Conductor  Zdenek  Macal

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


macalBorn in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Zdenek Macal is now an American citizen. At the age of four he began violin studies with his father. He went on to study conducting at the Brno Conservatory and then at the Janácek Academy of Music, where he graduated with highest honors in 1960. Zdenek Macal's previous positions include Music Directorships of the Czech Philharmonic (2003-2007), the New Jersey Symphony (1993-2002), the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (1986-1993), the Cologne Radio Symphony and the Radio Orchestra of Hannover. He has also served as Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of Chicago's Grant Park Summer Festival and Principal Conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, where he conducted both symphonic concerts and operatic performances. He first received international attention by winning two prestigious contests, the 1965 International Conducting Competition in Besançon, France, and the 1966 Dmitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York, chaired by Leonard Bernstein. In May, 1998, the Westminster Choir College honored Maestro Macal with an honorary doctorate.

A respected musical force, conductor Zdenek Macal is renowned in the world of classical music for his masterful interpretations and graceful conducting style. He has guest conducted over 160 orchestras worldwide, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Orchestre National de France, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Czech Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony, the Orchestra della Scala, the Stockholm Philharmonic, the Hamburg Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.

Mr. Macal has also conducted at the Prague National Theater, the Smetana Theater, the Brno Opera, and the opera houses of Cologne, Geneva, Turin and Bologna. He has taken part in major international festivals including those of Vienna, Lucerne, Edinburgh, Prague, Zurich, Besançon, Athens, Montreux and Holland; as well as the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico and the Ravinia, Tanglewood and Wolf Trap festivals in the United States.

Since his American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1972, he has conducted widely throughout North America, regularly leading the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, the New World Symphony and the symphony orchestras of Montreal and Toronto.

In the summer of 1990, Macal was back in Chicago for the free outdoor concerts with the Grant Park Symphony.  We met at his hotel and had a lengthy conversation.  His command of the English language was quite good, though the structure and grammar were sprinkled with European style order and word-use.  Much of this has been smoothed out, especially phrases he would sometimes use correctly, but slightly mangle because of extra enthusiasm for a particular topic or idea.

While setting up the recorder, he was mentioning the upsides and downsides of being on the road so much of the time . . . . .

Zdenek Macal:    You can always have everywhere 24-hour room service, but when you are sitting here eating and you need some ketchup, it takes twenty minutes to bring it.

Bruce Duffie:    Is this something that is of great concern as you travel — the comforts of home wherever you are?

macalZM:    Yes.  In the beginning I didn’t care so much, but we are doing it now 35 years.  My wife and I spend most of the time in the hotels, especially in the past.  Now it’s a little bit better because we have the house in Milwaukee.  I spend about fifteen weeks with Milwaukee Symphony, so we are now in our house where we have a little space.  We have the main residence in California, so it’s not exactly ten months in the hotel.  It was a few years ago, but still it is a lot in the hotels.  This summer, for example, I go from the hotel to hotel.  I opened the season here, then I went to Detroit for the Meadow Brook Festival.  Then I was in the Wolf Trap Festival with Washington National Orchestra, and last week I was with Philadelphia in the Mann Music Center.  Then I came back here.  So you have a period of weeks and weeks in the hotels.

BD:    Is that too strenuous on you, and do you get enough time to continue your study of the music?

ZM:    After 25 years I should know how to manage things even if the schedule is busy.  Yesterday someone said, “How are you doing that you can go without tiring?”  I said, “Of course it’s tiring,” but if I have space, even just a few hours, I try to relax.  I try to sleep a lot, and everybody needs complete relaxation for one week or two weeks, which I like to do too, but if I have not this possibility, I try to just to do it in half a day, for example.

BD:    You get asked to conduct all of the time.  How do you decide which engagements you will accept and which engagements you will turn aside?

ZM:    That’s a good question.  That’s very difficult.  It’s very difficult because you plan about two years ahead, if not more.  So you have your schedule, and mostly it’s quite tight.  Then the most difficult thing is that you get a last-minute call from some orchestra, which is very difficult to say no.  It was this way last week with Philadelphia, which came later.  I should have been at home during the week, which I had after a long time.  So it’s hard to say no from both sides.  If you say no, then this orchestra will be angry that you are free and you don’t do it.  And for your career, it’s a nice challenge to go to Philadelphia.  Similar things happened in May.  I had two weeks off and we planned, finally, after eight years, to go on the California Coastal Highway Number One.  It had been postponed, and our daughter did it already twice.  We were also going to go up to San Francisco since there are a lot of nice things which you can see there.  So we planed it many times and we always had to postpone it.  The last time it was in January and it didn’t work, so now in May we said, “Okay, we have ten or twelve days off, so we will do it.”  But a request came from Houston for the closing of the season for two weeks.  So sometimes it is going like this.

BD:    Do you ever feel that you are a slave to your career?

ZM:    I try not to be the slave.  But the thing is that, first, I am very privileged that in the last 35 years my wife is travelling everywhere with me.  So basically where I am in the moment, that’s my home, and my wife is here and my family is here.  So that’s the center of the world for me.  That’s one thing which is very comfortable.  The second thing is that, basically, I was everywhere.  I conducted over 150 orchestras around the whole world, so we were in almost all important centers.  As to comfort, I am six or seven years in Chicago, so you stay in the same hotel, most of the time in the same rooms.  They are the same people, same orchestra, same management, so you are quasi-, a little bit, at home, if you understand what I mean.  It becomes comfortable because I know most of the people in the hotel, even if they change.  Several of them are here over a long time, and you know them.  So, it’s one kind of the balance.  But going back to your question about the career, it’s very difficult because in the whole of my life I started a few times from the beginning.  I started my career in Czechoslovakia, and then after the Russian invasion we left in ’68.  So I started again and had my base in Western Europe.  We came every year a little to the United States, but my basis was in Europe.  We were living in Switzerland and I spent most of my time in Germany, but we traveled everywhere.  Then eight years ago [1982] we moved to the United States.  We have the home in California, and for the first two or three years I spent about half and half, Europe and the United States.  Then more and more I was involved here.  Basically, if you conduct here, then people know you here — especially if you are here for several years.  I was almost everywhere, but a few years ago it happened that simply I came to the city the first time and they didn’t know about me, not at all.  There is communication, so the professional people know about you.  But for the audiences, if you are not playing there, if you are not conducting in the city, very often they forgot you.  Even if you conduct once, it needs a few visits before you are a familiar face.  So twenty years ago I established my reputation in Western Europe when I left Czechoslovakia, and then we moved here so it took time to establish my position here.  But still, if you are not enough known so you must go there, you must go there.  Now the time is such that I can concentrate on other things.  But still, if you are in demand it’s hard to say no.

BD:    It’s good that you are in demand, though, so that you keep getting asked to go to these places.

ZM:    Yes, I was fortunate.  Basically all of my life I have had more invitations than I could accept.  I am in good shape, so I enjoy making music with the different orchestras.  But you are right, in some way, and I tried already many, many of these things.  My basis is right now is the Milwaukee Symphony where I spend about fifteen weeks.  In the last two years I was also Artistic Advisor of the San Antonio Symphony.  When they stopped playing, they were in quasi-bankruptcy, so I promised them to put it on the move.  It happened that it is now in quite good shape, so, I am leaving.  They are watching to hire the kind of musicians that I have shown they need.  It was a challenge for me to see if you can go from zero and do something, and now it is on the move.  I don’t say that it is ever really secure, because no one orchestra is.  Basically in this country, that has happened everywhere if you don’t care and if you don’t anticipate enough.  But basically, I would say that San Antonio is in good shape artistically and financially, too.  So I am leaving now with good reason that it’s secure for three or five years.  They just closed their new contract for three years and everybody is basically happy. 
The excellent Executive Director there is Rick Lester.  [Lester (1952-2013) held that position from 1987-1993.

BD:    Was your responsibility to bring the artistic standard up, or were you also involved in the financial and managerial side?

macalZM:    You cannot separate these two things.  If you should go up artistically you need the money, and today you cannot just leave it on administration.  You cannot leave it on the executive director where people on the staff just say, “Go and raise the money.”  They tried; everybody tried very hard, but I know from my experience that the musical director can do a lot.  This is my experience with Milwaukee and everywhere for the financial situation because you are, as conductor or as Musical Director, you are more present.  You are more visible, so the people respond to you more generously.  If you go to a party as executive director of the orchestra, or if you talk to the people, they try to help you.  But if they go to my concerts for a while and they see me on stage, you are more present.  If I use the same words I can get a faster result and better result.  So I do it!  It’s very easy to say the management should do it, but today it a tough job.

BD:    So you’re very much, as they say, hands on?

ZM:    I care about everything.  I care about everything and I try to be involved in all things.  That’s the way, how it should go, and we see the results in two years.  As I said, San Antonio is in good shape financially and artistically.  I hired about 27 new musicians, and I believe that now for several years it will go.  We have done similar things here in Chicago at Grant Park.  I’m here six years and Steve Ovitsky is here ten years as Concert Manager, and everybody can see the results.  Everybody’s talking about how the orchestra’s playing well, and everybody’s pleased.  When I came here it was a good orchestra always, but you need to do something to improve.  You not only work hard, which we do every day, every rehearsal, every concert, but also the thing is you can go so high, as good as a single musician can.  It’s very difficult today to simply replace the people, not because you have new ones, but to just get people out of the orchestra.  It’s very difficult to fire people; that you almost cannot do.  So it takes time and a lot of energy.

BD:    I assume, though, there are not a lot that you want to get rid of?

ZM:    No, there’s not, but you need to simply improve the level.  Ten years ago you were good for the section, but five years ago the orchestra moved ahead faster, so if you don’t improve, you do not go with it.  Then the next five years maybe you are some kind of problem because you are behind the orchestra as a member of it.  That always happens when somebody stays and the orchestra develops and not everybody can move with it.  If every year we get about two or three new musicians, it doesn’t look like much when there are 80 or 90 musicians.  It is just two or three, that’s true, but the point is if you do it systematically over years, by the sixth year when I am here, six times three it’s eighteen.  So we are almost one-fifth or one-quarter new, and everybody who was a new hire was an excellent musician.  That’s changed the profile, and very smoothly.  Sometimes it happens that you needn’t fire people.  Somebody moved to other place, or the family or husband relocated, or the musician retired.  So a minimum of 50 percent of these changes are very natural.  Last season, after 30 years playing in this orchestra, the concertmaster and his wife the principal cello retired.  So this time you have two openings.

BD:    And every time you put a new person in, it’s the best you can get?

ZM:    Exactly, and very often you can get a much better person.  That’s very important thing.

BD:    Does the knowledge that every one of these musicians can be replaced by someone equal or better spur the musicians who are there to work a little harder?

ZM:    I think so.  [Both laugh]  That’s one thing.  The second thing is working over a long period with the orchestra.  I spend every year here three weeks.  I came on for the opening, then in the middle, and at the end to close the season.  So over the years we have the orchestra good in the hand.  They know you well; they can follow you, and if you have good results, if the reviews or the press praise you and the orchestra and say how good a job you do, it’s inspiring for every musician!  This is important especially if we get a quite difficult program.  This week we played the Martinů First Symphony, probably the first time it was played here in Chicago.  This is contemporary music and a very difficult piece, and it went very well.  So with good results, every single musician is ambitious!  They didn’t all do it in the past, but more and more they prepare the parts.  I have started to realize lately everybody is very well prepared because they enjoy the work.  I have the feeling that they are involved in the work with me.  They know that if they will be better prepared, and if they can follow my indication quicker, know what I want, they will have more enjoyment.  This is during the rehearsals.  I am not talking about the concerts, but the rehearsals are more fun and it is more enthusiastic.  This orchestra is mostly very young but very ambitious, and there is an excellent spirit here.  So that’s a very positive thing.  You go systematically over years, as we did with Steve Ovitsky here, slowly, slowly, but always improving with the years.

BD:    Good.  Do you do all of your preparation in the rehearsal, or do you leave a little bit of that inspiration just for the spark on the night of the concert?

ZM:    Certainly I do.  For the summer concerts everywhere in the United States, including here, we have just two rehearsals, which is about half the time you have for a regular season concert.  It doesn’t mean that it must be less good, but you must be very good particularly in how to get the best results in a short time.  It means you must know exactly where the problems are, and rehearse the most difficult problems first.  Then you must know which parts can go in some way alone during the concert.  We are very fortunate that most of the orchestra is from Lyric Opera, so they are very flexible and I knew from the very beginning that I can modulate, modulate many things during the concert, and that’s what I do.

BD:    So the concert really is still the shaping process?

ZM:    It is.  It is the moment of the inspiration, and it is beautiful.  If you have not enough time to get all of the things prepared in the rehearsals, if you have such a flexible orchestra you can be sure that they will enjoy this final modulation and forming during the concert because it’s some kind of excitement!  It is tension, but positive tension.  The concert should be always exciting, but sometimes you simply cannot move because of different reasons.  Sometimes you cannot bring this excitement.  I try always.  I cannot basically be without this excitement.  One part of this is that if you change something during the concert, and if the musicians know already that we must finalize the version at the concert, they are more on alert.  There is some fascination to this, and if this is on the stage, then audience feels it, too.  So you can get great results.

BD:    Then is the second concert of the same music even better?

ZM:    A second performance could be.  It’s sometimes very dangerous, though, because if you get good results in the first concert, sometimes they say, “Okay, we got it.”  Especially if it is a very difficult program we must be very careful simply not to lose the tension for the second concert.  There could be some kind of relaxation.  It must again be a new excitement, a new performance, and start, basically, right from the beginning.  So sometimes I use the technique that I slightly change to keep momentum of the evening.  I like it.  I like this flexibility, and the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra is very flexible because they are used to being flexible because of the singers during the regular season at Lyric.  That is very, very, very present, very positive.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of conducting concert music outside.

macalZM:    It’s different.  There are many things that are different from being inside.  First there is the whole acoustic problem outside of amplification, larger audience, and the space around the audiences.  When I came here in the beginning, I was very disturbed with the noise all around.  Sometimes it disturbed my concentration so that I was thinking I cannot go ahead.  We are on the corner, so there is the street noise, and there are noises from the lake.  Several times the noise is coming from the air, the airplanes.  This happened just last night a few times, and mostly they are coming in the softest places.  But I learned one thing over the years
that simply I am not any more disturbed by these noises.  Sometimes I don’t even hear them.  I concentrate only on the sound which is in the shell.  So I can now eliminate the sounds outside, and even if it is a helicopter is coming, like last night at a very soft moment.  I knew that it was there, but I just felt the noise.  There was some noise there, but my concentration was really on the music in the shell.  So that’s the process for me personally, because as I said, in the beginning I was quite disturbed.  It disturbed your concentration because on the whole it was mostly absolutely quiet.  So you concentrate only on the sound, and music is sound.  I have done 35 years just listening and absorbing all of these sounds, so in the beginning when these non-musical sounds came, they were sounds which I heard and compared.  Especially when it is very humid or hot, the sirens and emergency ambulances are running, and they don’t care that there is a concert going on.  So it’s a different thing.  But one positive thing is that you get much larger crowds at outdoor concerts.  I was just last week in Philadelphia, and a week before I was in Washington, and a week before that in Detroit.  Everything was outside concerts with huge audiences, between five and ten thousand people, and they hear every evening.  So many people at the concert!  You cannot get this large audience in the hall, so that’s very positive, that many people hear the music, that many people participate in the culture events.  On the other hand, outside noises are not everywhere.  For example, Wolf Trap in Washington is in the woods, so it’s separated completely, and the Mann Music Center is close to the city, but it’s in the park.  Several of these institutions have the privilege that they are in some isolated spots.  Even if they are in open areas it is a little more isolated.  On the other hand, the summer concerts, basically,sever are not so serious and so heavy as the winter season that you really listen and concentrate for it.  Very often the summer concerts are combined with picnics and the family together and friends together, and everything is more relaxed.  So if there is some noise and some train is going and some siren, okay.  So what?  We have nice evening, we have nice weather, we have stars overhead in the sky.  It’s a different atmosphere, but the thing is that you have some kind of cultural experience.  One day, some people who go to summer concerts will miss this experience during the winter and say, “Gosh, I didn’t hear for a long time Beethoven or Brahms!  Let’s go downtown to the symphony to a classical concert,” and that’s positive.

BD:    Do you feel that concert music is for everyone?

ZM:    I think so.  Generally we are not very different.  Of course everybody is slightly different, but basically I believe that generally everybody, every human being is born with some kind of a taste sensitivity.  Basically everybody is sensitive.  You cannot live without love, without taste for food.  You eat your own way, so it is kind of the culture.  If you buy your car, you show your taste because of the shape of the car, the color of the car.  If you buy your clothes, you show your taste.  You are surrounded with new buildings here in Chicago.  You go around and you just accept it, but you are impressed or less impressed.  Mostly you have no time to think too much about this, but you feel something.  You say, “Ah, it looks good.”  You go, but you accept this architecture of the city, of the street.  You see the car.  You like the car or you don’t like the car.  You like this color or you don’t like this color.  So you are sensitive on culture, on kind of the art.  So basically I believe that with few exceptions everybody is sensitive on the colors, on the painting, on the sounds, on the music — some kind of the culture, only it needs to be developed.  I am living for the music.  I was educated from my childhood to the music, but it needs to be developed.  Everybody is on a different level of this process.  Somebody is happy with knowing just something, but if you know more, you would like more and more.  It’s the same with good foods.  Like anything, it is better if you understand more.  So you start.  If you like good food, you start to cook at home.  If you see some nice pictures, you go back more times  and you develop it.  That’s the process, and with the music it is basically no different.

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

ZM:    To bring some emotional experience to every single person.  I believe that in every time we have some problems with our spiritual and mental life because there are many disturbances that simply bring us out of the balance.  Let’s say today our problem is time, because everybody is tied with a schedule.  They are busy just from appointment to appointment with dates.  So we basically wake up and already by breakfast we have no time to relax and enjoy it because we are thinking, “Gosh, I didn’t do something yesterday, so I must do it today.”  You are running from morning to evening and by evening you simply fall down.  During the day we have not much time for emotional experience.  Basically we do a good job; we try to earn money with the business, but there’s one part of our life we must not forget.  We must nourish our body with food, but we should nourish also our spirit in a similar way.  For most of us, the spiritual nourishment is a very, very small part.  We have no time to simply sit down and relax and think about what I did for myself today.  I did many things, but what is for me?  So if you go to the concert, if you listen to the music, it’s a moment when you needn’t know much about it.  You needn’t be a great connoisseur of the music, but everybody can experience something by listening to music — maybe learn more about himself by the sound or be touched or vibrate or feel something.  What I am talking about is the feeling.  I am afraid that we are losing a lot today about the feelings.  I don’t say that we are less able to feel the things, but we are more inside, more arrogant, or less sensitive of these feelings.  You see it every day.  The temper and love for music is still almost number one in the world for emotionality!  However, we are not sensitive.  You can see it every day in our daily life, that we simply not aware enough of the sensitivity.  All the arts, but music particularly, can try to keep our sensitivity to all of the things.  It is the spiritual nourishment which we desperately need.  We must keep it, otherwise we will go to the disaster.  Every single person generally, even whole nations need this because we are part of the world.  That’s the thing.  It seems that the music has nothing directly to do with the things, but that’s wrong.  Music is partly entertainment, but definitely a big part of music works for the spiritual development and the emotional experiences.

BD:    You are Music Director in Milwaukee and Principal Conductor here at Grant Park.  You are responsible for all of these concerts, so how do you decide which pieces from the vast array of literature you will present, and which ones you will postpone till next year, and which ones you don’t want to do at all?

macalZM:    That’s a complicated process.  One criterion is that we should have the season quite variable; it should be different composers there.  So first you start and decide what should be on the program.  Basically it should be some Beethoven, some Brahms, from these big classics, and then it should be some composers that are less frequently played, like Bohuslav Martinů or Vieuxtemps.  Then there are the contemporary composers, American or worldwide.  So you have now the range of the works which you should put on the whole season, but you must build every single program for itself.  The process is quite complicated, and it takes me quite a long time.  I am thinking about the programs several seasons ahead, and then I change my mind and you modulate it.  It takes a long time because there are many components.  It’s not easy to say it in five minutes.  Then you have the soloists, and they play some specific repertory because not everybody plays the same and not everybody plays everything.  You also have some guest conductors and they have their repertoire.  So if we need this and this concerto, the soloist maybe has not it in their repertoire.  So you must ask what he or she has.

BD:    Is it like an enormous puzzle?

ZM:    Yes, it is.  Exactly!  At the end it should look comfortable as the whole season, and every single concert must be one jewel for itself, because that’s what you sell.  The people go there for the single evening, and it must have some culmination.  Then, of course, you shouldn’t have three violinists in a row, or three pianists.  It should be some kind of mix, some variety.  So I will say it is a big puzzle.

BD:    Do you always solve it, or are you always tinkering with it?

ZM:    Because I start to think about it very early, when I am not feeling I know that’s not a final version.  So I sleep over it, and then after one week or after one month I have some other idea, so I change it.  Then it’s the moment when I say, “That’s it. That’s it.  That looks good.”  Then I stop work on this because I feel in some way that’s final.  For example, on this week’s program we did the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Naumburg winner, and the Martinů First Symphony.  So the thing is that we have the Naumburg winner, which is some interesting thing, and the whole is a Czech program, which we advertised as such.  The other thing is that Bohuslav Martinů was born 100 years ago, so it is centenary.  So it made sense.  Last week with the Philadelphia Orchestra I did Martinů First Symphony and Brahms First Symphony.  Two firsts; Martinů because of his centenary and Brahms as a big piece.  The audience liked the Brahms, and they listened and enjoyed Martinů.

BD:    Because you are from Czechoslovakia, does it warm your heart that Martinů is becoming more widely accepted?

ZM:    With Martinů it’s a little strange.  Thirty or forty years ago he was very much played in this country.  He was living here and he composed his major works here in this country.  He was played a lot by all of the major orchestras.  Part of this was that several conductors were very close and involved with his music, like my friends Rafael Kubelik and Erich Leinsdorf.  [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]  Two other great interpreters of his music were Koussevitzky and Charles Munch in Boston, and he was played quite often.  Then came the period when he was played very little.

BD:    And now he’s coming back?

ZM:    I hope that he is coming back, and not just because of his centenary.  Everywhere, when I played his music, everybody is surprised by why he is played so little because the music is so nice.  His first symphony, which I am doing right now, is one of his best works.  But it’s true that it is going in waves, so I hope that he will come back.  Another Czech composer, Leoš Janáček, was not very much played, but now today his orchestra works, which are not very many, are simply played almost like repertory.  His operas are done in Europe and even in this country as part of the repertory.  I don’t say that it is regular in the repertory, but Janáček is in the repertory especially in the European opera houses which have much longer seasons.  If you go back more, so let’s say to the beginning of the century or even before the second war, Gustav Mahler was not very popular.  Today, if you mention Mahler, everybody knows what we are talking about.  We get the big audiences for the Mahler performances.  So it is a process, and somebody told me that maybe Martinů should be the next discovery.  Maybe.  I hope so.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made some recordings.  Do you conduct differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?

macalZM:    No, not at all.  No, no, no.  The recording for me is the end product, and is the result of my experience with the work and with the composer in the past.  For example, the New World Symphony of Dvořák I conducted over 100 times.  Last year in Vienna it was my 100th performance, and some other symphonies go over 50 performances.  During these many performances you change a little, a few details, and you are waiting for the result to hear how it works.  Sometimes you feel that’s good, it works.  Or this tempo is too slow; it should be a little faster.  It should be a little slower here.  It should be more dynamic here; more accent here.  It is not exactly experiment, but it’s just working on the details.  Over the years, when I am working with these works, we can say the better I know them.  Some Beethoven symphonies I have done seventy or eighty performances.  You just try to see the music from a little slightly different corner, and you’ve got to see if it works or not.  Then you go back or you develop again.  So over these many performances, it’s never final, but you develop your final version.  It means even if I change a few details in every performance, the main, the ground line, the ground performance is there, is fixed.  Then I can go to the studio and record it.  I don’t like to do things just for the recording, to just learn some piece and I record it.  If you make the recordings, they stay for the case sometimes for twenty or twenty-five years.  It’s your calling card, your presentation, so if I don’t know the work well, it is better I don’t do it.  With Milwaukee, we started the recordings and everybody was surprised not only with the high level of the orchestra playing, but also of the performance, of the interpretation.  Of course I started with Dvořák, which is very familiar to me, which is also now very familiar to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.  I am now four years as Music Director and one year principal guest, so the orchestra knows which way they should play with me.  We came to a point that I was satisfied with the results and we could put it on the CD.  We get very positive response from everywhere, not only with the Dvořák recordings, but also the Beethoven symphonies.  I am very happy about this because when I came to Milwaukee I started to go systematically through them.  We played every year two or three symphonies, and that’s important from the education point of view.  We play every year for a few years in the summer the Beethoven symphonies in the Marcus Amphitheater, which is about 9,000 covered seats.  It’s a beautiful facility.  So we are working systematically, the same orchestra, the same conductor and same direction on one composer, so when we recorded Beethoven symphonies, I knew that it’s a big task.  Every big orchestra, every greatest orchestra in the world recorded the Beethoven symphonies.  But we took the risk and we recorded them, and we got very positive response from the critics around the whole United States.  Some people are thinking, “What is the Milwaukee Symphony?”  They didn’t know much about the quality; it wasn’t very exposed.

BD:    Now they know!

ZM:    They know! I was just talking in Washington with one critic who said, “I knew that the Milwaukee Symphony was a good orchestra, but when I heard the recording, I was just thrilled.  How do you do it?  What do you do?”  I told him that what I do is try to just work systematically with the orchestra over years.  I have my conception of the performance and I have my imagination of the sound which I would like to get from the orchestra.  I have tried over 35 years to get the sound I would like.  Let’s call it my sound.  If I do Brahms with any orchestra in the world — if I’m in Australia, in Vienna, or in Philadelphia
I try to get the same sound.  Sometimes you get it faster because you have a better orchestra or better tradition in orchestra.  Sometimes you don’t get everything what you want.  You are on the way, but you are maybe three-quarters.  Sometimes you are only half, but I always try to get a similar sound from the orchestra for this particular piece.  If you are to do French music, it should sound different.  If you do it systematically, you know exactly how it should sound.  If you don’t get it, you ask once more, and you ask ten times or fifteen times, and maybe by sixteenth time you get it.  When you are Music Director the next time you play the same music you can just pick up the same points.  So there’s the question of development.  In the same way, this good preparation of the musical education in the schools, you get mostly first-rate musicians that the orchestra can hire.  So, it depends only how far you go with them.  I don’t believe that any orchestra has limits.  When you feel that you are on the end, next time you can still go over a limit.  You just must have the imagination, and believe that it’s possible, and trust them, and show them that you believe in them.  Then they try not to disappoint you.  Then you can get great results!  You can always go over the potential of the orchestra.  They will play for you if they know that you trust them.  That’s the magic thing.  Then you can get good reviews for recordings, even with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for standard repertory like Beethoven.

BD:    Besides what you have just said, what advice do you have for young conductors coming along?

ZM:    That’s very difficult because the major repertory is the Austro-German repertory which has a big tradition.  It should be played in one style, which is very difficult to teach if I just talk about it.  It’s very hard to imagine how Schubert should sound simple but natural if you don’t know the atmosphere.  Before concerts at the Musikverein, we always stay in the Imperial Hotel just across the street.  When I wake up afternoon before the concert, I go down to the café just for some kuchen
some cookies, dessert and coffeeand four or five girls or men are playing there some version of Vienna music.  This is in the style.  If you are sitting there, you say, “Ah, that’s the part of the atmosphere where Schubert was living and composing.”  You can read in books about a time when Mozart composed in Salzburg, but if you’ve never been in Salzburg and you don’t breathe the air of this — musically and background — if you don’t go through this, it’s quite difficult to come very close to the spirit of the music.

BD:    You really have to steep yourself in this tradition?

ZM:    I think so.  From my own experience, I conducted everywhere in Germany when we were living there.  I spent majority of the year working with all the German orchestras.  For example, if you conduct the Hamburg Orchestra, they know really how to play the things of Brahms.  Just listen to how it sounds.  If you just walk through the cities and if you go in the Bierhaus and just see the atmosphere, you understand better the kind of music which Brahms was writing.

BD:    Do you still get that kind of atmosphere, even though Europe is nothing like the Europe that Brahms knew?  They’ve gone through depressions and wars and industrialization and computerization and technology.  Is that old atmosphere still there to be absorbed?

ZM:    I think so, in some way, yes.  Of course it’s different, but you still have the streets and the old houses there.  You have the different style of life.  The mentality of the people is different.  Definitely Brahms doesn’t sound like New York.  So if I was studying Brahms — if I never knew how Brahms should sound
and if I study it in New York or Chicago, I will never, never understand this music well because the city is completely different.  All this architecture, all of the spirit is different.  It’s my own experience, but I learned a lot of this because I spent decades in central Europe.  I was in Salzburg every day, and I conducted every year in Vienna.  I believe that this understanding, this cultural background, is very important for your personal development.  Even if I explain to you all of these things, I don’t think that you can conduct or play the music the right away.  You can try.  You can read the books about this and you can try to know the things, but it’s very, very, very complicated.  With personal experience of the place, you can really go to the bones of the substance of the music.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences that come to your concerts?

ZM:    Just relax and try to enjoy it.  They needn’t try too hard.  They should just try to listen how it sounds.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  You don’t do all of the work for them, do you?

ZM:    I don’t, but they can watch me and then they can let the thinking go.  They will certainly have some feeling from the sound, from my music.  They will feel something, and maybe for a few seconds, for a few minutes, they will vibrate as I do.  I will vibrate on the inside, on different kinds of colors and on the different kinds of harmonies in the music.  Maybe they can feel a similar way because basically we are the same bones and blood.  Everybody is the same, so we have the same possibilities.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is conducting fun?

ZM:    For me, definitely it is.  It is a great joy and great privilege!  Probably I feel most grateful to work with the people in the orchestra, and am privileged to interpret great music of so many composers.  I will not name the names because it’s such a long list of the great, great composers.

BD:    Are even the lesser-knowns fun to conduct?

macalZM:    In the contemporary music I can say William Schuman’s Third Symphony is such a joy!  [See my Interview with William Schuman.]  I don’t see a big difference between conducting this work and the Beethoven Third Symphony, the Eroica.  I believe in every single piece which I conduct, because if I don’t believe in this music I will not do it.  First, I must believe that what I conduct is good.  So first I pick up the works which I believe are good.  Second, I do the works which I believe that I can animate part of the music which maybe is not the strongest, but still has substance, and I can discover the strongest side.  Or I can show the work from the best side.  To be specific, Richard Strauss is a great composer, one really from the greatest list.  He has written so many operas and so many big symphony works which are great, but they are long.  In something over 40 minutes, not all 40 minutes are first-rate.  There are moments that are a little odd.  They are part of the great composer, but they need some help.  So it’s a challenge for you.  Just don’t do it in a boring way.  Try turning it; maybe have a different balance or a different color or a different tempo.  It’s your challenge; it’s your discovery how you can work with it.  If you are emotional, maybe you can turn the dial on the other side and just show it from a different light.  It’s like with a picture.  Maybe the angle is wrong, so try from the other side.  Maybe that looks better, so it is a good composition, too.  Maybe it seems just to me that this part is not strong enough because I feel it the wrong way, or maybe I interpret it a wrong way.

BD:    But you still bring all of it to the audience?

ZM:    Sure I do.  This is especially true for some new pieces.  It’s very important that you believe that the music is good, because if you don’t believe, how should the audience believe it?  How should the orchestra believe it?  Sometimes the problem is not that we have weak works, but we don’t try hard enough to discover the best sides.  In the past works it’s a little easier because somebody else maybe showed us how we should do it.  We cannot change much on the interpretation of the Beethoven, Brahms, or Mozart symphonies because all of the greats interpreters did it for a hundred or two hundred years.  They did part of the job already to prepare for us, so we just take advantage of their work.  For the works of the twentieth century composers like Prokofiev, Martinů, Bartók, and especially by the living composers for which mostly there’s no tradition, every single performance you start from zero.  It depends how you do it
how fast, how slow, how loud, how soft you play it.  Everything is in your hands.  For the Brahms, you know that Furtwängler and Karajan did it this way, so you try just to imitate them.  Thanks to them you already are a better conductor or violinist.  But for the contemporary piece, if you don’t take enough care for every single bar, for every single note, you can misinterpret itwhich I believe quite often could be.  Then you say, “Okay, that is not a good composition.  Audiences don’t like the piece because it is too aggressive.”  It depends very often just how you present it to the audience.  Basically you should be the translator between the composer and the audience.  If something is not very comfortable for them, you should try to bring it a little more smoothly to the audiences.

BD:    Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to write symphonic music these days?

ZM:    That’s a good question, but a tough question because it’s very difficult.  Everybody has his own personality, so it’s very difficult to say how somebody should write the music because it should be part of his personality.  But it is very important to really stay yourself.  Don’t imitate somebody else, no matter who is currently successful in music.   Whether it is Mahler who is successful or Bernstein or Bartók, don’t just try to write your music in their way.  You are not those composers.  The same is the advice for the conductors.  I have great respect and admiration for Leonard Bernstein conducting or Herbert Von Karajan or Dr. Karl Böhm or many others which could be inspiration for me.  But I never try to copy them because I am Zdenek Macal, so I do music my way.  You cannot ever be somebody else.  It’s better to be oneself than a copy of somebody else.  As for the composers, today it is very difficult to bring something new.  Everybody is waiting for one composer that will discover the new worlds in composition.  In some way, almost everything has been experienced.  Years ago when the Vienna school came
Schoenberg, Berg, Webernthey still had a lot of possibilities.  But now with all of this dodecaphony and twelve-tone system, with minimalism and maximalism and I don’t know what –ism, everything was experienced.  Cacophony was here.  John Cage was doing just the sounds that were around him.  He moved the chair and he drank the water and amplified things so everything was here.  [See my Interview with John Cage.]  So it’s very difficult for you as a composer to bring something new.  If you are born a composer, if you are blessed as composer, you feel your responsibility.  You know something or you have some insight to transform some humanitarian or spiritual message in the music, and say this message to the people through the performance.  If you are blessed that you can do it, it’s more your feeling.  Unfortunately, many composers try to put something on the paper, and they just do it mechanically.  I think that their music has a lot of strong emotional feeling inside.  Conversely, if you have something to say, don’t think too much how you will say it, but just say it.  Put it on the paper.  When I am conducting any kind of music, I don’t think about what I am doing with my hand.  I just try to modulate it because I move my hands and the orchestra plays.  If it doesn’t play right away, I must change my gesture; I must modulate it.  I am not the creative person; I am re-creative.  I can do the work which the composer wrote.  I never compose, so don’t ask me to put something on the paper.  I don’t feel I have the ability to say something through composing.  I believe that I can speak for the composer.

BD:    You can bring the music off the page and into the air?

ZM:    I can bring off.  I can go to that side.  This I can feel in you very well.  But I will never create one note, because I don’t feel that I am blessed to do it.  If the composer has something to say, they should try to do it however they feel.  I am sure they will find the right way if the message is enough strong.  That’s the point.  It is the same thing with writing or with architecture.  You can create beautiful buildings but you must have some imagination.  You must feel something and you should try to show it or say it, and that’s the point for any kind of art.  Mozart or Beethoven had a lot to say, and they were never thinking about how they say it.  They just feel it inside and they just put it on the paper.  They were writing, writing, and the message is here.  After 200 years we still have strong emotions, and we feel this strong emotionality in their music.  From that time we know just a few names.  There were certainly more composing at that time, but not everybody was so great.  Probably after 50 or 100 years, we will know some names from today, conductors and composers.  But not everybody who is composing today is making his living as a composer or will be known in 50 or 100 years.  That will be the selection.  The most talented and the most gifted composers will survive this process.

BD:    Are we throwing a joker into the deck by having all of the broadcast tapes, and all of the little tiny recordings of composers today, whereas we didn’t have little tiny recordings of other composers 100 and 200 years ago?  So maybe their music has died, but now this music will survive?

macalZM:    I don’t think so.  It will not be so different even if we have the tapes and all the recording possibilities.  What we have today is that more people can listen relatively very easily and in a relatively cheap way to much more music, and they can select.  But they will make their selection.  You do selection, I do selection, because we like something and we dislike something.  In the end, if we will listen to some tapes of this composer and another composer, and if somebody will be here with us who will not know much about the music — definitely less than we do — when we talk about this we will all be very close.  It doesn’t matter how many people; we will be very close in some feelings.  We will differ in a few things, but generally you will say, “Okay, I like this piece but I don’t like that piece,” and I will tell you maybe why, because that’s my job.

BD:    But there will be a general agreement?

ZM:    Yes.  Some other gentleman who will be sitting here with us will not be very knowledgeable about music, but he will just try to feel the music.  He will not be very far from my professional point of view, only maybe he cannot explain why.  I can analyze more.  I will say, “This chord looks this and this, and these instruments are so,” but the selection will be still here.  On the other hand, all of this is not only because we are selective today; we are business oriented.  If you have strong substance in the business, you will survive.  If you do not have good management, if you do not have a good line, good products, the business will not survive.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

ZM:    Definitely I am.  We cannot live without the music.  The sound was here since the beginnings.  When human beings started to be human beings, the sound was here.  It was primitive, but music was here in some kind of sounds.  I don’t say that everybody needs music for his life.  That’s a very important point, but generally I think that we cannot live without the music; we cannot live without the arts, even if you turn to it from whichever side you like.  If you are more sensitive to the music, to listening, you will have a richer life for different reasons.  Your sensitivity to music will change your style of life.  If you develop taste for the music, you develop taste for the arts.  So it means you will, let’s say, remodel your house or apartment more tastefully and be surrounded with much more tasteful, cultural atmosphere.  You will pick up your clothing, and your car and the things which you need for your daily life, the restaurants and your style of eating will just change.  You will do it all with some kind of taste.  That’s all part of the culture of a person like this, and this is very important now, nationwide, for the whole world!  You will be some kind of a person who has... I don’t say high, but let’s say you will have some kind of morality.  It means you will not think about stealing something or killing somebody or destroying somebody’s car or commit arson on somebody’s house because you are a cultured person.  Because you are like this and I am like this, our administration and state will save money for the prisons because if we were criminals they must build a prison for us.  They must have the police.  For me, for you, we needn’t police, we needn’t the prisons because we are in some way cultured people; we are moral people.  We are not only educated, but our lifestyle simply doesn’t allow that we will steal something which is not ours.

BD:    [Pleased to be thought of as being cultured]  It’s how we live our life.

ZM:    It is how we live our life.  There are different reasons that we are like we are.  Part of this is that we were educated in our families.  My father has told me, “You should do this,” and it stayed.  You could be educated a different way, but then we were touched with some kind of these arts.  We are blessed that our daily job is some way very cultured.  Every night we go to sleep and we are richer inside because we do something for the culture.  That’s what we do.  We should spread it through the nations to simply stop all of these crimes and stop all of this brutality, to stop all of this unsensitivity just a little.  If we can turn just a little in every person, that’s the point which I feel responsible.  When I conduct the concert in Grant Park in Chicago for 10,000 people, my goal that I believe strongly in the music, and I believe strongly that through this interpretation I can change everybody; that they will go home and they will be a little better and more cultured and more sensitive people.  Then they will tell their kids and their parents.  You can spread things because we need to spread this!  That’s what we need more, and that’s one of the very important parts of the arts and culture and music.  That’s the thing which we are talking about.  You asked me at the beginning about the music, and that’s a whole complex issue.  But in the end, music is part of our life.  That’s our challenge in our daily life
— you on your radio station, me on my podiumbut we are with the people.  You have great possibilities to spread the things through the radio to thousands and thousands of people!  So we are blessed we are reach that!  We will have so many friends through this communication.  That’s what I feel on the stage when I am conducting the concert.  Maybe two people react, maybe two thousand people, maybe ten thousand, but this is our challenge.  If we have something to say, we should say it!  That’s what I am doing through the music and through the interview with you.

BD:    Thank you for giving so much of your time to Chicago.

ZM:    It is a great pleasure.  I like the city and I always was very happy here.  I have a special relationship to Chicago because my United States debut was with Chicago Symphony in 1972.  And you know what I conducted?  I conducted the same Martinů symphony which I conducted this week!  So it is just unbelievable!

BD:    It’s like coming full circle.

ZM:    Yes.  It was my first orchestra and first city which I conducted in when coming here from Europe.  So I have a really special relationship to Chicago that probably will stay for all of my life.

BD:    I hope so.  Thank you very much.

ZM:    Pleasure for me.


© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on July 26, 1990.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB a month later, and again in 1994 and 1996.  It was also used on WNUR twice in 2012, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio also in 2012.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.