Zdenek Macal: Just Call Him Denny : Pacific Symphony Guest Conductor Indicates He Doesn't Want Music Director's Job

Times Music Writer

In 3 years and 4 months, Zdenek Macal says, beaming, he will be eligible to become an American citizen. And he will do so.

"I love it here," says the Czechoslovakia-born Macal about Southern California, where he and his wife of 30 years, Georgina, have maintained a Laguna Niguel home for 7 years.

Macal, who holds major conducting posts in Milwaukee, San Antonio and Chicago, has other bases but says he expects "to live here (in California) forever."

Macal, who conducts the Pacific Symphony's New Year's Eve pops concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Saturday night, predicts that "in the normal course of its growth, Orange County will have its own full-time orchestra."

He talks about his interest in the cultural life of Southern California. About attending concerts at the Center. About going to downtown Los Angeles to the Museum of Contemporary Art. About following the competition for the architect of the new Disney Hall.

But he draws the line at talking about being a candidate for the post of Pacific Symphony music director.

Asked if he has any interest at all in the job, he shakes his head in a clearly negative response.

"My first priority at this time is Milwaukee"--the Milwaukee Symphony, where he is in the middle of his third season, with a contract for three more.

"I will soon be 53 years old, and it is time for me to conduct more, travel less and visit fewer orchestras. For 25 years, I have gone all over the world. I have been a music director and a guest (conductor)--though more often a guest.

"Up until 158, I kept a count of the orchestras I have conducted, but now it is over 160. I have conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven, the Orchestre de Paris in Ravel."

The tall, lean Macal--he used to be a competition runner--may not consider himself a candidate, but the leaders at Pacific Symphony do.

Preston Stedman, chairman of the search committee, said Thursday: "If a guest is not a professed candidate, we will still look at his skills in working with our orchestra. After all, most established conductors do not seek positions but nevertheless attract the attention of other orchestras. And this can lead to changes."

Macal--pronounced Mah-CALL ("Zdenek is harder," he says, "Just say zz-DENN-ik, or call me Denny like my wife does")--says: "At this stage, I can't waste my energy. I never did play games, but now, less than ever. I should be able to relax and let others worry. But, of course, that's not my style."

According to a Milwaukee Journal magazine article in November, some of the Milwaukee players said Macal prides himself on maintaining the same intensity in out-of-town concerts that he gets at home-hall events.

This week, at his Laguna Niguel home on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Macal told a similar story, this one about a guest-conducting appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra.

"We went down to Rochester (Minn.), and I could see they wanted to relax. But I wouldn't have it. This music demands the best we have, every time we come to it. I literally forced them to find the energy.

"It was a tremendous concert, there was a standing ovation afterward, and people said: 'This never happened before.' Well, of course it doesn't happen when nobody tries."

The same level of intensity has been noted in Macal's work in resuscitating the San Antonio Symphony, an orchestra that disbanded over labor and financial strife before reorganization set it on a new path.

"I promised to put 2 years into helping the new symphony," Macal says, a certain strain emerging for the first time in the conversation. "It may take a little longer. But Milwaukee is my first priority, and the people in San Antonio know that."

Does he differentiate between repertories? Early in the interview, he mentioned with some pride that he has programmed 20% American music "of all periods" without turning off his audiences. But eclecticism seems his rule. Does he usually avoid the pops repertory he will conduct in Orange County this week?

"I don't avoid it at all. But I see it as a chance for variety. I know that in Europe, a whole program of Johann Strauss is too much, so I feel that here, half a program of Johann Strauss is too much. So, we have a little.

"But what we have is good. One can have the very best music on pops programs--there is never a need to lower one's standards.

"And, when one gets to Gershwin, even though he died young and we were deprived of what he may have written later, still, he wrote masterpieces like the Concerto in F. 'Rhapsody in Blue' comes close to that."

It's not always musical matters that occupy Macal's attention. In the summer of 1986, he fled Australia without explanation, ostensibly over fears caused by the fluctuating Australian dollar.

From Macal's point of view, this is what happened:

"I had a 3-year contract with the Sydney Symphony, and we were very happy with each other. That first season--which turned out to be my only season there--was wonderful. . . .

"But, I did not know the true tax situation, though I had asked my London manager to look into it. Eventually, I found out that the tax rate would be 60%. That, plus the large commission, would leave very little--so little that we would have been forced to move to a cheaper hotel. I asked out of the contract.

"That didn't work. I played the difficult artiste. That didn't work, either--they loved it.

"Finally, I saw there was nothing to do for it but to leave. So I came home to Laguna Niguel."

Conductor Zdenek Macal will lead the Pacific Symphony and pianist Jeffrey Siegel in works by Strauss, Gershwin and Offenbach at 8:30 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $29, concert only; $69 to $150 for concert and party. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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