Local Arts

The conductor who led the transformation of the Charlotte Symphony has died

Leo Driehuys, who was conductor of the Charlotte Symphony from 1977-1993, died Aug. 14, 2019. Here, he stands in the Royal Dutch Opera Hall in the Netherlands, where he began his professional musical career as an oboist at age 19.
Leo Driehuys, who was conductor of the Charlotte Symphony from 1977-1993, died Aug. 14, 2019. Here, he stands in the Royal Dutch Opera Hall in the Netherlands, where he began his professional musical career as an oboist at age 19. Courtesy of Bastiaan Driehuys

When Leo Driehuys arrived in Charlotte in 1977 from the Netherlands, he was charged with leading a Charlotte Symphony of part-time musicians. But by the time he retired in 1993, he’d doubled the number of full-time musicians in the orchestra, had led them on a tour in Europe and was conducting them in a state-of-the-art venue uptown that he had pushed for.

Driehuys died of a brain tumor Aug. 14 at his home in Midlothian, Va. He was 87.

Driehuys began his musical journey early, earning the jobs of principal oboist and rehearsal pianist for the Netherlands Opera when he was 19. It was there that he would meet his wife, opera singer Henrica Postma.

After a distinguished career as a solo oboist and then founding member of the Danzi Quintet (one of the most famous wind quintets of the 1960s and 1970s), he studied conducting and went on to conduct the Netherlands Dance Theater and the Dutch Radio and Television Orchestras.

He then traded his European career for a vastly different challenge, to take the helm of a symphony in a town with no skyscrapers. (Bank of America tower wouldn’t open on Tryon Street for another 12 years.)

And indeed, it was his time in Charlotte that wound up being “the pinnacle of his career,” said his son, Bastiaan Driehuys, a professor in the radiology department at Duke University.

“He threw his everything into it,” Driehuys said.

‘The next level’

Bastiaan Driehuys was 9 when the family immigrated from the Netherlands to Davidson, and he recalls “that every conversation at dinner was how to take that orchestra to the next level.

“It’s a credit to my parents that the same spirit that led them to pick up and move from our comfortable existence in Europe led them to say, ‘Let’s go take this fledgling orchestra to the next level.’ They embraced every new challenge,” he said.

Transforming an orchestra came with challenges.

Charlotte Symphony violinist Martha Geissler, who joined the symphony in 1981, recalls that Driehuys was always pushing to attract and retain the highest caliber musicians he could, which sometimes meant he had to let weaker instrumentalists go.

“He was a very strong face for the Charlotte Symphony, but he worked his butt off behind the scenes with the power players in Charlotte,” Geissler said. “He got people to realize that this was something important to put money into because it was good for the city.”

To his musicians, he was a partner and an advocate because he knew what it was like to be on the other end of the baton, having been a professional oboist for so many years, Geissler said.

In 1986, he took the orchestra on a northern European tour.

And when the city considered building a state-of-the-art performing arts venue on Tryon Street, Driehuys was one of Charlotte’s arts leaders strongly supporting the new building.

Laying the groundwork

He saw his dream of a modern concert hall realized. On Belk Theater’s opening night on Nov. 20, 1992, he and the symphony took the stage in a star-studded gala that included performances by Roberta Flack and Patti LuPone.

“The fact that the symphony is the way it is today is due to the groundwork that Leo laid,” Geissler said.

She recalls a Charlotte Symphony anniversary performance years ago, where all of the still-living conductors were invited back.

When it was Driehuys’ turn to stand before the group, the musicians didn’t hold back.

“He got up there, and we hooped and hollered,” she said, “because we knew what he had done.”

Driehuys is survived by his wife of 58 years, Henrica, his daughter Nicolette Oppelt, his son Bastiaan Driehuys and five grandchildren. The family is planning a private memorial service.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments