Photo © Niko Rodamel
Amid the escalating political rhetoric dominating the news, as well as atrocities being committed in the world, there was some comfort in traveling to places old and new for me this past month. I found myself ending each rehearsal period by telling the orchestras I led that we are so lucky to be musicians. Bringing great art and moving audiences away from the turmoil that exists outside the confines of the concert hall remind us that there remain pleasures that can never be taken away.
After the exhausting Brahms Festival in Detroit, I began a nine-week road trip, one that took me to orchestras familiar and unknown, at least as far as my own experiences were concerned. The first stop was in Fort Worth, with an ensemble going through its own set of difficulties during a lengthy contract negotiation. Now that I will head up the jury as well as conduct for the next Cliburn Piano Competition, it seemed logical to spend a week getting to know the orchestra a bit better.
It was also an opportunity for Cindy to reconnect with dear friends, as she had spent almost 30 years of her life teaching in the Texas community of Denton. The program included an American first half, with Cindy’s Double Play ending that portion of the concert. There was some Bernstein and Barber as well. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth rounded out the program. This repertoire gave me a good chance to really gauge the orchestra. I found an ensemble eager to make music and, at least for our rehearsals and concerts, able to put aside their difficulties on the labor front.
But in a departure from my usual stance of not getting involved, I decided that it might be useful for me to get information from as many different sides with the goal of offering a few suggestions about how each might proceed as the deadline for a new agreement approached. Musicians, board members and staff came to see me, and since I had learned so much during the Detroit conflict, much of what I had to say came from that experience. It remains to be seen how Fort Worth solves what is a very complex and potentially damaging set of negotiations.
Musically, things are in pretty good shape. The orchestra’s music director, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, has done an excellent job shaping the ensemble and making it cohesive. In addition, he and the musicians have done much to reach into the community and develop some strong education initiatives. For my concerts, all the pieces were performed with commitment and a high degree of orchestral virtuosity. Audiences were enthusiastic and warm. It is hard to know how Cindy really felt taking a bow in her old stomping grounds, but I felt a real sense of pride in seeing the public and orchestra respond to her piece in such a positive way.
Now I can only hope that all sides find a meeting point that satisfies the goals of each. It will not be easy, but the city deserves an outstanding orchestra.
Next up was my annual visit to St. Louis. Now it was my turn to reconnect with old friends. There are about 25 musicians left in the orchestra since my departure 20 years ago. All the others came after my tenure ended, but each seemed to enjoy the challenge of Berlioz’s epic Romeo and Juliet. The SLO has only played the complete work three times in its history, all of these performances led by yours truly. I continue to be amazed by the innovation and complexity of this masterpiece. It is one of my favorite works to conduct.
It also brought me back together with the Symphony’s excellent chorus. This is a group that I helped found, even before I became music director. After the passing of its founder, Thomas Peck, I was able to convince Amy Kaiser to take over, and she continues to produce disciplined and musical results time and time again.
The work is difficult, and at first, the orchestra was a bit tentative in learning so much in a short, four-rehearsal time period. But by the time we got to the second performance, everyone had found their Berlioz sea legs, and the result was a very moving experience for all. The Festival at the Capulets was boisterous, the love scene tender, and the Queen Mab Scherzo delicate and shimmering.
A few of the older musicians told me that they will be retiring at the end of this season. The connections I have with these people will always be a part of my life. Hopefully some of the new members enjoy working with me and our relationship will continue for many years.
It was not only a week about the orchestra. A few years ago, my good friends Noémi and Michael Neidorff built a new, community-owned radio station, RAF-STL, to bring classical music back to the city’s FM dial. I helped put on a fundraiser to support keeping the media outlet strong. This was done in the manner of a talk show, performed at the lovely and intimate Sheldon Auditorium. I invited a few of my friends, who agreed to play as well as participate in conversation with me between the pieces they performed. Sharon Isbin, Jimmy Lin, Olga Kern and my brother, Fred, all performed with gusto, and each won over the audience of 700.
In order to bring it off, I forced myself to get back to the piano and accompany or collaborate with three of the artists. As the old expression goes, and as I told the audience, “My fingers are like lightning. They never strike in the same place twice.” Fortunately, there were moments when my playing was not horrible, and it was clear that all of us on stage were having a great time. We certainly met and even exceeded the goals, and I can only wish the radio station continued growth and success.
Rounding off the homecoming was a rehearsal with the youth orchestra. This is an ensemble I started not quite 50 years ago when I was the assistant conductor of the then-SLSO. Nothing is more important than bringing young people into the musical fold, and it is quite possible that of all the accomplishments I achieved during my 27 years in St. Louis, this is the one that I am proudest of. They sound terrific, and their music director, Steven Jarvi, has kept up the high standards that we set all those years ago.
Exhausted, Cindy and I traveled half way around the world, where I would lead two orchestras in China. Having toured the country three times with other ensembles, this would be the first time I actually led Chinese musicians in their own country. First up was the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Several of my Detroit Symphony members come from there and had encouraged me to work in that city. The commercial capital of China is a bustling place. Home to about 25 million people, it has many of the trappings of its counterparts in the Western world. Fantastic and imaginative architecture dot the city’s skyline. Indeed, Shanghai is the model for how much of the world will look in the future.
Culturally there is also more of an emphasis on the new, with many Chinese traditions diminishing in importance. Whether by political design or the desire to be the leader in the global market economy, it stands as a unique symbol of economic flexibility in a country where the system would seem to be counter to what is actually going on. Gone are the overt public declarations of loyalty to the old Red Book days.
Pollution remains the number-one problem, but except for the first day, Cindy and I had mostly low levels of contaminants to deal with. We also had enough time to explore some of the wonders of the city, starting with the incredible museum devoted to artifacts of bronze, ceramics and porcelain. Many of these look as if they were created a few days ago but in reality, some are over 3,000 years old.
The Shanghai Symphony is the oldest orchestra in Asia and has enjoyed remarkable success under its indefatigable leader, Long Yu. He also heads ensembles in Beijing and Guangzhou. The SSO plays in a new hall, with acoustic design by Toyota, the go-to man these days when it comes to sonic matters. Our program was challenging to say the least. And since I have come to the point where I will not conduct for at least 24 hours after arriving from a long journey, we only had three rehearsals plus the dress to put together all the pieces.
The orchestra had asked me to play a piece by Cindy, and of course I was happy to oblige. Circuits is a good way to start almost any concert, and the five-minute ball of energy tests an orchestra in areas related to sound and rhythm. Although this orchestra does not quite have the sight-reading capabilities of its Western counterparts, the players got the hang of the piece, and by the time we gave our performance, all went smoothly. Several audience members commented to Cindy that they usually did not like new music but that her piece was a rare exception.
Our soloist for this program was cellist Jian Wang, who had appeared with me when I brought the ONL to China two years ago. For this occasion, he played the First Shostakovich Concerto, bringing a very high degree of intensity to this wonderful piece. It is clear that he is a bit of a hero in his hometown, and the audience would not let him go until he had played two encores.
The second half contained two of my specialties, Barber’s First Symphony and La Valse. Clearly the former was new for the orchestra, but as soon as we had learned the notes, they captured the essence of this extraordinary work. The Ravel, although not unfamiliar, still needed a lot of work, as I have become so accustomed to doing it with my French orchestra that it is difficult for me to settle on anything other than the flexibility required. By the time we got to the performance, the group got into it and went with all my quirky little rubatos. The audience was most generous in their applause.
We made new friends, had some wonderful culinary adventures, and found more and more people who were eager to discuss virtually every aspect of Chinese life, from culture to politics. I did find it hard to explain what is going on in the States during this election season, probably because I don’t understand it either. And for those of you who think that the Chinese censor everything, all the major television news channels are broadcast in the hotels, including CNN and the BBC. Although women do not occupy the highest positions in government, they are certainly leading companies and cultural organizations. There is no question that China is changing.
With an even larger population than Shanghai, Beijing is almost the polar opposite, and one can catch more glimpses of what life was like in earlier times. Although Mao’s presence is seen at the Forbidden City, most people really do not speak much about the Cultural Revolution, focusing instead on today’s problems. Traffic is a nightmare, and I cannot figure out how there are not more bodies on the streets from accidents among cars, motorbikes and pushcarts. Few rules seem to exist about lane changes, and it all makes for some exciting driving adventures.
We did a few touristy things such as going to the Great Wall and the zoo, attending a performance of the Peking Opera, and visiting streets lined with gourmet treats such as scorpion on a stick. I drew the line with the fried sea horses. Cindy found a park with an amazing array of people doing exercises, dancing and generally enjoying the almost-pollution-free few days. Of course there were several meals at which the local duck was served. Its reputation is well deserved.
The China Philharmonic, also headed by Long Yu, has a very different sound than its counterpart in Shanghai. The latter is fortunate to have a new hall where they can rehearse every day in the same acoustic environment. In Beijing, the orchestra practices in a rehearsal hall and only goes to the concert venue the day of the performance. This means that many balance issues cannot be addressed until the last day.
The hall where my concert took place was in a library, with an auditorium seating around 1,000 people. It has a warm sound, well suited for the Mendelssohn “Reformation” Symphony. Circuits had another outing, and we concluded with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Siqing Lu was the soloist, and he has a strong following in his hometown. There were many photographers in evidence at both the dress rehearsal and performance.
The orchestra was very nice in its working environment. All went well, but since cameras are discouraged but not disallowed at concerts, we did hear the occasional phone drop onto the floor during the course of the concert. The city boasts at least 15 professional orchestras, but selling out all performances is very difficult. One has to keep in mind that even though tickets are not expensive, income is limited. China is still relatively new to Western marketing techniques, but I think this will come very soon.
My feelings about this country have changed with each successive visit. Being part of an evolving society is truly fascinating. There are so many parts of China that Cindy and I would now like to visit, so I believe that we will spend a bit more time in the country exploring on our next visit.
Usually I give recommendations for recordings at this point in my journal, but I didn't have much time for listening this month given all of the travels.
Look for some very exciting news over the next few weeks. I can’t say more at this point, but as soon as things occur, you will have the news right here.
See you next month, or possibly sooner.
Conducting Business is available on Amazon.
To read my notes from previous months, click here.
Mr. Slatkin is represented by:
Columbia Artists Management Inc.
R. Douglas Sheldon, general manager responsible for the Americas and Asia
Julia Albrecht, manager responsible for Europe