When Eckart Preu auditioned to be the Long Beach Symphony’s new music director a few years ago, there was mutual respect in the room.
The German-born conductor and maestro had already spent well over a decade establishing himself in the American classical music scene after a career performing and leading symphonies across Europe. And Preu knew that the Long Beach Symphony, which was founded in 1935, was a cultural institution on the rise, with the potential to be a truly elite orchestra.
But what ended up making Preu a perfect fit for the Long Beach Symphony wasn’t only his international reputation or his award-winning conductor skills. It was his willingness to take risks and present unconventional works while allowing his performers to put their own personal spin on arrangements.
“Every orchestra has its own aesthetic in its sound, its style, and how it reacts to [the conductor],” says Preu, who starts his second season with the symphony this fall. “There are plenty of orchestras that play really well and very clean, but you don’t feel anything because there’s no personality. In Long Beach, the musicians bring the personality to the music, and that makes it very special because then it’s not just music, it’s our music.”
Largely comprised of lifelong musicians who have made names for themselves as go-to Hollywood session musicians, Preu quickly discovered that his new orchestra didn’t need any hand-holding, but just a little fine tuning — especially when it came to veering away from the more traditional takes on classical arrangements.
The 2018-2019 season, which begins Sept. 29, reflects Preu’s adventurous influence, avoiding the safe and traditional route in favor of showcasing the progressiveness and cultural diversity Long Beach is known for.
Opening night of the symphony’s Classical Series is called “American Fusion” and includes arrangements ranging from Frank Zappa’s “G-Spot Tornado” and West Side Story to George Gershwin’s iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The symphony’s POPS! Series starts Oct. 6 with a tribute to Motown featuring famous tracks by Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and more.
“Your listening experience is very different when you know something than when you’re listening to something that’s unfamiliar,” Preu says of his approach as a music director. “I think it’s important to have both of these facets at every concert, and the way we put it together is unorthodox in many ways.”
He likes to view symphony programs in terms of other curated experiences, like a multi-course meal.
“You still have the big blockbuster piece of every program, because every program needs the steak equivalent to hold it down — you can’t just eat appetizers,” he says. “But once you have the steak, then you can have [interesting] appetizers, salads, and desserts around it.”
Although Preu (like many full-time symphony conductors) still splits his time between Long Beach and other cities around the country — he will be retiring as music director of the Spokane Symphony at the end of this season to dedicate more time to his roles in Long Beach and at the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra — his appreciation for his adopted Californian hometown and its symphony audience grows with each show.
In addition to giving Preu the opportunity to work with some of Southern California’s top freelance musicians, this season’s Classical and POPS! series will welcome high-profile special guests like pianist Terrence Wilson, violinist Roger Wilkie and vocalists Michael Lynche and Shayna Steele.
With Preu at the helm, the Long Beach Symphony is finally ready to emerge from he shadow of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to stand out on its own.
“For the longest time, classical music has been viewed as old folks’ lame entertainment, and this has very much changed going into the 21st century,” Preu says.
“Every concert will still have something very meaningful and soul-searching to it, which to me, is what classical music at its core is about. On the other hand, there’s always going to be a fun aspect about it. People are going to come out of the concert whistling a tune and having experienced something out of the ordinary. If you’ve never been to any symphony concerts before, this first one is the concert to go to.”
Long Beach Symphony’s 2018-2019 season kicks off with “American Fusion” Saturday, Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $28.