To anyone who has seen and heard Zdenek Macal conduct, his speech cannot come as much of a surprise. At 54, the man is absolutely bursting with energy. He speaks quickly, backtracks, qualifies and generally exhibits a mind that seems to work faster than he can form the words in his Czech-accented, ungrammatical but highly expressive English.
His enthusiasm is the kind that catches, and he speaks with pride of a recent appearance with the New York Philharmonic. “The players told me that they are known as killers of conductors, and I said I don’t care. I don’t remember that I had any problems. Mostly I get almost every orchestra on my side in some way.
“I simply try to do the best possible concert, not only because it is my job but because it’s a great thing, it is a great privilege to conduct any music. I feel blessed to do Brahms or Beethoven or Barber or whatever I do.”
He says that after the concert, “they put in the newspapers in New York that the ‘orchestra obviously likes him, they play for him, audiences go wild.’ I had almost every night one standing ovation at intermission, then after the concert a second one. In New York! What more could you want?”
The music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, Macal--who has a home here in Laguna Niguel--will guest-conduct the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa Wednesday and Thursday nights. The main function of a conductor, Macal feels, is to stir up an orchestra and, through it, the audience.
“Music is something which is very emotional; it’s not mechanical, you can’t prepare it. Yesterday I conducted this part of the Dvorak this way, and tomorrow probably at the same place I will do it a different way. Why? Because it’s a different day, or because it’s not afternoon, it’s evening. You must act very sensitively to the moment. We shouldn’t be in a corset.
“And that’s the fascination! I did Beethoven’s Seventh 70 or 80 times and Strauss’ ‘Zarathustra’ 50 times but it’s always exciting for me. Even if I do the same piece three or four times in a row, I always try to do some rubato which I didn’t rehearse, just to keep the orchestra on the alert. Because otherwise they play mechanically, and that’s wrong.”
Business is half of our life, he says. “The other part is inside, what kind of people we are. That’s why the music and the arts are here, to simply remind the people to live the emotional life, because for most people the inside is sleeping, really sleeping.”
Macal, who has performed with more than 150 orchestras around the world, holds positions with the San Antonio Symphony and for the Grant Park concerts in Chicago in addition to the directorship in Milwaukee. After this year, though, he will drop the first two jobs. “I cannot do three orchestras,” he says.
But his guest-conducting schedule remains full. It includes recent appearances with major orchestras in Houston, Boston, Detroit and Washington, as well as in New York. During this interview at his hilltop home in Laguna Niguel, he was interrupted by a phone call from the Philadelphia Orchestra, which wants him for two programs next summer.
He has made several recordings with the Milwaukee Symphony and plans to continue with Berlioz’s “Lelio” with Werner Klemperer as narrator, the two Chopin concertos with Shura Cherkassky as soloist, and the rest of a full cycle of the nine Dvorak symphonies, of which five already are completed.
The orchestra has had its share of financial troubles, but Macal is pleased with its musical progress. “Oh, it was a provincial orchestra,” he recalls. “But in four years we have moved, and we are visible on the map.”
His speech becomes somewhat more guarded when talk turns to the Sydney Symphony, which he fled well before his contract expired, complaining of difficult working conditions and the Australian tax rate. But he says all the unpleasantness is behind him. “Just last week,” he says, beaming, “they contacted my manager here and asked if I would like to go back. They talk very positively about me, and they said the orchestra had its best performances in the time that I was there.”
His program of Czech music with the Pacific Symphony this week includes Smetana’s Overture to “The Bartered Bride,” Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and Janacek’s Sinfonietta. But he downplays the idea that he’s any better than anyone else at conducting music from his native land.
“Certainly, I am close to the Slavonic music, I am close to the Russian music, that is my background. Maybe if I just say it is easier for me to interpret it than some other kinds of music. I must work harder on some other things. Let’s put it this way: Maybe some German conductor has to work harder on Slavonic music because his German spirit is maybe too heavy and hasn’t enough color for this Slavonic music.”
Still, he’s wary of returning to Czechoslovakia--which he left during the Russian invasion of 1968, with just two bags and his family--despite recent changes there. “I don’t think that the Communists can change overnight by only giving up their membership in the party. I’m still surprised that in the election Havel got 37% and the Communists 17%. It’s still a high number for me, 17%.
“Basically, my home is here.” He will become a U.S. citizen in two years. “The most important thing is that I feel I have a home. Because for almost 20 years I had none. Living in Europe after 1968, I was not Swiss, not French, not Czech, not Austrian. So please don’t ask me to go through the whole process again, that I must lose my feeling for my home.”