans in the Red bits think means Communist. And yet his work involves not being happily at home. He seems to not much enjoy the itinerant life that is the lot of the conductor - he's away from home for half the year. He could retire, I said, but he said he couldn't. He'd be a pest at home and gets twitchy when he is there and starts rearranging the house and designing bookcases.

I'd read a description of Rebecca which is that: "She is so beautiful it hurts to look at her." He said: "That's very nice! If she heard that, she'd laugh very hard! She is beautiful but she's not trophy beautiful. She is real." Did he think I was intimating that he had a trophy wife? I have no idea, but I certainly wasn't. He seems to find the world a prickly place.

He flies about the world but hates flying and gets very lonely because he spends half of his life with strangers. He doesn't socialise much with anyone, and certainly not the orchestra. "Not in the sense that we hang out. I am not a hanger-outer." He is a loner? "Yes." And an outsider? "Yes." Are those good attributes for a conductor? "No. There are conductors who are very good and hang out very well and there are conductors who don't hang out at all." He says that on a scale of nought to 10, 10 being "hanging out like buddy buddy" he is between a four and a six. I have a feeling a four is optimistic. "When I'm on the road, it's difficult. One minute you have 2000 people standing up going clap, clap, clap and then you go away and everybody's gone. Usually the people who do want to take you out [after the performance] I'm not that interested in. Well, board members." I said, sympathetically, that I supposed that was all part of the deal and he said, sternly: "Well, I don't have to do anything I don't want at 73." It seems a funny sort of life to choose, for a person of his temperament but he didn't choose it, he said. "It chose me." What he had, belatedly, decided he didn't want to be doing was talking to me. This was a bit tough, for both of us, because I was trying to find out what made him tick. He hates talking about this because it involves the marriages. It couldn't not, I said.

But because of Rebecca he obviously feels all of the others are ancient and irrelevant history (at least to me). Actually, to begin with he was fine, and funny, talking about them. I'd wondered whether marrying sopranos was an occupational habit for a conductor - although I failed, like everyone before me, it seems, to find out how many of his ex-wives were sopranos.

He did say: "Well, they're very interesting women. They're crazy! The sopranos are crazy. The mezzos are not crazy." His theory on this is that sopranos get all the high notes and the big parts and so "have to be all over the place and out there. Mezzos are team players".

He says he now thinks he should not have married so many times, and just lived with people. "I'm not proud of it."

He thought it was "honourable to get married. There was no other reason. None of them was rich!" He said: "I was looking for company, really."

He married, for the first time, when he was 21. "To have my own life and try it myself and apart from having two kids, that went nowhere."

So you can see he was really quite forthcoming on the topic.

Where I came unstuck was asking about a story about some car bumper stickers (which may or may not be true.) The first lot were supposed to have read: "Honk if you have been married to Edo de Waart", and the second: "Honk if you haven't been married to Edo de Waart". He didn't think this was at all amusing. "But I can see how some stupid people think it's amusing." I must be stupid then. "Oh, well, that's up to you."

All of which was quite possibly to be expected. Maestros get to make the jokes. You'd expect them to be a bit stroppy, too. After all, you must need a reasonably large ego to be a conductor.

"Yes. Yes. What you have to do when you stand up there is you have to think that what you're going to do that night is maybe not an alternative to another performance, but at least worth hearing. If you're so meek and insecure that you think, 'oh this is not Da! Da! Da! Da!' That is not what an audience wants."

Conducting is a magical and mysterious job. "Yes. There is something about it that you cannot explain." He has never tried to fathom it. "No. I don't need to know exactly what it is."

As for trying to fathom The Maestro? You'd want him to be unfathomable, wouldn't you? He didn't disappoint in that, or any other way.

The NZSO Mahler 9 series:
Christchurch, CBS Canterbury Arena, Tuesday, August 12;
Hamilton, Founders Theatre, Thursday, August 14;
Auckland, Town Hall, Friday, August 15.

- NZ Herald

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