Photo © Niko Rodamel


October, 2014    

There is only one way to begin this. I can only give my heartfelt thanks to all of you who greeted me in one way or another for my 70th birthday. Sometimes it is possible to take your friends for granted, and sometimes you don’t even know who your friends are. On this occasion, I have been blessed with so many good wishes that it is not possible to answer everyone personally. So please let this be the thank-you card you each deserve.

After the somewhat grueling summer sets of concerts, it was right back to work in Lyon, with no break in between. For many European and even American orchestras, September is a month that is difficult to sell. The French are just beginning to come back from summer holidays and are not quite ready to get into the routine of the concert season. For that reason, we usually play at a couple of festivals to begin our year.

First up was La Côte Saint-André, the home of Hector Berlioz. The overriding theme for the festival was the somewhat odd connection with the composer and the Americas. Berlioz was invited to the States but never made it. We decided to do a program with two distinct halves. The first featured music and machines, including works by Honegger, Adams, Schuller, Leroy Anderson, and Mossolov. I had the opportunity to do a virtuoso stint as the typewriter soloist.

For the second part of the program, we had a mini portrait of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, Berlioz had written his great symphony based on the story, but since the London Symphony was playing parts of that work the next night, we opted for extracts by Prokofiev, Bernstein, Rota and Tchaikovsky. The orchestra was in great shape and did not sound at all like we had been apart for almost three months.

The other festival that we play annually is La Chaise-Dieu in the Auvergne region of France. It is about a two-hour drive from Lyon, but since the weather was absolutely gorgeous, the trip was scenic and very pleasant. We reprised one of our programs from the Japan trip with Ryu Goto playing the Symphonie espagnole by Lalo. Since the tour, he had plenty of time to really think about the piece, and his new take on it was spectacular, with a great deal of freedom that was far different from the Asian trip.

Since this concert took place on the last day of August, the orchestra broke into a spontaneous version of “Happy Birthday” during the bows at the end. It was very surprising, and I was touched by this gesture.

My actual birthday coincided with a day off, so I could just take it easy and enjoy all the messages that came flooding in. Cindy and I went to a lovely restaurant in the area of our apartment, La Tassée, and had a quiet meal. It was Labor Day in the States, and I was very happy to let people have the day off to celebrate my birthday.

We returned to the Auditorium for a couple days of recording. A lot of music for both the Ravel and Berlioz cycles is already in the can, but there remain plenty of pieces left to do. Isabelle Druet joined us for one of the great pieces by Ravel, Shéhérazade. This will go on the disc with the previously recorded Antar. The irony, of course, is that one usually sees the name Rimsky-Korsakov when these two works appear, but now it will be the French composer getting top billing. Isabelle was great as usual.

Completing the two sessions was the delightful overture to Béatrice et Bénédict. Eventually we will get around to all of the overtures and shorter orchestral extracts by Berlioz. Even though they will appear as fillers with larger works, these pieces will probably be released as a package on their own.

On September 3rd, there was a celebration of the liberation of Lyon 70 years ago. It took place in the Place Bellecour, and there was an air of solemnity, with the mayor giving an impassioned speech outlining the history of the end of hostilities. Just one day after I was born, the Germans bombed the train stations and all but one of the bridges between the two rivers. They then escaped, and American, English and Canadian forces arrived, along with members of the resistance.

With big bands playing and people waving various flags of the allies, the festive part of the day proceeded. There were several vehicles on display that were in use during the war. I also had the occasion to meet the chief Rabbi and learned that there are still 27 synagogues in Lyon. That evening we were treated to an incredible dinner at the home of one of the arts patrons of this city. The food was excellent but the wines were exceptional. Unforgettable.

Arriving from the States just in time to get to the dinner was the soloist for the opening concert, Sylvia McNair. I had invited her to Lyon because, first of all, she is simply the best. But also, now that she inhabits the world of the American Songbook, she would be able to sing some Gershwin with us. And Sylvia would also do four of the Auvergne songs. As usual, she wove her magic spell over everyone and reminded us that her musicianship and diction are extraordinary.

At the conclusion of the concert, while Sylvia and I were walking offstage, we heard a sound emanating from the audience. At first it seemed like soft booing, but soon we both realized that the people had begun an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday.” It was done in a slightly softer manner than we are used to, and it may have been the most beautiful performance of that tune I have ever heard.

During the first week of what I suspect is a few months of celebratory gestures, the DSO began posting daily videos of congratulations from some good friends and colleagues. Some told great stories, others were inventive and humorous, but they all reminded me of how fortunate I am.

Finally I had a free week. Cindy and I decided to head to Portugal, and it was a great trip. The people, culture and food are simply extraordinary. Basing ourselves out of Lisbon, we were able to go to several places in and around the city. By the time we left, both of us felt the need to come back and explore other parts of this wonderful country.

We got back to Lyon just in time to catch the second half of an ONL concert conducted by Larry Foster. By the time I arrived at the hall, they were about halfway through the first movement of Rachmaninov 2 with Evgeny Kissin. I had not heard him in some time, and his maturity is certainly emerging. Refined playing distinguished this performance, and the audience was rewarded with three Chopin encores. A lovely dinner followed, and Larry and I traded quips and stories.

Then it was time for me to get back to work, with an extremely busy couple of weeks ahead. The ONL had picked this first week to actually celebrate my birthday, so there were several events planned around the concert schedule.

The program included Bolcom’s Circus Overture, which I had premiered in Tanglewood. Then three blockbuster soloists for the Beethoven Triple Concerto joined us: pianist Olga Kern, violinist Baiba Skride and cellist Sol Gabetta. The three had never performed together, but as the rehearsals progressed, it was very clear that they were enjoying each other’s musical company. The two performances were outstanding, and I look forward to many collaborations with each of these artists.

After the intermission we tackled my recent foray into Pictures at an Exhibition, the one where I try to adjust the Ravel orchestration to the Mussorgsky original. The ONL played up a storm with a particularly haunting turn from the solo sax player. Carmen’s Hoedown made an appropriate encore. Celebrating American and French culture is one of the themes for the season, and my dad’s arrangement fit the bill perfectly.

A group of DSO patrons from Detroit came to Lyon for the weekend, and it seemed like we never stopped eating. We had a four-and-a-half-hour dinner at the big Bocuse restaurant, and sadly I could not join them for a tour of the Beaujolais region due to my having to rehearse.

The weekend was simply memorable. On the Saturday, a baseball demonstration was given. Turns out that there are actually Little League teams in Lyon. We hastily put together some staff and musicians from the ONL and formed a team. Our opponents ranged from 8 years old to 15. We decided I would be the starting pitcher. Three batters in, I gave up a two-run homer. It seems much farther to home plate from the mound than I remember.

The Rhône-Alpes team featured a hurler who was throwing around 60 MPH. I managed to draw a walk. After the first inning, I took over at first base. We almost turned a double play. Eventually we lost 5-0. The game was called due to age.

That night, in addition to the regular program, Jimmy Galway made a surprise appearance, and we played the theme from The Pink Panther, much to the audience’s delight. A video set of birthday greetings was shown, and the ONL had a brilliant idea of interspersing well-known artists with members of the audience. It was just terrific.

Of course the audience sang “Bon Anniversaire” a couple times, and the orchestra repeated this as well. At a large reception following the concert, we continued the feeding frenzy with several lovely speeches and well wishes from everyone.

The next morning, Olga Kern and I played the four-hand version of Mother Goose by Ravel. I do not sit at the keyboard publicly very often these days, but I can still manage this piece. With all the times I have conducted it, it is fun to try to bring some of the orchestral colors to the piano duet. After that, I served as page-turner for the “Trout” Quintet. Most people are scared to death of this assignment, but I love doing it. And I got all the repeats right!

Mid-afternoon there was a series of challenges for young people in the same area where the baseball game had been held. There were five in soccer and five in music. It was decided that I should give the football stuff a try, and surprisingly, I did pretty well. Who would have thought that I would be weak in baseball but stronger at soccer?

For a finale to the weekend, I had the pleasure of working with an amateur wind ensemble, L’Orchestre d’harmonie du Rhône. They meet once a week and rehearse for eight hours. After a few pieces, I led them in Cindy’s Circuits followed by the Persichetti Divertimento. But they too had a surprise in store.

Calling it “Slatkin Fireworks,” the director led his band in a medley that included the “Star Spangled Banner,” “New York, New York,” “Farandole” and “Malambo,” among others. And of course it ended with everyone singing “Happy Birthday.”

All in all, it was a most memorable and touching celebration. I was moved in so many ways and reminded of how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful friends.

The final week of this long stint in France contained a program that had the orchestra on its toes. Bernstein’s Divertimento, The Marius Constant orchestration of Gaspard de la nuit and An American in Paris were the ensemble’s show-off pieces. Each has a very different set of difficulties. However, the atmosphere from the earlier rehearsals and concerts was still in the air, and everyone worked hard to get all the colors and stylistic differences correct.

Our soloist was Renaud Capuçon. He chose the Korngold Violin Concerto as his vehicle for these concerts. This is a work I have loved since as long as I can remember. Of course the benchmark performance is that of Heifetz, but now many violinists are championing the piece. Renaud brought a great deal of energy and poetry to his interpretation.

One thing that dismayed me was the actual score. Not the content of the music, which has not changed, but rather the fact that for all these years I have conducted from a copy of the composer’s manuscript. Since the work is now popular, the publisher decided to engrave the piece using computer software. This means that it now looks like most any other composition, without Korngold’s distinctive and meticulous markings. Just as we have lost the art of handwriting, so too has the personality of the author been taken away from the performer.

Sure, everything is clear and easy to read, but we no longer see either the ease or the struggle of creation. Perhaps it is because I have been so used to seeing the original that the new one seems sterile by comparison. In any event, the music remains the same, and I wound up not looking at the score much.

There were four performances of this program but only one in Lyon. The first was in Grenoble, about an hour-and-a-half drive from our apartment. After a concert at home, we headed to Vienna, where there was a change of soloist and concerto. Renaud is artist in residence at the Konzerthaus, and so he was already playing often in this venue. Instead, Baiba Skride rejoined the orchestra, performing the Third Violin Concerto of Saint-Saëns. The short tour ended in Bratislava.

***

This month’s recording selection is a four-disc set from the late Oscar Peterson. It is called Exclusively for My Friends and was recorded in the mid-Sixties over a period of five years. All the performances took place in Germany with a small audience in attendance.

There are solos, trios and guest turns from some jazz greats, but it is Oscar who shines through on virtually every track. Everything is there, from the incredible technique to the lyrical quality and exquisite sound he produced. Perhaps, like Art Tatum, he really shined when he had a small group listening. Almost all the cuts are standards, with two being Peterson originals.

Even if you have many of the great albums, this is the one to own. It is on the Polygram label and is not so easy to find. But I know that most of you will figure out a way to grab it.

***

It was announced that I will become head of the jury for the 2017 edition of the Van Cliburn Competition. This marks something quite different, as I will also be conducting the finals. In general, I have not been the biggest fan of these types of musical Olympics, but my experience in Fort Worth a couple years ago showed me that it can be done in a fair and unbiased manner.

The next month will be spent in the States, starting with opening the season in Detroit. I suspect there will be a few more birthday surprises in store. In any event, we have been gone for most of the summer and returning home is very exciting. Now if I can only remember what our house looks like.

See you next month,

Leonard


Conducting Business is available on Amazon.

To read my notes from previous months, click here.


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