Power on the Podium

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Leonard Bernstein once warned Eiji Oue: “Keep conducting that way and you’ll die of exhaustion”

THIS PAST AUGUST, Hiroshima native Eiji Oue guest conducted seven Minnesota Orchestra musicians in Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The performance so stunned the audience that one musician was moved to visible tears, a percussionist gushed to performers “You’re all my heroes!,” and Libor Pesek, another Sommerfest conductor, announced it was the greatest conducting he had ever seen.

The Minnesota Orchestra wants to play under Eiji Oue (say it A.G. OH-way). And if some orchestra management types around the country were surprised by the winter announcement that the relatively unknown music director of the Erie Philharmonic was picked to succeed Edo de Waart, the musicians themselves don’t much care. They’d play their hearts out for him, and they can hardly wait until he gets here in September 1995 (this March 2-4 he will guest conduct again).

Your announcement speech was very charming.

Thank you. Everything is very exciting here—the musicians, the snow. I’m excited about meeting you!

Oh, everyone is.

When I was here, I conducted seven people, but the whole orchestra came to watch, cheering. One musician came to me and said he had been here eighteen years but had never seen this much excitement from his colleagues. That comes from the music and the musicians—not just me. I’m only one piece of the puzzle.

But aren’t you supposed to act like you’re the whole puzzle, if you’re a conductor?

Well, some do, but they shall remain nameless! This orchestra is one of the top ten in the country, and I believe even better than that. People can’t judge, keeping it here in town. It needs to be on the road, needs the reaction from New York and Boston and other audiences. We’ll be the name care of Minnesota, in the state, the nation, internationally!

Will that be difficult?

If Prince—or however he pronounces his name now—came here every week for fifteen weeks, do you think he could fill the house? We have to provide music to the community every week, but we can do it.

Were you born this enthusiastic?

I credit my parents and my teachers for everything I am now. My mother wanted me to try Brussels sprouts. I did not like them! The next day, she chopped them into small things I couldn’t identify and made soup. I thought the soup was great; she said, “It’s Brussels sprouts!” She said I don’t have to like everything, but I have to try.

You started to play the piano when you were four.

My parents thought, that or fishing. Fishing is dangerous—somebody would have to be with me. Playing piano, my mother and father could be anywhere in the house and know I’m fine.

My piano teacher is the most amazing lady I ever met in my life. She did not teach me how to play, she taught me how to listen. She was so far ahead of her time.

When Lenny met her, he told me, “No wonder. You had the best teacher in the world.”

Lenny. As in Bernstein.

At Tanglewood in 1978, I was a very serious student, playing the piano, my eyes on the music. This noisy group came to see us. One sat down by me. I waved him away with his smelly cigarette. Later, he was introduced: Maestro Leonard Bernstein. I thought, Oh my God…

But he had asked to see me conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in a later class. It begins with a big fanfare, then—STOP! I shook up and down, making big motions, very carried away. Dahhhhh da da da dump bum BOOM! Bernstein came out of his chair behind me and said “Wow!”

I didn’t hear him, I was sweating, conducting. He stopped the pianist; I didn’t hear him, I kept conducting. Then I noticed—oh, the music is not there! He came to the podium and asked how many times I’d conducted this. “First time,” I said. Very quietly, just so I could hear, he whispered: “If you keep conducting this way, you’ll die of exhaustion!”

You played West Side Story on the piano with Bernstein.

On the same bench. I play the top, he plays the bottom. Pretty soon, he is playing a little of the top. Then, he is playing more of the top. Then, I am off the bench!

He took over.

Not very often…he never told me what to conduct. On his last trip with the London Symphony, I was first on the program, and he asked what I wanted to do. I thought maybe a Beethoven symphony, perhaps an overture. For the first time in all those years, he seemed to be hinting that something was just not right with that. I said, “Maybe Mozart?” Ah, something is still not quite right. Then I said, “How about West Side Story?” “Now that’s a good idea,” he said. “And maybe Candide?” “Another good idea!” that’s the only time he ever directed me, even a little bit. It was the last live performance of his own music he heard.

You conduct scores from memory.

Well, I have to look at them first.

Entire scores?

What if I turned the page wrong?

This appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine in March, 1994.

About the author

Pamela Hill Nettleton

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