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A Maestro’s Odyssey

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Delaware Symphony Orchestra  conductor David Amado. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)David Amado has a fine way with a Steinway. That much is evident from the crystalline progression of notes that often spill from the doorway of his suburban Wilmington, Del., home.

Though impeccably trained, Amado learned long ago that there’s more to musical life than being a concert pianist. For starters, he learned it in the Lower Merion school where he came of age. Now, he lives it as the conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.

“David played the trumpet,” recalls retired music teacher Leonard Murphy, who led the orchestra and jazz band at Bala Cynwyd Middle School when Amado was a student there.

Years later, after he was invited to a DSO performance by a colleague, Murphy went backstage to greet his former student, but Amado recognized him first. “Oh my God!” cried the maestro, thrilled to see his conductor from the old days.

The podium is indeed the vantage point that Philadelphia-born, Merion-bred Amado prefers, though he began studying piano at age 4, and his instructors included the internationally acclaimed Susan Starr. At some point, he realized that the baton better suited his skills and personality. For one, he likes the social aspects of the job and the collegiality of working with other musicians, as opposed to laboring in isolation. And apparently, the favor has been returned.

“The orchestra members love him—really, really love him,” says DSO board member Nick Cerchio, citing one reason Amado was hired.

Youthful and energetic, the 41-year-old Amado is in his sixth season at the helm of DSO, a part-time orchestra from which he elicits full-blast performances. Typically, members rehearse together for only 10 hours prior to each concert during the September-May season. The seven-concert classical series takes place at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, as do the youth “Lollipops” and the more pop-oriented “Plugged In” series. Feb. 12-13, Amado and orchestra join Israeli piano virtuoso Alon Goldstein for a celebration of Chopin’s bicentennial. And on Feb. 23, DSO continues its Champagne Chamber Series with an A.I. du Pont Award performance of esteemed composer George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, sung by Grammy-nominated Tony Arnold.

It’s an ambitious schedule for part-timers—which Amado clearly is not. He selects pieces one year in advance, and 80 percent of it is new to him. “You have to be able to navigate the piece—know where the joints and seams are,” he says.
 

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Last month, in addition to scoping out symphonies and concertos, he played piano in a chamber recital, joining his violinist wife, Meredith, whom he met when both were students at the Juilliard School in New York.

Amado acknowledges that his profession requires “an enormous amount of upkeep.” But the hours he logged during his years of intensive training were the most important. It all began with a family devoted to classical music. His mother, Carol Stein Amado, was first violinist of her eponymous string quartet, which performed regularly in this area. Her twin sister played cello. Their mother, legendary violist Lillian Fuchs, taught the likes of Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zuckerman.

“With all those string players around, piano seemed like a safe place to go,” Amado says.

And down to the basement he went, to learn the instrument under the auspices of the husband of the second violinist in his mother’s quartet.

“[Amado’s] mother was a driving force in his development,” says Murphy, formerly assistant conductor of the Main Line Symphony Orchestra, and conductor of the North Penn Symphony Orchestra when Carol Stein Amado soloed with the group on several occasions.

By the time he graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1986, Amado’s keyboard stroke matched that of some of the best young pianists out there. He’d thrived in the school’s comprehensive music program, and had studied at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music and with Susan Starr at her Philly studio.

“I was terrified of Susan Starr,” says Amado. “She was, and is, such a super pianist. I can’t imagine I was a teachable student with those nerves, but she was a great and thoughtful teacher.”

Amado also sampled the big leagues in weekly, pre-college sessions at Juilliard, and during summers at the Aspen Music Festival; his grandmother had taught in both programs. After a year at the University of Pennsylvania, he transferred to Juilliard. “School work [at Penn] was getting in the way of my practicing piano—not the other way around,” says Amado. “It was time to step from the dock into the boat.”

Amado dropped anchor in a New York City apartment, plunged into the elite, ultra-competitive world of Juilliard, and changed career plans.

“I saw great pianists there, and I wasn’t extraordinary,” says Amado. “In that environment, the technical refinement of music became an end—not a means to an end. I was on the wrong-gauge railroad.”

So Amado decided to approach the classical canon from a different angle, learning how to read scores and transpose songs. He realized he had an affinity for collaboration. He loved orchestral repertoire—and fell in love with future wife Meredith. “It was a slow alignment of my needs with my skills,” he says. “I saw conducting as a viable route.”
 

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He applied to the conducting program at Juilliard but was rejected, so he took a year off and studied orchestral scores on his own. A two-year hitch at Indiana University broadened his perspective and strengthened his hand with a master’s degree in instrumental conducting.

By this time, Meredith was in the master’s program at Juilliard. Amado showed up in New York in 1993, auditioned, and won a berth on a postgraduate conducting roster that included Alan Gilbert, the current music director of the New York Philharmonic. Two years later, Amado took his first post—an apprenticeship with the Oregon Symphony.

Soon, Amado began his migration back East, landing with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. There, he served as staff conductor and also headed the youth orchestra.

Next stop: the top job with DSO. The regional orchestra’s ancestor, founded by Alfred I. du Pont, opened and closed in the first decade of the 2oth century, despite the conducting services of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal flutist. The group re-established itself for keeps in 1912, expanding its repertoire and reputation for the next nine decades under just three different conductors. That momentum has continued during Amado’s half-dozen years, as the orchestra draws people of all ages from Delaware and adjacent states, and performs for more than 10,000 students each year.

Home base is the Grand Opera House, built in 1871 and restored more than a century later. Historic and richly appointed, it’s also a musical taskmaster. “It’s lovely looking and has a sense of intimacy, but the clarity of the acoustics favors the spoken word,” says Amado. “There is no forgiveness to musicians, no blurring of the edges.”

While Amado charts the fortunes of the DSO, Meredith and her violin stay busy with the piano quartet Pyxis. Along with their three young children, the Amados may have a quintet in the making. For now, though, there’s more than enough music in their lives. A recent chamber music performance marked the first time Amado and his wife had played in concert together.

“We’ve played for special events,” says Amado. “But we’d never shouldered the burden of a whole concert together.”

In a profession known as much for its egocentric personalities as its musical geniuses, Amado seems quite comfortable in a shared spotlight. “When I said to him that his name as music director should be on all of our print stuff, he looked at me and said that he didn’t think that was necessary,” says DSO board member Nancy Saunders. “I said, ‘Yes it is!’”

And Amado’s boyish enthusiasm for everything he does only enhances the intent and impact of his message.

“I have an obligation to feel that whatever I’m doing at the moment is the best ever,” he says.

To learn more, visit desymphony.org.

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