Eckart Preu conducts the Portland Symphony Orchestra on the Eastern Promenade on the Fourth of July. His official debut as the PSO’s music director is this month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

If you don’t think things will be different with Eckart Preu in charge of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, think again.

When the orchestra’s new music director was asked recently about long-term goals and pipe dreams, he talked about building the endowment and finding new ways to expand the audience, and then threw out an unlikely name as a possible musical guest: Snoop Dogg, the American rapper and media personality.

“That’s just a name,” he said, allowing the surprise of the suggestion to settle. “But something like that. What would happen if you brought in Snoop Dogg, someone who brings an audience we have never ever seen before and maybe will never see again, but you never know? It would draw a different audience than your regular pops audience, that’s for sure.”

To be clear, Preu has no intention of dramatically changing the character of the orchestra, and there are no plans to bring Snoop Dogg to town. He mentioned the rap artist in the context of pipe dreams and as an example of the kind of bold programming the orchestra might someday consider if it can build the endowment enough to take such a risk.

His larger point: He’s not one to stand pat. “The symphony is in a great position and has a great history, and I am very proud of Bob as my predecessor,” he said of Robert Moody, who had a 10-year run as music director. “But where do you go from here? It’s not about maintenance.”

As Preu begins his first season as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra with concerts Sept. 22 and 23 at Merrill Auditorium, he’s already a familiar figure in town and a known musical quantity among the musicians and audience members.

Preu, 50, has conducted the orchestra on a half-dozen occasions in two years, as a candidate to become music director and after he was appointed to the post, including this past Fourth of July on the Eastern Promenade. With his formal debut at hand, the relationship with the musicians and audience will grow as both get a better sense of Preu as an artist and human being.

Preu, who has a three-season commitment to the orchestra, described the connection between a conductor and musicians as a process of discovery for both. It’s a push-pull relationship, with each side feeling the other out and probing for soft spots to firm up and opportunities for experimentation and growth. He described the first year of that relationship as “careful” and the second year as “hot.”

“It’s a very revealing enterprise,” he said. “I will push, and they will push back, and I hope for a good, dynamic relationship. I think musicians who don’t feel challenged get lazy, and the conductor is the same way.”

Preu, who was born in East Germany, 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.

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.

His farewell from Spokane this past spring was a civic moment, with many farewells and tributes. It was similar in scope to the sendoff the PSO gave Moody, who left the orchestra after the 2017-18 season. Long goodbyes and leisurely introductions, such as he experienced in both Spokane and Portland, allow time for reflection, Preu said. He admits second-guessing himself after accepting the Portland job.

“I think anytime you move, you question yourself,” he said. “Is this the right thing to do? What do I lose? What do I gain? At that point, I was happy about both the achievements but also happy that I have the opportunity to try something new. Even though you always try to do something different, it’s hard to do.”

In Portland, everything will be new. His first concerts will include music from famous composers of the past and lesser-knowns, and that format will repeat across Preu’s first season. The concerts on Sept. 22 and Sept. 23, which the orchestra is promoting as “Eckart’s Inaugural,” include Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ robust “Finlandia” as the opener and “An Alpine Symphony” by the German composer Richard Strauss as the closer. In between, he’s programmed a lesser-known piece, “Out of the Mist,” by Lilian Elkington, a female English composer.

Hers is a sad story. Elkington was born in 1900 in Birmingham, studied music composition in college and performed as a concert pianist. After marrying, she focused her life on being a mother and wife. After Elkington died in 1969, her husband discarded her belongings. A musicologist from California discovered four of her compositions, including “Out of the Mist,” in a used bookstore.

Preu has performed it twice, in Spokane and Long Beach. He described it as a romantic piece “with a little Edward Elgar shining through without it being Elgar. You can hear it’s an English piece.”

There will be no guest artist for the September concerts. Preu wants people to focus on the orchestra, and he wants the people who attend the concerts to treat the live music experience as an opportunity to escape, to unplug from their devices for a short amount of time and simply allow the music to take them wherever they need to go.

“What I hope is for people to be present, to be in the moment and in the company of others,” Preu said. He is suspicious of orchestras that try to incorporate electronics and smart phones into their programming. He understands the motives for doing so, but believes they are self-defeating to the larger goals of the orchestra.

“Music is only really effective if you immerse yourself,” he said. “Music allows you to drift off, to escape. If people fall asleep, that’s part of escapism. You don’t have to pay attention to the texture of the orchestra if you don’t want to. That’s my job. The audience’s job is different. The audience’s job is to take time for yourself.”


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