on February 1, 2008 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Supersonic simplified

CLEMSON — For the last week, Emile de Cou has been stuck in the ’70s.

When he’s not conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, de Cou lives in San Francisco. Actor/director Sean Penn is currently shooting a film in de Cou’s Twin Peaks neighborhood. The picture is set in the Vietnam era, so the streets are filled with corduroy, sideburns and Camaros.

“You walk down the streets and it’s 1971,” de Cou said with a laugh. “I forgot how awful some of that looked.”

Fortunately, the experience inspired de Cou, 48, to reconnect with music from that time. Lately, he’s been spinning Simon and Garfunkel and Burt Bacharach.

“Paul Simon is an absolute genius,” de Cou said. “It’s as good as anything: melodically interesting and words are incredibly profound. I don’t listen to much classical music at night. When I do it’s usually in the morning with some tea and the paper.”

That’s probably because the genre occupies so much of de Cou’s existence. The conductor works with a piece for months before bringing it to rehearsal. He deconstructs the arrangement on paper, looking for harmonic genesis.

“Conducting is not appealing to everybody,” de Cou said. “People generally think of it as being onstage and glamorous or this or that. But most of conducting is sitting at a desk with a pencil and piece of music in silence.”

During his study of a piece, de Cou seeks opportunities for interpretation. The maestro has total respect for the past; he just doesn’t want to duplicate it. Don’t worry: de Cou doesn’t reinterpret Sibelius as reggae. There are no NSO mash-ups of Mozart and Jay-Z. But that doesn’t mean a requiem can’t be re-envisioned as a waltz.

“I’m interested in how I can make this come alive and in the air for people,” de Cou said. “Otherwise it ends up being like a science project. Music should be communicated to someone’s heart, not their brain.”

After de Cou gets the center of a score, he presents it to the NSO. The 100-person ensemble holds one to five rehearsals before performing a piece in public. de Cou doesn’t’ run a monarchy. The players are given plenty of sonic input and their maestro wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I want grit and discussion. If everyone wants to do exactly what you want them to, it sounds boring. I want someone else’s point of view,” de Cou said.

Since landing the NSO gig in 2000, de Cou only spends about two months a year in his beloved San Francisco. He owns a house there built in 1910, which has been outfitted with fitting Arts and Crafts décor. When he’s not sifting through dead composers’ minds, de Cou basks in the hilly splendor of his hometown. He takes walks to rediscover the city and hosts barbecues at his pad. Most of the year, de Cou must decamp to a “soulless corporate apartment” in Washington, D.C. Uncharming as that residence may be, de Cou is effervescent about his place of employment, the Kennedy Center.

“It’s an amazing building to work in. There’re so many disciplines, so many worlds going on there: ballet, jazz, classical music, visual art shows. You’re constantly around other modern art forms, which is good because classical music has a problem with becoming too insular.”

de Cou’s resume includes an eight-year stint as staff conductor for the San Francisco Ballet. He’s also enjoyed prime guest conductor spots with orchestras in Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit and Boston. In 2006, de Cou made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut, leading the New York Pops through a set of Italian opera tunes.

“There’s nothing like the sound of Carnegie Hall,” de Cou said. “The problem with American halls is that a lot of them are too big. Around 1,600 is an ideal size. The Shrine Auditorium in L.A. seats 6,000. These are acoustic instruments with nothing amplified — you can only crank so much out of a wooden violin.”

It was Disney’s “Fantasia” that original inspired de Cou’s vocation. The animated tour-de-force features a Tchaikovsky score. de Cou was a high school student in Garden Grove, Calif. when he first saw the picture.

“Here I am watching a Disney film and it’s a ‘light bulb over the head’ moment,” de Cou said. “I thought Tchaikovsky was a total god.”

In the sleepy suburb of Garden Grove, TV variety shows provided de Cou with a window to the world. He regularly took in kaleidoscopic acts on shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan.

“There was everything from opera singer to jugglers on,” de Cou said. “You don’t see that anymore.”

de Cou was born in Los Angeles into a home filled with indigenous culture. His father was from New Orleans and his mom hailed from Hawaii. Although de Cou loathed the family’s move to the suburbs, he found solace in his school’s music program and the French horn. (These days, de Cou only tinkers on the piano, and he voluntarily derides his ability to do so.)

After high school, de Cou went on to study music in Vienna. He eventually had the opportunity to become a student of Leonard Bernstein, the maverick New York Philharmonic conductor.

“He filled the room, even without saying anything,” de Cou said. “Being filled with that type of force must have been very exhausting. But he was very giving.”

Much of de Cou’s approach to sound can be traced to a man he never met, Tchaikovsky. de Cou became obsessed with the composer’s colorful arrangements and larger-than-life persona.

“If Tchaikovsky were alive today he would be all over YouTube and MySpace,” de Cou said. “He was a great disseminator of music.”

Some have compared a conductor’s role with an orchestra to a mixing board in a recording studio. But de Cou said a film director is a more appropriate parallel.

“You’re off camera, but you’re still a part of the action,” de Cou said. “You choose the script and where you want the actors to go. Films can be something incredibly moving, like old film noir like ‘Casablanca.’ A high-faluting European art film feels flat because they’re trying too hard.”

During performances, de Cou must make on-the-fly adjustments. Maybe the brass is drowning out the woodwinds. Maybe the violins need to execute a phrase with extra zip.

“It’s like driving a car,” de Cou said. “If you held the wheel perfectly straight, you’d crash.”

The stereotypes surrounding classical music are well broadcast. Stiff, pretentious, elitist, cold. de Cou said that description couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Orchestras are fun and immediate. You don’t have to dress up, although you can if you want to have fun with it. I wish it could be even more informal, the way it was when it was invented. It was more like going to listen to a jazz group. People would bring out sandwiches,” de Cou said.

Even though de Cou’s voice dances when discussing music, his outlook on life is decidedly laid back. In fact, he doesn’t even know what model of car he drives, beyond the fact it’s an old Volkswagen bought off a neighbor.

This demeanor serves de Cou well on the road. The NSO is about to embark on a residency tour, including a Feb. 11 stop in Clemson. According to de Cou, the ensemble gets along well, a cross between a traveling circus and family vacation. The orchestra travels by van and bus, augmented by a 100-person support staff. To make his hotel rooms feel more like home, de Cou burns candles and blasts music on his laptop.

“The brass section tends to be the party group, so you always want to know where they are,” de Cou said.


National Symphony Orchestra

2008 American Residency


Brooks Center for the Performing Arts


8 p.m.


(864) 656-7787