The middle of summer is an odd time to be thinking about festive carols, red and green, or holiday cheer, but Andreas Delfs is already looking forward to leading the Milwaukee Symphony’s annual Holiday Pops concert in December.
Thinking back on his 12 years as music director of the MSO, Delfs remembers bringing his children to the traditional holiday concert every year, and what an important role it played in the city’s life. “Our classical audiences, if they went to one pops concert, it was the holiday weekend,” he said. And his wife and son have birthdays in early December, “so it’ll be wonderful to be in Milwaukee to celebrate that and see a lot of old friends.”
Delfs will actually return to Milwaukee twice in the coming season; the second time will be in February 2018 to conduct Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. The piece features chorus prominently, and “I had a very special relationship with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus,” Delfs said. The program will also include Delfs’ old friend, concertmaster Frank Almond, performing a relatively new violin concerto by Pierre Jalbert, co-commissioned by the MSO.
Since leaving Milwaukee in 2009, Delfs has been back semi-regularly to conduct, which is “one of the good things about leaving on good terms,” he said. “But I am always curious about who is new – am I going to see a new face, or is someone going to be in a new place?”
He praised the orchestra’s unique sound, marked by a keen sense of ensemble. “Collaboration within the orchestra is in very good shape,” he said. “Some orchestras have that and some don’t. The MSO had it when I started, and they had it when I left. They sound like an orchestra that enjoys playing with each other. I’ve conducted a lot of orchestras in my lifetime, and sometimes within five minutes you can tell. You pick up a kind of vibe.”
He thinks of the MSO as having a European sound, which “for me means a certain warmth and sweetness of the string sound, which is one reason why we did a lot of Brahms. And the woodwinds sound individual – the oboe sounds different from the clarinet, it’s a much more colorful and personal sound. It’s hard to put into words.”
Asked about future plans, Delfs said, “Well, I almost bought a boat this summer. Maybe next year.” But is there repertoire he still wants a chance to perform? “No. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I get asked to conduct some pieces very often, like Beethoven and Brahms, and I do love them. But what keeps you young is to do new music, or music you haven’t done before. Or to do old pieces with a young orchestra.”
Delfs did recently record music by little-known Danish composers, and he leads the Temple University Symphony Orchestra in Philadelphia, giving college students their first exposure to lots of standard repertoire. But depending on their reactions, he may say to himself, “I’ve done it this way for 25 years, but maybe I should do it a little differently.”
While keeping a busy schedule of guest conducting, Delfs has made his home in recent years in Flensburg, Germany, the town near the Danish border where he grew up. His youngest child graduated from high school this year, “so basically it’s just Amy and me now – for the first time in our life, we have the whole house to ourselves.”
Amy Delfs also accompanies her husband on more trips now, and the two will often sightsee for a few days after a concert. Every destination has its own charms, Delfs said, such as Birmingham, Alabama, where Delfs led the Alabama Symphony in June. “It turned out to be a lovely trip,” he said. “It reminded me of Milwaukee – it’s a well-kept secret how beautiful it is. There’s always something to discover.”