Conductor David Amado: Delaware Symphony Orchestra
A man of many talents, conductor David Amado remains a steady presence with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.
David Amado has been the DSO’s man behind the baton for 10 seasons.
Photo by Joe del Tufo
Maestro David Amado makes a mean latte. Maybe it’s because he roasts his own beans, which he orders from California. Or perhaps the full-bodied flavor is due to the Expobar espresso machine, which squats on the kitchen counter in his Westover Hills Woods home. All that’s missing from this cup of caffeinated perfection is a music note carved into the froth.
This is Amado’s 10th season as the music director and conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and it’s been an unconventional one. Last spring, with a new executive director at the helm, the organization announced it was scrapping its planned 2012-2013 season for fiscal reasons.
Then in October, the orchestra announced that an agreement with the musicians would allow DSO to perform an abbreviated classical series at The Grand Opera House and The Tatnall School. (DSO’s sold-out four-concert chamber series, which started in October, isn’t affected.) At press time, the classical series was set to start this month.
A number of people, including contributors Tatiana and Gerret Copeland, helped guide DSO through the turmoil. Yet few would argue that Amado has been a strong, steady presence throughout the period. “He’s a gem,” says Diana Milburn, DSO’s general manager, who was hired in August. “His leadership during this challenging time has been extraordinary. He’s funny and charismatic—the musicians like him.”
Tatiana Copeland would agree. “I very much value David both for his professional character and personal friendship,” she says.
It’s that affability—the man behind the baton—that I’m looking for when I visit the Amados’ home, a gracious Colonial built in 1929. Previous owners enhanced the kitchen, where the breakfast remnants of the Amados’ three children—twins Alex and Renee, 8, and Elena, 4—are on the table. Amado and wife Meredith added a family room off the kitchen. They also re-did the living room, a necessity after a tree crashed into the house during a 2009 storm. Amado, his wife confides, hates thunderstorms, and it’s no wonder. Last year she surprised him with a chainsaw as a gift, which he loved. When he’s not tackling storm-tossed trees, he can use it in Maine, where chopping wood is one of his favorite pastimes.
Amado’s white-painted study has a wall of framed pictures and letters related to iconic musicians. There’s a letter from composer-pianist Clara Schumann, for instance, and one from Johannes Brahms. There are also letters from composers to Amado’s grandmother, celebrated violinist Lillian Fuchs, who taught Isaac Stern.
Some pieces were gifts to Amado’s mother, accomplished violinist Carol Stein Amado. Meredith Amado, artistic director of the Pyxis Piano Quartet, plays her late mother-in-law’s violin, made in 1662 by Nicolo Amati.
On the morning of my visit, Meredith is rehearsing with Naomi Gray, the DSO’s associate principal cellist, and the plaintive notes drift into the study. Between the living and the legendary, there’s no shortage of talent here, and it’s slightly intimidating. There was a time when I could play a passable “Clair de Lune,” but talking shop with a maestro who spends a lot of time in a tuxedo is unnerving, especially one who graduated from Juilliard and whose father taught physics at the University of Pennsylvania.
If Amado is inwardly rolling his eyes at any of my gaffes, he never shows it, and soon I feel at ease. His conversation is measured, but the occasional everyday word is pleasantly surprising. In a WHYY interview, available on YouTube, he calls the economy’s affect on the arts “stinky.” He uses “yuck,” to describe the fallen tree and the storm. When we discuss why a violin could survive three centuries when other instruments turn to dust, he says perhaps it’s because crappy instruments don’t continue circulating. Makes sense to me.
The youngest of two boys, Amado grew up in Merion, Pa. He was 4 when he first took piano lessons, not because his famous family pressured him but because he gravitated toward the instrument. By the time he was in Lower Merion High School, he practiced about five hours a day, including an hour before school. “It’s diligence,” he acknowledges, “and it’s also annoying to everyone who didn’t want to hear the piano at 5 a.m.” That included his brother, Rick, who griped about it in his journal.
Amado also played trumpet in the school orchestra but not in the marching band. (“Too cold maybe?” he says as an explanation.)
Close friends were mostly musicians. “It was hard for me because I was so focused on something that didn’t resonate with a lot of other people,” he acknowledges. He felt liberated when he started pre-college classes at Juilliard on Saturdays. From the minute he got off the train on Saturday evening, he looked forward to the next Saturday.
Despite his Juilliard experience, he went to the University of Pennsylvania, where an art history class made a lasting impression. If he could do anything else in the world—and have the skill to do it—it would be a job in the visual arts, he says. But after his freshman year, he transferred to Juilliard. “I didn’t feel like I was getting enough opportunity to practice” at Penn, he says. “It’s really what I wanted to do more than anything.”
A mutual friend introduced him to Meredith, a fellow student. He was 19, and she was 17 and still in braces. On their first date, they went to the Metropolitan Museum and to dinner. Afterward, they watched the film “Babette’s Feast.”
“I remember knowing then that we were going to get married,” he says. Meredith wasn’t convinced, but she found him amusing, she says. When they first met, he’d just given his father 50 eggplants for his 50th birthday. “He was a breath of fresh air in a very tense and stressful environment.”
Amado loved to practice, but he never entered a piano competition. He also lacked that burning desire to perform. “I really loved music … the piano was just my way to make the music,” he says. The desire to be a professional pianist ebbed. “I think my parents realized it before I did and didn’t say anything,” he says. “They realized that I needed to realize it.”
Yet the passion for music itself persisted. How could he use it? After graduating from Juilliard, he applied to and was accepted into a conducting program. He declined; he wasn’t ready. “I was like Groucho Marx: I didn’t want to belong to a club who would have me as a member,” he says. He took a year to study music scores before applying to programs in both academic music and conducting. He chose conducting. “Ultimately,” he says, “I felt there was something in me that needed to make the music rather than think about it.”
After getting a master’s in instrumental coaching from Indiana University, he returned to Juilliard for post-graduate work. It was here that he met David Loebel, then a guest conductor at Juilliard, who was working on a complicated contemporary music program; Amado helped with rehearsals.
“Even then David had all the prerequisites to be a fine conductor: a high level of musical talent and knowledge, curiosity, common sense and a personality that would easily gain an orchestra’s cooperation,” says Loebel, now on the faculty of the New England Conservatory. “I’d like to think that his subsequent success has proved me correct.”
Loebel played a part in that success. When the St. Louis Symphony in Missouri decided to add a staff conductor, Loebel, then the associate principal conductor, suggested Amado, who was working in Portland, Ore. He and Meredith, who were married by then, moved to the Midwest.
In St. Louis, Amado conducted performances for youth education programs. “The students really responded to his warmth and humor,” Loebel says. (The people with the best sense of humor are also the most serious about their work, he notes.) Amado also conducted some subscription events.
By 2002, when the DSO job was posted in a union paper, the Amados were ready to return to the East Coast, where there were more opportunities for Meredith to work as a violinist. The DSO announced Amado’s appointment in March 2003, and Amado quickly became the young face of the orchestra and an involved member of the community.
In just over a decade, the local nonprofit community has experienced the highs of MBNA’s halcyon days, punctuated with big donations, and the crushing lows of the recession. “We suffered from an alignment of circumstances that a lot of nonprofits that operate on razor-thin margins experience,” says Amado of the events of last spring. “There were realities that needed to be dealt with. We’re very happy that we’re going to have music this year. We just have to figure out how to be responsible.”
He’s talking about more than the symphony. The community needs to determine how to support the arts, which make people look at themselves and their surroundings in a new light. “The arts are an incredibly important part of humanity and what it is to be a complete person,” he maintains. “While the arts can be entertaining, they’re not necessarily an affirmation of everything you believe in; ideally, they challenge you … . We obviously need to think about how we’re going to fit into the cultural landscape.”
Education is key. “You can’t cultivate a plant in soil that’s incompatible with the plant,” Amado says. Fortunately for the DSO, Amado enjoys working with youth, who unlike their parents and grandparents aren’t necessarily taking the piano and ballet lessons that expose them to the classics at an early age.
It’s not easy when an audience is accustomed to instant entertainment and information, he acknowledges. Without the insight he likes to offer, an audience may struggle with hour-long compositions and abstract narratives. Big ideas, he says, take a long time to tell.
Before I leave, Amado asks if I want to try the ginger beer he’s making. It’s refreshingly fizzy with a gingery bite. His wife says he often threatens to open a coffee roaster-BBQ restaurant. Amado would make a good barista, but it’s hard to imagine him in a non-musical profession.
It’s also hard to imagine the DSO without Amado. “I enjoy watching him on the stage,” Copeland says. “He’s a fabulous conductor. I love the symphony; they are a great asset to the community.”
Amado hopes others feel the same way. “I know in Delaware we have the capacity to support a meaningful orchestra,” he says. “We just need to figure out what the community finds meaningful and actively pursue it. We need to find our sweet spot.”