Why San Francisco conductor Edo de Waart said 'yes' to Netherlands National Opera

Edo de Waart is not your run-of-the-mill, publicity-conscious, status-seeking conductor. In fact, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony has just resigned that post to assume the leadership of the Netherlands National Opera. The job will bring him exactly what he wants in a field that has become desperately important to his well-being.

As he told me the last time he was in New York: ''If I could get a job where hype was not important, where stardom was not important, where product was important, I would take it.''

And the job is in Amsterdam, still his favorite city. ''New York is not a city, it's a country!'' he throws in almost parenthetically. ''I grew up in a country where we think small scale, which often drives me crazy. But in art it is not necessarily that bad, to let something grow by itself and not beat it to make it grow twice as fast.''

De Waart began his professional musical career as assistant principal oboe for the Concertgebouw Orchestra. In 1964 he won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York and with it an assistantship to Leonard Bernstein. From there, he became Bernard Haitink's assistant with the Concertgebouw and also became head of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble.

In 1973 he became head of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. By this time he was beginning the guest-conducting circuit that brought him to the podiums of most of the world's great orchestras. He was offered the San Francisco Symphony music directorship in 1977.

It has been a generally happy marriage. Local critics have been intermittently harsh - most commonly complaining of a certain lack of excitement to his work. But this is usual treatment for any resident music director in just about any American city. De Waart has never sought major-personality status. If he had, he would have allowed himself to be heavily recorded, yet this is one area in which he has been conspicuously shy of late.

''I'm ambivalent about recordings. If I make a good recording, I like it. When it's not good, you can't buy them all up! I think there are certain things against recordings. You get unbelievably caught up with perfection. I've suffered from it a lot. You know, when you make a recording you want it to be as good, finally, as the Furtwangler or the Toscanini (performance of the same piece).

'' 'As good' at first - especially when you're young - means perfect: no wrong notes, brilliant playing, clean. Later, you find out that's not what it's all about ultimately. Those (famous conductors) had mixed the two things because they were all older. Almost all those 'great recordings' we talk about were seldom made by people 30 years old.

''Let's face it, they were at the pinnacle of their powers, usually with an ensemble they had worked with for 20, 25 years. So it's really not fair for you to compare yourself with that. But then you ask, 'Why should I make the record?' So that's what I've been asking myself the last few years, and that's why I have made less and less recordings. I feel if you are not in the circumstances to make something special, you shouldn't do it - nobody's waiting for it. I'm not eager on that field anymore, just to push on and get all this exposure and junk. To me it doesn't mean anything.''

De Waart took over the San Francisco at a time of turmoil that had forced Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony, to relinquish the directorship. De Waart managed to convince the orchestra that he was on their side. During his tenure he has brought the orchestra into its new home, the Louise M. Davies Hall, and has taken the ensemble on its first US tour in too many years.

I asked him to explain his brand of diplomacy. ''It's not diplomacy. It is being as open as you can. If you try and play any games with an orchestra, you are going to lose. Be open and direct, and sensitive to each other's sensitivities. To me, self-confidence it terribly important. I know how quickly mine is undermined. I know I have the power to undermine 80 percent of those in the orchestra in three rehearsals. But why would I do that? That's not my function. I'm not there in San Francisco to further my career because I would be out guest conducting if my career were the main motive.''

The highly publicized - and in truth overemphasized - acoustical problems in the new Davies hall are being slowly worked out with de Waart's help. ''So far, we have done away with a lot, and we have arrived with a good reverberation time - slowly! We are going one step at a time; you might overshoot the point where it's very good. I would say it will take another two or three seasons before we really feel that we have gotten close to what ultimately is possible there.

''Acoustics is not a science. Acousticians are not always easy to deal with. They look at their meters and say, 'It's fine,' and I say, 'It's NOT fine,' so you have this big argument. There is an aspect to our craft that cannot be measured. A musician walks out on the hall and he doesn't see any wood he thinks its a bad hall, no matter what it sounds like. And he plays differently. You see this big hall and you go and force. And we all know when you start pushing on the strings or on the voice, it doesn't carry.''

Does de Waart have anyone as a role model? ''I have one great example, though I don't want to be as crazy as he is. But I certainly think Carlos Kleiber, who is among living conductors one of the great musicians, does something (only) when he feels he can do it. Consequently, whether you agree with it or not, all of his recordings for my taste - except maybe the Beethoven Fifth - are standards of what is possible.

''I might never arrive at that point. Or I might say, 'So what, I'll do it anyway, it's nice for my family!' For obviously the only record that we have of our work is a record. Our (podium) work blows away, it's gone, it's a memory, like a conversation. You know the gist of it, and what it felt like, but you cannot verbally quote more than a few things. With music, memory plays a strange part in that you tend to build up the good concerts you've heard and think, 'That was the greatest thing I ever heard.' I would like to hear some of the things that were 'the greatest' now!''

He holds the late conductor Rudolf Kempe as a paragon, ''an example of where I would like to end up.'' In his views on Kempe, de Waart sums himself up as well: ''He was a wonderful musician who did not ever do anything for his 'career.' He just made as good music as he could, but it wasn't hyped up to be something that it was not. I cannot be hyped up - it would fall in like a wet souffle with me. I just couldn't. And that's a good feeling!''

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