The Seattle Mariners aren’t the only ones to lock up their franchise performer to a 10-year contract.
Stretch your imagination and think of Huw Edwards as the Olympia Symphony Orchestra‘s equivalent of M’s baseball standout Robinson Cano. They are both highly talented professionals, one on a baseball diamond, playing second base and batting third for Seattle’s Major League Baseball team, the other on The Washington Center for the Performing Arts concert stage in Olympia, conducting an orchestra that has grown more talented under his direction the past 12 years.
The 10-year deal between Edwards and the OSO board of directors was announced to the public last Sunday at the symphony’s final concert of the 2014-15 season. There were a lot of oohs and ahs from the crowd, a show of appreciation for Edwards, the Wales-born maestro who has helped turn a little-known community symphony into one with some regional renown.
“The contract extension was a mutual expression of confidence — we offered and he accepted,” board president Mike Ryherd said. “Huw has made the orchestra better every year he has been here. He challenges the orchestra and he challenges the audience, playing music they won’t find in other venues.”
“I think the symphony has become a cultural resource the community can be proud of,” Edwards, 51, told me over coffee last week. “I do like to challenge the orchestra and the audience. And over the years, we’ve build some trust with the audience, a willingness to travel down some off-beaten musical tracks and scenic backgrounds.”
Holly Reeves, a cello player in the symphony the past 17 years, also sees and hears the orchestra growing more proficient under Edwards. The members, which number about 70, broke into spontaneous applause when they learned about the long-term contract from board officers during the penultimate rehearsal before the season’s last concert.
“We’re really lucky to have him,” she said. “His passion for the music always shines through.”
The final concert in this year’s five-concert series, called Austrian Antithesis, symbolized much of what Edwards brings to the orchestra. He opened with Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major, K. 313. The piece featured solo flutist Marie Tachouet, who is the principal flutist with Lyric Opera of Chicago, someone who’s played with the Milwaukee Symphony, Joffrey Ballet and Pittsburgh Opera orchestras.
A Portland native, Tachouet got her musical start in the Portland Youth Philharmonic during Edward’s tenure there as musical director (1995-2002). It’s not unusual for Edwards to hire former Portland youth musicians who advanced to accomplished professional careers to play as guest soloists with the Olympia orchestra..
“It’s very heartwarming to see them again and hear them play,” Edwards said. “I still think of them as 16-17-year-olds.”
Edwards also brought to the stage that night the music of 19th century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, whose music is seldom played, but is a favorite of Edwards. Music critics have described Bruckner as an obsessive country bumpkin, but also capable of producing musical visions of grandeur both ancient and modern. Edwards conducted Bruckner’s horn-heavy, but not too intimidating, Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, “Romantic,” sans tuxedo in light of the lengthy nature of the piece.
In the three years I’ve attended Olympia Symphony Orchestra concerts, I’ve usually enjoyed the performances and always enjoyed Edward’s witty monologue after intermission. The other night he talked about the Master’s golf tournament (he’s an avid golfer who plays to a 7-handicap) and cracked a joke that Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was supposed to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game the other night but somebody forgot to hand him the ball. Then he always launches into a detailed description of the composer and music the orchestra is about to play.
You may wonder: How did this middle-aged maestro end up in Olympia? Here’s the abbreviated version of the story, which is also available on a Huw Edwards Wikipedia website that is quite exhaustive and composed by someone unknown to Edwards.
Edwards knew by age 11, living in England, that he wanted to be a conductor after his parents took him to an opera at the Royal Opera House in London. He took up the conductor’s wand at age 17 when he became music director of the Maidstone Opera Company in England. He conducted the University of Surrey orchestra, winning a competition at age 23 that sent him to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From there he traveled extensively in the United States and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest, in part because it reminded him of home.
He attended Northwestern University in Chicago, where he worked on, but never completed, his doctorate, and became a diehard Chicago Bears fan. He moved to Portland in 1995 for the youth philharmonic job and also served as music director of the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra (2000-12) until the Olympia-Portland commute became too much.
Edwards has reached the point in his career — 35 years conducting — where he no longer yearns to conduct a big metropolitan orchestra. He’s happy here in Olympia. “How I live is more important than what I do,” he offered. “You know I like to golf and travel — getting off the podium is great.”
But for the orchestra and its fans, another 10 years on the podium in Olympia is great, too.
For more information about the OSO ticket sales, May 30 annual gala and auction, free summer concert on the Capitol Campus lawn July 26 and the 2015-16 concert series, visit olympiasymphony.com.