After his Chicago Symphony concerts in December, Edo de Waart won’t have far to go home.

For much of his career, the Dutch-born conductor epitomized the example of the globe-trotting maestro, with music directorships and regular guest appearances on four continents. But at age 78, he is deliberately spending more time at his home outside Madison, Wis.

He’ll arrive in Chicago from Europe and spend the week rehearsing and conducting the CSO in concerts Dec. 19-22. “After the Sunday matinee, my family will pick me up, and we’ll drive home,” he said. His daughter is in her first semester as a music-theater major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; his son, a high school junior, plays percussion and has “a really good ear and good rhythm.” Could it be a career track? “Who knows? He’s 16. But he enjoys it.”

De Waart goes back decades with John Adams, who composed the opening piece on the CSO program, The Chairman Dances, using material from his first opera, Nixon in China. As de Waart tells the story, when he became music director of the San Francisco Symphony in the 1970s, he wanted to get to know the local composition scene. Someone suggested he get in touch with Adams, “and we had an immediate great connection. He would come to my house with a big box of scores and tapes, but they were always of other composers. Finally, I said, ‘I need to hear something by you.’ I was afraid I would hate it and the friendship would be over.”

But Adams showed him the score to his early chamber work Shaker Loops, de Waart loved it, Adams became the SFSO’s composer-in-residence, and to this day, de Waart said, “I conduct some of his work every year.”

In recent years, de Waart has transitioned from music director to conductor laureate at the Milwaukee Symphony, Antwerp Symphony and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and this month, he will take the same step at the New Zealand Symphony, leaving him with a yearly calendar that’s about half full with guest appearances. His career as an opera conductor is mostly finished because “it takes six to eight weeks if you do it right, and I only do it right,” he said. He conducted the first recording of Nixon in China in 1987.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto, also featured in his CSO program, fits in because Adams admires the Russian composer’s work, and soloist Leila Josefowicz also has been an advocate of Adams. And Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, the main work on the program’s second half, “is a wonderful piece that I’ve been doing for most of my life,” he said. It was on one of the first major concerts I ever did, so it has a soft spot in my heart.”

The fact that de Waart lives 2½ hours from Symphony Center may be one reason he’s been called three times in the past decade to lead the CSO in subscription concerts when the originally scheduled conductor had to cancel. “It’s my luck and someone else’s sadness,” he said. “I don’t need a visa or expensive travel, and I won’t be jet-lagged when I get there.” That situation means less pressure for the conductor, he said, because “they’re just happy you’re there. And the job has gotten easier as I get white hair and more experience.”

Following one of those pinch-hit appearances, in a 2016 concert of Mozart and Beethoven, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “De Waart’s well-mannered objectivity, using Classical-sized orchestral forces, was worlds removed from the more subjectively romantic style Riccardo Muti brought to the score in his CSO performances of 2013. … The woodwind playing in particular was of a very high order, its prominence perhaps not surprising given the fact that de Waart had served as associate principal oboe of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra much earlier in his career.”

The CSO “traditionally plays big, and they’re exceptionally good in big scores,” de Waart said. “I’ve done Mahler 3 with them, and that’s where they lived with Solti and Barenboim. It’s completely changed from when I first knew them — there’s hardly anyone left from 40 years ago — but they still have their own character.”

TOP: Edo de Waart. | Photo: Jesse Willems

1.
2.
3.