Photo © Niko Rodamel


July, 2014    

It was unseasonably warm at the start of June in Lyon. Temperatures soared into the upper 80’s. But it is always so lovely that not too many people mind the heat.

Unless they live on the fifth floor of an apartment building and the elevator is not working.

I have no idea how long the ascenseur had been out of service. All I know is that schlepping up the six flights—remember that the first floor in Europe is the second in the States—luggage in hand, was excruciating. Maybe this was fine back in the 18th century, but not many people made it to 70 years old.

This went on for the whole week of what was a most interesting time of music making. Continuing with the ONL Ravel cycle, we came to a true rarity and possibly a first performance.

In 1909, the composer was busy writing Daphnis and Chloé when he received a commission to produce incidental music for the play Antar. Some of you may be familiar with the symphony by Rimsky-Korsakov based on the same subject. Ravel knew he could not write a wholly original score, so he used the music composed by Rimsky as the basis for the drama.

Three years ago, I became aware of this concoction and thought that very possibly it could be workable as a concert piece with narration. The score existed, and one could easily make out what Ravel did, the order in which he put the four movements and the music he added to fill out the play. There is a portion of Rimsky’s Mlada as well as a few fragments from songs. In addition, there is also some original Ravel.

The distinguished Arab-French author Amin Maalouf was charged with writing a workable text that wound up being not only appropriate, but also very poetic and beautiful, fitting in with the music perfectly. We had figured out where the speaker should be alone and spots where we could play while the narration was read.

André Dussollier, the quite famous French motion picture actor, read the text and was completely riveting throughout. The ONL seemed to enjoy both the score and the story. I have no idea when the disc will be released, but with five volumes already in the can, this one may not reach the public for a couple years.

Filling out the second half of the program were Ravel’s Two Hebraic Melodies, the song cycle Shéhérazade and the second suite from Daphnis and Chloé. Véronique Gens, who sang Berlioz with us last year, was the mezzo for the vocal works. The entire program was supposed to be presented in Paris the next day.

Such was not the case.

Earlier in the week, French train workers declared a strike, having something to do with merging the private and public sectors of the railroad. A few trains were running, but as with most actions in this country, it was not clear which ones would go or if they would be on time. No one seemed concerned, as there is a law that prevents these work stoppages from occurring for more than three days. We were scheduled to take the 9 a.m. train from Lyon to Paris. There was no question that this would be one of the casualties of the strike, assuming the workers were willing to break the law. If we were booked on the 10 o’clock, we would have been fine.

Prior to the Saturday night concert, I was informed that the strike was continuing, but that everyone was looking for an alternative route. A bus was out of the question as that trip can take up to six hours, whereas the TGV train takes just two. With a rehearsal set for 1:00 at the Salle Pleyel and the concert at 3:00, this was not an option.

When our performance ended, a very sad looking group of ONL staff was waiting to tell me that the decision had been made to not even try, and the Paris concert was cancelled. With all the great work and effort the musicians had put into this program, it truly was a shame not to be able to show off in the French capital.

And to add to the confusion, our Auditorium, which had been closed for six months due to repair work on the air conditioning system, became a sauna, as the new version went on the fritz.

C’est la vie française.

In the meantime, back in Detroit, the orchestra was busy with the annual Gala, a function that raises more than a million dollars. This year, I had asked John Williams if he would come and conduct. He agreed and asked if he could bring a friend along. It turned out to be Steven Spielberg.

Following my Saturday night concert in Lyon, which pretty much coincided with the start of the one in Detroit, I had the opportunity to chat with the two of them prior to their concert. They were both in great spirits, and they had wonderful things to say about the orchestra and hall. Steven in particular found himself more intrigued by Detroit than he had imagined.

Kid Rock was there, as this event also honored two men who have helped reshape the city. Without Dan Gilbert and Matt Cullen, the orchestra might still be on strike, and the music would have died. Cindy reported that everyone had a great time and that the audience was particularly diverse, meaning that the old guard mingled with new friends. I was sorry not to have been there, but had pre-recorded a video introduction that was shown just before the concert commenced.

With the Paris cancellation I thought I might get home a day early. However, because of the train strike, there was no way to get to Paris to catch a flight back to Detroit. Instead, I drove two hours and stayed at the Geneva airport hotel, boarding a plane for de Gaulle early the next morning. Strangely enough, I am kind of getting used to the French way of both doing and not doing things. One goes with the flow, but the sting felt by the loss of the Salle Pleyel concert had not yet subsided.

Even though the season had ended, there was still work to do in Detroit. This has been an outstanding year in virtually every respect. Advance ticket sales continue to climb, contributions are coming in as planned, and we have been fortunate to attract several outstanding musicians who will become DSO members next season. Auditions were held for one last position to be filled this season, assistant principal percussion. That brought the total to nine new additions to the orchestra roster. There are still more to come next season, but our overall feeling is that we are getting a truly high level of talent.

There were also some fundraisers that I attended. Some of my colleagues do not care for this part of the American system. I get to inhabit two worlds, the one in Detroit and the other in Lyon. In the latter, my only contact in terms of securing funding comes through city hall. The orchestra and Auditorium are fully taken care of by the city government. Only when it comes to touring or other very special projects do we need to go outside the box.

In Detroit, as with all American orchestras, there is no involvement from government sources. Almost all monies must be raised privately and from ticket sales. We are in the midst of a long-range plan, which should create both artistic and fiscal stability over two five-year periods. It is never easy just to ask any individual for large contributions, but the story we tell, and the orchestra’s role in the continued growth of the city, make it a bit easier. With other fiscal troubles, such as the one faced by the Detroit Institute of Arts, there is stiff competition for funds. The last thing we want to do is undermine any other arts institution, but I trust that everyone understands what the DSO has accomplished and where it still needs to grow.

Last summer I made a decision that is only now being told to orchestras and individuals. Looking at my schedule, and with a big birthday looming, I decided it was time to give myself a break. Rather than simply taking a sabbatical for a couple months, I took what for me is a bold step. No more guest conducting after the conclusion of the regular season. That means that most of the summer months, starting in 2015, will now be free.

I plan to write a couple more books and do some composing, but mostly Cindy and I wish to take time to enjoy what both of us have worked very hard for over these many years. There will probably be one final project that I was approached about a couple years ago, but it will place me in one spot for almost three months, allowing me the ability to continue work on what I wish to accomplish.

In a way, the final week of June was the start of the farewell tour, at least as far as various festivals are concerned. Should either the DSO or ONL be asked to participate, that would be the only exception to the new rule. It seemed appropriate that this final run begin with an orchestra of young people. The National Orchestral Institute, based at the University of Maryland, gives outstanding musicians the opportunity to work for several weeks with different conductors and be coached by some of the leading principal players in orchestras around the country. It falls right between the end of the school year and the commencement of other major festivals.

My program was the last of the season and was mostly a virtuoso romp through three wonderful pieces: Sierra’s Fandangos, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. This is the repertoire that really can help young musicians as they move on in their careers. Various styles are covered, technical matters are tested and musical sensibilities need to be in place at all times. This year’s crop of talent was exceptional, and it was clear from the first of seven rehearsals that their teachers had already prepared them well.

One young musician asked me if I had worked any differently with them than I would with a professional orchestra. My answer was that other than needing to teach them the pieces, as many were playing each work for the first time, no. We focused on the types of sounds needed, balances, ensemble and pretty much anything else I would anywhere.

Of course the concert is the culmination, but I believe that the rehearsal process is what is most meaningful for these young people. A few will go on to successful musical careers and others will find different avenues for their talents. The bottom line was that this was a fine week for me and working with the NOI was a pleasure.

***

As promised, I am making a recording pick of the month. This time it is actually several discs by one artist: John McLaughlin. It seems as if he has been around forever and perhaps he has. But the range and depth of his artistry is always fresh. I found myself listening to several albums with differing styles. The three I would suggest, if you are not aware of his playing, include the first of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the first Shakti album and the astonishing Guitar Trio recording with Paco DeLucia and Al Di Meola.

The sheer virtuosity on display in each recording takes your breath away, but what touches me most is the uncanny musicality in every selection. All decisions, whether composed or improvised, always make sense, and his willingness to share and not hog the spotlight comes through at all times.

***

July will be mostly spent with the ONL, with one concert at home and then a lengthy tour to Japan, with nine concerts in eleven days. At this moment of writing, both France and the U.S. are through to the knockout round of the World Cup. The day we arrive in Lyon, Les Bleus will have a match in the evening. I suspect the whole country will be shut down for a few hours, with either celebrating or mourning to follow. I thought the debate about my allegiance to either the Cardinals or Tigers was a point of contention among some. What will happen if the French wind up playing the Americans while I am in Tokyo?

See you next month,

Leonard


Conducting Business is available on Amazon.

To read my notes from previous months, click here.


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