I’m greeted at the front door of the stately stone Colonial home by the man behind the baton. Maestro David Amado is wearing a dark v-neck sweater, a brightly striped shirt, dress jeans and his stocking feet. There is not a tuxedo in sight.
Slight of build and vivacious of manner, Amado has reinvigorated the Delaware Symphony (DSO) with his innovative programming into a premier regional orchestra. Embarking on his twelfth season (2014-’15) as conductor and music director, Amado’s style has been described as fluid and energetic, a conductor who is fun to watch. In the words of one devotee, “on the verge of levitating.”
From the moment Amado strides onstage smartly turned out in white tie and tails to open the 2013-’14 season at the Grand Opera House, the sold-out audience erupts to welcome the 75 preeminent musicians and their gifted conductor. Initially, the tousled-hair Amado chats up the audience. Then he gets to work, creating wondrous symphonic music. The centerpiece of "Classic Romance" was a virtuoso performance by acclaimed pianist Mischa Dichter in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s great "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" (1934).
It had been a very tough year. The DSO’s daily economic challenges came to a head two years ago when the orchestra was facing a projected $850,000 operating deficit after exhausting its reserve fund. It was forced to suspend its planned 2012-2013 season. After months of testy negotiations the orchestra’s musicians' union ratified a new three-year agreement in June 2013.
“It was a very stressful time,” Amado confesses. “But we have all that behind us and some exciting new plans for the orchestra. I’m looking forward to making music this season, presenting a full season of concerts in several new community venues besides the Grand. It’s all about sharing with our audiences the love we have for our art and the passion we have for our work."
A prominent leader in the Delaware arts community, Amado lives in Wilmington with his wife Meredith, whom he met when both were students at the Juilliard School in New York City. The couple has three young children. Some favorite pastimes include roasting special blends of coffee beans he ships in from California and creating "honey wine," the mysterious drink with a very long history better known as mead. During colder months Amado can be found out back splitting hardwoods that give off a golden glow in the large stone fireplace in the family room.
Peeking into his white-painted study, I see a large built-in bookshelf stuffed with music books, scores and his favorite authors. A guitar is propped up near his desk. The far wall is lined with framed pictures and letters related to renowned musicians.
Amado has a strong pedigree of his own. His grandmother, violist Lillian Fuchs, taught the likes of Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zuckerman. His mother, violinist Carol Stein Amado, was first violinist of her eponymous quartet. Carol bestowed her violin (crafted in 1662 by Nicolo Amati) to Meredith, a violinist and artistic director of the Pyxis Piano Quartet in Wilmington.
Amado began studying piano at age four. While attending Lower Merion High School he performed weekly in pre-college sessions at Julliard and spent summers at the Aspen Music Festival. He attended University of Pennsylvania for a year and then transferred to Julliard, studying piano with Herbert Stessin as well as exploring other facets of music.
“It’s an ultra-competitive world there, and I wasn’t that extraordinary,” recalls Amado with a raised eyebrow. “I was on the wrong-gauge railroad. I learned to read scores and transpose songs. I realized I have an affinity for collaboration and I like the collegiality of working with other musicians. I saw conducting as a viable career path.”
It led Amado to a two-year hitch at Indiana University and a masters in instrumental conducting. Amado auditioned and earned a spot in Juilliard’s prestigious postgraduate 1993 conducting roster working with the legendary Otto-Werner Mueller, grooming himself for entry into the professional world.
Two years later Amado took his first post-- an apprenticeship with the Oregon Symphony. He followed that with a six-year run with the Saint Louis Symphony where he served as conductor and introduced symphonic music annually to 55,000 young people.
In 2003 Amado landed the top job with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra founded by Alfred I. du Pont in the early 20th century. Under Amado’s leadership, the unique and appealing programming blends familiar orchestral repertoire with modern pieces.
"I select the pieces the orchestra performs a year in advance, and the majority are new to me," Amado explains. "You have to navigate the piece-- know where the joints and seams are."
We are chatting in an inviting living family room anchored by a broad fireplace with a copper bucket of kindling set on a brick hearth. Amado is curled up in a favorite leather chair with the family’s grey-muzzled yellow Lab dozing at his feet. It’s an atmosphere of live-in comfort combined with the elegance and history of antiques.
He is posed a question: What actually is the conductor actually doing up there with that stick on the orchestral podium?
“A conductor's right hand is generally used to hold the baton and keep the beat,” Amado explains. “Every piece has places where the beats need to be clearly dictated and other places where they don't. Musicians need to feel they're making music with you, not under you.”
A conductor’s baton gives the music piece’s movements greater clarity, producing sharper definition in the sound and also gives the musicians at the back of the strings section the confidence to play out. Although the portrait of an orchestra conductor is of the wild-haired man with frantic arm movements, it's so much more. The members of the orchestra closely watch the conductor's eyes for that is where the real brilliance occurs. A quick glance can send a signal that in order for the dramatic flourish of the violins to have its full effect, the brass and woodwinds must step back ever so slightly.
“It's communicating to the players when to play and how to play,” Amado asserts. “Eye contact serves as a reminder of a key point from rehearsals, and it gives individual players a strong sense of involvement.”
The near shutdown of the DSO has had its silver linings. It spawned a reinvention of the DSO, branching out their classical series from the Grand Opera House to performances at Archmere Academy and the Tatnall School well off the beaten path for most members of the audience. Shaking off an endless winter in late March, the orchestra staged a concert at the Tatnall School’s Laird Performing Arts Center that Amado described "as out-of-doors as it gets," featuring the Four Sea Interlude by Britten and Beethoven's "Pastorale."
Karen Schubert, the orchestra’s principal horn player, was the soloist in the Strauss concerto, written when the composer was only 18. With Amado wielding his baton, the orchestra provided spirited accompaniment.
"David has the rare and wonderful ability to bring the best out of the talented musicians of the orchestra," says the Juilliard-trained Schubert. "When I have a solo passage, it never seems like he is trying to impose his own will on the musical line, rather, he treats me and all my colleagues with respect and openness."
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum is Wilmington's World Café and Queen Theater. A venue more associated with indie rock, it was the site of last year's New Year’s Eve performance of “Igor and Elvis.” DSO bassoonist Jon Gaarder dressed up as “The King” for Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis. Part of its chamber concert series, it also presented Amado’s reinterpretation of “A Soldier's Tale" by Igor Stravinsky.
With DSO's reinvention and hopefully a stronger financial footing, Amado is focused on bringing the world of orchestral music to new audiences. It’s an opportunity to keep the symphonic tradition vibrant, growing and powerful.
“It's about bringing joy when we go out there," Maestro Amado observes. "When we see how the audience responds, it’s the best feeling in the world. These are moments we live for.”