Except for his English, which is fluent but accented, Zdenek Macal sounds remarkably like an American -- specifically like an American conductor. "A symphony orchestra today has to be run like a business," says the 54-year-old native of Czechoslovakia. "The product is different, but a lot of the problems are the same."
In Czechoslovakia in 1968, Macal (then 32 years old) was the music director of the Prague Symphony Orchestra when the Soviet tanks moved in and he and his wife, Ginny (Georgina), moved out. There, he says, a music director had nothing to do but direct music; the government took care of everything else, including all expenses. In the United States, where he moved after more than a dozen years in Switzerland, France and Germany, conductors have a lot of non-musical roles. And Macal thinks that's fine.
In Milwaukee, where Macal has just finished his fourth season as music director of the symphony orchestra, he knows his job includes public relations and fund-raising; he has to be a spokesman, symbol and rallying point for a community institution as well as a musician and leader of musicians. "I'm glad I learned so much of my repertoire in Europe when I was young," he says. "I don't know if I would have time for it now."
Clearly, he used those years of his youth well. His services as a conductor are in demand from Yugoslavia to Australia and many places in between, including Washington, where he guest-conducts the National Symphony at Wolf Trap tonight (as he did last night) and at the Kennedy Center in November. When he brought the Milwaukee Symphony to the Kennedy Center in October as part of its 30th anniversary celebration, the response from audience and critics was enthusiastic. Since 1982, he has lived in California -- about midway between the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director for a while, and the orchestras of Vienna, Berlin, London and Geneva, where he conducts frequently.
The average citizen in Milwaukee associates Macal with the Brewers, the baseball team that made Milwaukee famous. He is also appreciated for the way he has built an enthusiastic audience and turned around an orchestra that was pretty good when he arrived but going nowhere and $2 million in debt. He did it all (including liquidating that debt in three years) with a distinctively American variation on music's traditional "three B's": Beethoven, Brahms and balanced budgets.
A fourth B, baseball, exemplifies Macal's drive not only to make his orchestra a vital part of the community but to "do it right" no matter what "it" may be. When he was invited to throw out the first ball at a Brewers game, he immediately began to train as a pitcher. Tossing out a ball to open the season was not just a ceremony, it was an opportunity.
"Some cities are very proud of their orchestras," Macal says. "They identify with them the way they do with a baseball or basketball team. I always said that I hoped some day the name of Milwaukee would be known around the country not only because of the Milwaukee Brewers but also because of the Milwaukee Symphony. We recorded the 'Star-Spangled Banner' for the Brewers, so they play our recording for every home game, and the name of the Milwaukee Symphony and Zdenek Macal is shown on a big board and seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
"Two years ago, when I did the first pitch to open the season, they told me to do it from the audience, but I said no, I should do it the right way. They didn't want to let me go on the field, but I practiced and in the end they let me go down there and pitch it on the field in a Brewers uniform with the number '1' and the words 'Macal' and 'Brewers' on it."
One point he wants to get across with such activities is that music can be just as entertaining and exciting as baseball. "Music is art and it is educational, but it is also an emotional thing," Macal says. "You get excited about things that happen on the playing field, you want to laugh or cry, but that happens in music too. In many ways, they are the same. I don't say that we should expect everybody to go from the baseball field to the symphony, but some hundreds or even thousands of people who like sports could also get interested in music."
Macal has been cited by the American Symphony Orchestra League for the amount of American music he conducts, but he has developed both the Milwaukee orchestra and audience with a substantial diet of the Viennese classics. "This big German repertoire is very important for an orchestra," he says. "If you work seriously on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, it helps you to play contemporary music better too. But if you play contemporary music, that doesn't necessarily improve your Beethoven and Brahms.
"Today," Macal believes, "you can build an excellent orchestra anywhere." Milwaukee is one medium-size American city where that seems to be true; another is Seattle, where Music Director Gerard Schwarz has transformed a pretty good orchestra into an international-level virtuoso ensemble.
"In the past," Macal says, "only a few big cities could have great orchestras. It was like building a factory; in the last century you had to locate your factory on a river or a railroad line for shipping your raw materials and finished products. Today nobody cares where your factory is located, and it's the same in the music industry, if you meet some conditions -- a good music director, board chairman and professional staff.
"When I began conducting regularly in America, in 1972, symphony staffs were very small; now they are much larger and there are problems building audiences and meeting expenses. Everywhere I have worked in America, I have been very active in fund-raising; I know you can't just leave it to the staff. They have a lot of work to do, of course, but the music director is the most visible person associated with the orchestra, and if he talks to the people he can get better support and get it faster because of this visibility. I cannot just leave everything to the staff and, if something goes wrong, blame them; that's not right."
Audiences for classical music in the United States are bigger and more enthusiastic than ever before, Macal believes, though he foresees problems if the price of tickets is not brought under control.
He also finds the quality of young American musicians "unbelievable." He experienced that firsthand when he was called in a few years ago to do some emergency rehabilitation for the San Antonio Symphony, which had gone bankrupt, not played at all for nearly a year and understandably had lost many of its best players. While getting the budget under control and helping the orchestra to win new support, he also had to hire replacements.
Looking back on the experience, he reflects: "Today ... if you lose a musician to another orchestra and hold auditions, most of the time you can hire a replacement who will be even better. Whenever a position becomes open, there are dozens of applications, sometimes hundreds. Personally, I hired 27 musicians in San Antonio and the artistic quality improved. And if you play better, the audiences like it, they are impressed by what you do and you get support. Being a music director is much more complicated than it was 20 years ago, but you must accept the way it is and make the right changes."