Eckart Preu will be the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s new music director. Photos courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

The Portland Symphony Orchestra has chosen Eckart Preu, a German-born conductor now living in Spokane, Washington, as its next music director. He will begin a three-year term with the 2019-20 season, succeeding Robert Moody, who held the post for 10 years until leaving the symphony this spring.

Eckart Preu

The symphony announced the hiring Thursday morning. Preu, who turns 49 later this month, will serve as music director designate for the upcoming 2018-19 season and participate in planning sessions and community events. As music director designate, he will conduct Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture and the premiere of a Michael-Thomas Foumai piece at Merrill Auditorium on Jan. 27 and Jan. 29. That program also includes Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

Preu is the outgoing music director of the Spokane Symphony, a position he held for 15 years, as well as music director of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in California and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. He’s also been music director of the Stamford Symphony in Connecticut,and held conducting positions in Richmond, Virginia, and Paris, France, and with the American Symphony Orchestra and the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra.

In a phone interview, Preu said he felt a connection with the orchestra as soon as he began rehearsing with the musicians, during his auditions with the PSO as part of the search for Moody’s replacement and also in 2011 when he came to Portland as a guest.

“There are things you cannot explain, what happens between the conductor and the orchestra. But something happened there,” Preu said. “We had an understanding, a musical understanding right away. When that happens, you are happy because you can communicate on a higher level than usual, and you can achieve things together in very nice and very rewarding ways.”

The orchestra has been on his mind since then, he said, and that’s what prompted him to apply for the job. “When I walked in there for the first rehearsal and subsequent rehearsal and concert, I felt the orchestra was a very giving and very dedicated orchestra, and a very good orchestra – an orchestra that cares – and what I felt this orchestra cared especially much about was the way they sounded. They were very open-minded and willing to try new things.”

Preu was selected from a field of three finalists. The others were Ken-David Masur, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, and Daniel Meyer, music director of the Asheville Symphony.

The symphony did not disclose his salary.

In a statement, Carolyn Nishon, the orchestra’s executive director, called it “a thrilling time to be a part of the PSO” and said Preu will be a strong partner and artistic leader for the orchestra and its community.

Moody gave three years notice, so this search began in 2015. Tim Boulette, a vice president of the PSO trustees, chaired a search committee that included PSO musicians, staff, trustees and members of the community. The committee received more than 240 applications and considered four criteria: artistic quality, community relationships, lifelong musical learning, and organizational culture and stability. In hiring Preu, the committee cited his passion for music, talent, collaborative qualities and commitment to the community.

Charles Dimmick, PSO concertmaster, also cited the chemistry musicians felt with Preu when he arrived as a guest conductor in 2011. In a statement, he called Preu “a musician of substantial depth and integrity. … I’m thrilled that he’ll be joining us in Portland, and I look forward to many years of making music with him.”

Preu became interested in music at age 5. His primary instrument is the piano, and he sings. His stateside career began in 1996, when he came to the United States as winner of the National Conducting Competition of the German Academic Exchange Service.

Portland has a long history with German musicians. The Kotzschmar Organ, a central musical and architectural feature of the orchestra’s home at Merrill Auditorium, is named after Hermann Kotzschmar, a German native who lived in Portland from 1849 until he died in 1908. He was a musician and teacher, and is credited as a pivotal figure in the evolution of Portland’s cultural vitality.

Preu is married with two children and said it was too soon to say if his family will move to Maine. It’s common in today’s music world for music directors to hold multiple positions in different time zones. He’s eager to arrive in Portland and begin working. His first task will be getting to know the musicians and all the orchestra personnel. He called an orchestra “a family of things – the musicians, the board, the sponsors and donors, the volunteers, the audience, the press, the staff. So many entities. It takes a lot of people for this thing to work.”

Right away he will begin thinking about programming for the 2019-20 season. He will research the music the orchestra has performed and search for ways to program “with my own stamp, but also to find, in talking with the staff and musicians, a way to create a long-term musical plan or narrative. That will take time. I am not going to come in and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is what we are going to do.’ It takes a certain knowledge and communication for this to develop.”

He plans his programs first for audience enjoyment, and also for the musicians. He sees it his task to fill his concerts with music than spans 400 years, from the Baroque period to the present. He loves the classics and believes performing music by Beethoven, Brahms and other giants of the classical canon is the best way for a conductor and orchestra to get to know each other and establish a relationship.

He is fond of new music and enjoys working with composers with “a voice that speaks to me as a person and what I imagine might speak to a broad audience of people,” he said. “It must have accessibility, and it must have some spice and atmosphere that is very unique. It doesn’t need to have an eruption, but it needs to have a musical narrative, a style to it that, if you miss it the first time, you’ll get it the second time around. It must exist within a known language.”

Among his career highlights was a commercial recording of the premiere of “Letters from Lincoln” commissioned by the Spokane Symphony.

Ultimately, he wants to please the people who buy tickets, so he plans to pay attention not only to what members of the audience tell him, but how they react to music old and new. “You want audiences to be entertained, pleased, touched, moved and excited,” he said.

Preu understands the challenge he faces in replacing Moody, who was popular with audiences and musicians and made a large and favorable impression on Portland in his decade at the orchestra’s helm. Preu is not daunted by the challenge of working in the shadow of Moody’s lingering presence and memory.

He and Moody have known each other more than 20 years. They met soon after Preu arrived in the United States. They spent two days driving together from a conductor’s institute in the province of Quebec, Canada, to New York City. “He had a car, and I didn’t. We spent a lot of time together in that car,” Preu said.

The key to his success in Portland will be his ability to shape the orchestra in his own way, as Moody did.

“Bob is a wonderful musician – innovative, inventive, a great communicator, wonderful speaker and human being. But the most important thing for anyone succeeding anyone is to not to be influenced by that. You are your own person and you have to go in as your own person and not comparing yourself to anything, because you compare yourself to a ghost. That ghost is gone.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

filed under: