Exiting music director taught Minnesota Orchestra to play from the heart
by MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; May 26, 2002©
Eiji Oue stood backstage at Orchestra Hall and tilted his eyes up to a video monitor. On the screen were the musicians he has come to regard as family, seated on stage and waiting to start rehearsal. Oue hadn’t seen or spoken to any of them in five months.
His farewell season with the Minnesota Orchestra had been more farewell than season, certainly not the celebratory swan song for a music director who, even detractors admit, put this symphony back on the national and international map.
Oue’s tangible accomplishments are unprecedented: 17 recordings, three Grammy Award nominations and morale-boosting tours of Europe and Japan that cemented the orchestra as a force in American music-making. All this while Oue introduced 31 musicians into the symphony — a turnover of nearly one-third of the orchestra.
His greatest and most indelible feat is intangible — coaxing this orchestra to perform from the heart rather than the mind. It also exposed what some see as his greatest failing.
People inside and outside the orchestra see Oue as soft and underinvolved in the technical details required for flawless performance. Oue wanted his musicians to soar through a boundless skyline; with Oue, some musicians felt adrift in the wind.
Nobody on the orchestra’s board argued hard to keep Oue two years ago, when his contract came up for renewal. Management extended his stay for a seventh and final season, buying time for their search for a new music director.
After Sept. 11, the orchestra canceled a much-anticipated return to Japan. For Oue, it was a lost chance to show his parents, who aren’t strong enough to travel, and old friends and countrymen how tall this American orchestra had grown in his care.
As the current season continued with a string of guest conductors, Oue plied his trade in Germany, where he is music director of the Hannover Radio Orchestra and a professor at the city’s music conservatory.
For Oue, on the morning of April 22, the video screen backstage was like looking through a window into his own, cozy home, boarded up in his mind for the past winter and now ready again for his company.
He let out a long breath and turned to the open stage door. Making his way to the podium, Oue surprised each of his front-row string players with a handshake.
“Morning,” he said as he opened his score. The musicians mumbled a sleepy greeting in return. Oue smiled and lifted his baton. “Shostakovich,” he said.
As if no time at all had passed between them — or as if the time didn’t matter — Oue and his orchestra launched into the opening measures of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony.
‘MINNESOTA MUSIC MAN’
Oue was born 43 years ago in Hiroshima, where he grew up among elders still reeling from the atomic bombs dropped there a decade earlier by United States war planes. Today, Oue is the definition of an urban, cross-cultural American.
He lives near Loring Park in a high-rise with Eastern decor, Western spaciousness and a 15th-floor view of downtown Minneapolis. When describing his thoughts and feelings about life or career or music, he often draws analogies with a broad span of American pop culture — Tony Bennett, the New England Patriots, “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” the television sitcom “Friends,” “Citizen Kane,” the difference between Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.
There’s an elfin quality to Oue owing more to his spirit than his stature (he’s 5 feet 2 inches). He’s animated on the podium (some see him more as a performer than as a conductor) and just as bouncy off it.
He will laugh at his own jokes, lean in and gesture in conversation when people on the other end seem open to it. When he talks about music, his eyebrows arch and his mouth puckers in a look of delight and wonder, his hands clasp and his sentences almost always end in exclamation points.
Oue is an unabashed Minnesotan, and he beams in reflection of the public face he gave the orchestra.
He spoke to service groups, senior groups, civic groups, church groups, youth groups, schools and business leaders, only sometimes at their own invitation. David Hyslop, president of the orchestra’s board, recalls coming into an otherwise empty Orchestra Hall on weekend mornings and finding Oue working with classes of Suzuki-method violin students.
“I think they put their trust in music in me,” Oue says. “Until then, it was Beethoven, Mozart, maybe Bach. Now, the Minnesota music man is Eiji Oue, or however they pronounce it.”
When Oue competed for the directorship here, the most attractive item on his resume wasn’t his most recent job, but his pedigree — he had studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein.
The orchestra hired Oue from the Erie Philharmonic, in Pennsylvania. On paper, even Oue allows it was a “Beam me up, Scotty!” professional leap. Some musicians here favored candidates with more solid credentials, but as has been his way since he arrived, Oue’s elusive qualities spoke louder than anything on paper.
Edo de Waart, Oue’s predecessor, was by all accounts a browbeating taskmaster who treated music as science rather than art. Oue couldn’t have been more of a contrast.
When he came to guest conduct, he championed the musicians, lauded them, encouraged them. The musicians felt good about themselves under Oue, and that was “a drug” for the orchestra, says concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis.
Fleezanis had mixed feelings upon Oue’s arrival. His professional orchestral experience paled to her own, and she couldn’t overlook his age. She is seven years his elder.
“His exhilaration with being on stage allowed the life of the music to take flight,” Fleezanis says. “It wasn’t always clear where we were flying, but we knew we would go somewhere.”
WINDOWS AND MIRRORS
From the beginning, Oue stressed what he wanted to feel rather than hear — sometimes by jabbing a finger or wrenching his hand into a quivering fist, and only sometimes verbally.
“More fantasy. More fantasy sound,” he told the violinists at a recent rehearsal, twisting his body and entwining his arms.
He left the specifics to his musicians — Fleezanis turned to the other violinists and instructed them to dot a particular quarter note. Moments later, going through the same section, Oue squeezed his face into a tight smile and told his violinists, “Beautiful, beautiful.”
Oue understands and agrees with some of the criticism. He then laughs through his next thought — critics in Japan and Europe often find him too focused on the details.
Dominick Argento, whom Oue designated as the orchestra’s first composer laureate, says Oue’s training with Bernstein instilled a sensitivity to American music.
“He knows my music better than I do,” Argento says. “Other conductors can deliver the right tempos, but they don’t have the feel. Eiji handles my music with such chutzpah.”
In concert, Oue doesn’t use a score. He learns new music by sitting at a piano and performing every note of every part — including percussion and countless measures of rest.
“I know the music by heart, not by memory,” he says. “My hands and body move to the music, and it’s a natural movement, like finding my way home. You speed up, you slow down, you know where the turns are, without even thinking about it.”
Oue acknowledges conductors who achieve more clarity by working with charted music in front of them. The Minnesota Orchestra anticipates just that from Osmo Vanska, who begins as Oue’s successor for the 2003-04 season.
“He is the opposite of what I do, which is what I think the orchestra needs today,” Oue says. “They’ve looked in a mirror for so long and are tired of their reflection. They want a window.”
When the founding director of the Osaka Philharmonic died, the orchestra followed Japanese custom by letting 49 days of mourning pass before discussing business. On the 50th day, the orchestra called Oue.
Oue wouldn’t have returned home, he says, before first establishing himself with a major American orchestra.
“I leave this orchestra in the finest shape,” says Oue, who also is principal conductor of Wyoming’s Grand Teton Music Festival. “A lot of guest conductors call me up after they have been here and say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you — it’s been such a great joy.’ When I came here seven years ago, it wasn’t like that.”
Oue cites the character of musicians he has hired. Initially, Oue says, the selection committee looked for flawless performers. Now it’s looking for musicians.
“Our business isn’t about being robots playing perfect music. It’s about creating fantasy and dreams,” he says. “If we don’t enjoy performing for people, how can the audience enjoy it? We just had a rehearsal where some musicians applauded their own colleagues. That is so wonderful.”
“Eiji moved us forward in as unorthodox a way as I’ve ever witnessed,” Fleezanis says. “If I could take a mental picture of the orchestra at the time he inherited it, it was a picture of uncertain self-esteem, that we don’t really have what it takes to be an international force. Now, I see an orchestra that’s absolutely certain of itself, ready to run any course, and that’s a coming of age I’ll forever be thankful to Eiji for.”
Oue is scheduled to conduct concerts here in November as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s centennial season. He isn’t giving up his Minneapolis apartment.
“My mind has never gone away from the Twin Cities. Never,” Oue says. “Last week, I came home, and there’s a big snowstorm. But I think that’s just Minnesota’s way of telling me ‘Eiji, don’t forget us.’ “