SOME conductors like the classics best. Others favor romantic or contemporary composers. Edo de Waart is one of the rare conductors who seem equally at home in all parts of the repertoire. His favorite composer is Beethoven. Yet one of his latest recordings is of the opera ``Nixon in China,'' by John Adams, a young and experimental composer with whom de Waart has been associated for several years.
De Waart is a cosmopolitan musician, dividing his time between the United States and the Netherlands, in addition to guest-conducting orchestras around the world. Originally from the Netherlands, he has served as music director of such organizations as the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Netherlands Opera.
He has a longtime association with the San Francisco Symphony, and more recently the Minnesota Orchestra, in the United States. His credits also include a long list of recordings and guest-conductor appearances in cities as varied as London, West Berlin, and Monte Carlo.
Discussing his work during a New York visit not long ago, he expressed his feeling that it's important for musicians to expose themselves - and their audiences - to music of all kinds and all periods of musical history, including contemporary works that may be unusual and unfamiliar.
De Waart calls himself a ``re-creator'' of music. ``After all,'' he says, ``I'm not writing the music. I'm just trying to get under the skin of the person who wrote it, and understand why he or she wrote it.''
Within the domain of ``re-creation,'' however, de Waart wants to cover the broadest possible domain of activity. ``We need to be able to do it all,'' he says. ``As performers, we should not be content just trying to do an even more polished and wonderfully thought-out performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. It's important that we go head-on into the encounter with our own time.''
One challenge in conducting 20th-century music is the great difference between the styles of various modern composers. On one hand is the difficult and highly cerebral music of people like Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter. On the other hand are simpler, deliberately repetitive pieces by Philip Glass and John Adams. De Waart says his job isn't to choose one over another but to interpret each of them as best he can.
``I'm not in the profession of judging,'' he says. ``I'm a performer. I feel a performer - almost like a photographer - should record not only what has been in the past, but what is going on in his own time. You show these pictures of the moment: This is now. Three years from now, John Adams might write something tremendously crusty.... There are all kinds of possibilities. But we just record. We give it our everything: We rehearse them well; we play them with our whole hearts and leave time to judge it. And the critics!''
Of all the composers he's interpreted over the years, de Waart says he feels closest to Beethoven - because Beethoven's character, as expressed in music, sometimes reminds him of his own.
``He changes moods within a split second,'' says the conductor, ``from being extremely happy to being rather violently upset, to put it mildly. Some symphonies - the way he ends is like someone kicking the door behind him, just shouting the last sentence into the room and then going boom. Finished!''
When interpreting a classical composer like Beethoven, de Waart works hard to re-create the kind of mood and atmosphere that conductors and audiences might have experienced when the music was new. He uses the opening of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the ``Eroica,'' as an example, and the vividness of his description conveys the intensity of his feeling for the music. Beethoven jolted contemporaries
``Can you imagine at his time,'' says de Waart, ``what an incredible impression that must have made: these two incredible chords ripping through the hall, and people just jumping out of their seats. They had never heard anything like this!
``We listen to that symphony with our ears [attuned to] Mahler or Stravinsky's `Rite of Spring,' and to us it's just: `Boom boom - yeah, that's nice.' But if you try to re-create and to think back to the people of that time - with their wigs on, they had just barely sat down and were probably not too interested. And they suddenly have this wild guy [Beethoven] walking up there, hardly looking at the audience. He turned around to the orchestra and banged his fist down, and you got these two monster chords! I think it's very important for us to try and recapture what that music meant at that time.'' Started career as oboist
De Waart started his professional life as an oboist, but he quickly changed to a conducting career - which allowed him a more total involvement in the music he loved.
``The physicalness of conducting is terrific,'' he says happily. ``I always was very sporty. I ran a lot and always played soccer in the street. I can't sit still very well for a long time. So showing what you have to say through gestures comes very naturally.
``I guess I'm naturally bossy, too, and that helps!'' he adds with a smile. ``I just want to be totally involved - and a conductor is about as totally involved as you can get!''