November 1, 2016 leonard slatkin

After the successful opening of the season in Lyon, it was time to try to achieve the same in Detroit. We certainly had the star power to do it, and there were also a couple of agenda items that I hoped would make this year particularly interesting.

Coming from a background which housed about as much musical diversity as possible, I wanted to try and see if the merging of the popular culture with the classical traditions could sustain itself over the course of the majority of our subscription concerts. “Gershwin and His Children” was the name I chose for this project, basically looking at his influence on composers from all over the world.

The first two weeks explored many of the possibilities, some obvious and some less so. The Candide Overture is always the best example of a piece that has transcended its Broadway origins to become a concert hall staple. We followed it with Gershwin’s first attempt at writing something close to a classically oriented work, the Lullaby for String Orchestra.

Next came a world premiere, reflecting a very different way of looking at the popular culture. A couple years ago, I gave the American premiere of Cyborg by the Barcelona-based composer Ferran Cruxient. The orchestra, audience and press were all impressed with this sonic world, and I commissioned the composer to write a follow-up piece. The result was Big Data, a work that attempted to trace various elements of communication, especially the influence of computer technology, and translate that to the concert hall.

We had Morse code, 56K modem dial-up sounds, a passing ambulance siren and so many more sounds of past and present. But, as with the earlier piece, Ferran had the orchestra pre-load ringtones onto their mobile devices. At two points in the work, they played them back while at the same time performing on their instruments or even singing. The audience was asked to join in the final couple measures of “Daisy Bell,” or as most people know it, “A Bicycle Built for Two.” Altogether I measured it as one of my most successful premieres in Detroit.

After intermission, Hilary Hahn appeared and gave a truly memorable reading of the Beethoven Concerto. We have been working together for more than 20 years now and seeing her mature in virtually every way has been a pleasure. She and I did this work about a year and a half ago in Berlin, but this time there was more freedom and risk-taking. All of us held our breath as she spun out the more or less obbligato lines of the slow movement, and the Kreisler cadenzas were simply spectacular. She will be with me for several weeks with the ONL this season.

There was a one-off special concert with Lang Lang. The first half had short American pieces, again all influenced in one way or another by the vernacular of our musical language. Only the Barber Adagio seemed out of place, but not when you consider that this work achieved its greatest popularity as part of the soundtrack for a film. So sometimes we find that fame for a work stretches beyond the concert hall and then returns to take its place as originally intended.

Lang Lang offered the Fourth Concerto by Beethoven. The hard work we had done with Hilary in rehearsals paid dividends in this piece as well. Even though they would seem worlds apart, both concerti are true interactions between soloist and orchestra. The DSO responded to Lang Lang’s extraordinary dynamic range, playing the piece as if it were chamber music. There are those who quibble about his mannerisms at the keyboard, but there is no question that he is fully invested in each note and understands the structure needed to truly pull off this particular work.

Nothing let up in the following week. Again, the theme of the season was apparent throughout the program. But it did seem to go backward in time. The opening piece was Bump by Chris Rouse. I commissioned this about 30 years ago, and it holds up very well. Basically it is a conga line on steroids, very typical of the composer’s style at the time and a real workout for the percussion section.

Garrick Ohlsson joined for the next two pieces. Copland’s rarely heard Piano Concerto, from 1926, shows us the composer finding that blend between European romantic musical style and American jazz. I love this piece and was grateful that Garrick had suggested it as a companion to what followed.

It would not have been possible to do the season’s theme without performing Rhapsody in Blue. After all, this work is thought of by many as the first to really introduce the essential element of jazz into the concert hall. But it must be tempered with a classical approach, or as I like to tell soloists and orchestras, “go watch a Fred Astaire film.” Then I look at the members of the ensemble and realize they mostly have no idea who he was. Playing this piece directly after the Copland worked very well, and again, Garrick reminded us of his command of the instrument.

After intermission, we actually went back a year before the Rhapsody with a performance of Milhaud’s La creation du monde. This was important to the theme of the season simply because it showed audiences that jazz was already making its way into the classical culture. So many Americans had immigrated to France and brought with them these new sounds. The French embraced them, and several composers incorporated popular elements into their work. Kudos to Marcus Schoon, our contrabassoonist, who on this occasion played the seductive alto saxophone part.

The odd child out was Respighi’s Pines of Rome. However, there still was a connection to the theme. This was the first piece of classical music to use pre-recorded material, in this case the sound of a nightingale. It was written the same year as the Milhaud but does not use any hint of popular culture. Still, it is a great way to end a concert and help put these five pieces together in what wound up being a very satisfying concoction.

It was back to Lyon, literally, after the final DSO performance. The first week, in particular, proved to be of great interest to me. In looking back at my own performance history, it appears that I had never conducted the Franck D-minor Symphony. I remember studying it at Juilliard, but somehow the work did not speak to me. For three years, at least, the administration of the ONL was goading me into doing it, and I finally gave in.

Good thing. I wound up loving the work. Rehearsing and performing the Franck was a joy. Perhaps because of my lack of experience with the piece, I came to it without any preconceptions. So it was with gratitude that I accepted what seemed like true accolades from the musicians who came to see me after the performances. They said it really was like coming to the piece for the first time, but for all the right reasons. It will now appear on a few programs in the future.

Opening the program was the European premiere of Kinah, the piece I wrote in memory of my parents last season. It is based on the first four notes of the slow movement of the Brahms Double Concerto. I chose not to make introductory remarks, although the program note was made available to the audience. This gave me a chance to see if the piece could stand on its own without too much knowledge of the background. It seems to work well, and I very much appreciated the warm reception it received.

We followed with what would appear to be the logical work, the full Brahms Double. Concertmaster Jennifer Gilbert and first cellist Nicolas Hartmann gave a lovely rendition of the piece. It is always reassuring to know that one has orchestral members who can hold their own with the standard solo repertoire.

The following week also contained a relative rarity, at least for me. Although I have conducted the Dutilleux Cello Concerto a couple of times, it is not a work that comes up so much. The soloist was Lyon-based cellist Anne Gastinel. She had a thorough command of the work, which is very virtuosic for cellist and orchestra. Clearly the ONL has this style in their blood, and what looked truly difficult on the page was dispatched with few problems.

We returned to Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony to close, a piece we had performed two seasons ago. And usually somewhere in every year, the orchestra plays it with one conductor or another. I tried to give it a fresh look, but after so many years of performing this piece, there are simply some passages, maybe several, where my old habits seem to still make sense. The audience was spellbound, and not an ounce of sound came from them during the slow movement. It was truly magical.

The last week of the month found me in New York for what turned out to be a very emotional experience. I was there to begin a collaboration between the Manhattan School of Music and the DSO. Each year, as we go forward, I will mentor two conductors at the school as well as lead the orchestra. Then, the conductors will come to Detroit and spend a week immersed in the activities of the management, staff and board of a professional symphony orchestra. Going from department to department, convening with musicians and conducting the orchestra should help lay the groundwork for understanding the inner workings of a full-time ensemble.

This doesn’t sound all that emotional, but it was the venue that almost brought me to tears. When I was a student back in the ’60s, the Manhattan School was in a different location. The one they currently occupy was the home of the Juilliard School, where I spent four incredible years. Although there have been many changes to the physical structure of the facility, two things have remained the same: I would be in the same dressing room as my conducting teacher, Jean Morel, and I would lead a concert on the stage where I began my journey. The little table where Morel would growl at me about an overstated ritard or dropped beat is still there. The auditorium looks about the same, and the acoustics remain dry. But this was like returning home after a long absence.

After the first rehearsal, there was another moving moment from my past. My first conducting job was as director of the New York Youth Symphony. That evening, at a fundraiser for the youth orchestra at the Metropolitan Club, I received the Theodore L. Kesselman Award for Arts Education. There are only a few people left from my time with the orchestra in terms of donors. But my brother Fred has remained involved and helped arrange this, and we even played a short Ravel piece for the occasion. Both my Carnegie and Fisher Hall debuts were with this orchestra, so when added to the earlier time at the Manhattan School, it was quite a day.

With Fred at the Annual Benefit for the New York Youth Symphony

with Fred at the Annual Benefit for the New York Youth Symphony

The work at the school was extremely satisfying. Working as a teacher, with the resources of an orchestra at my disposal, helped me hone the musical and technical skills of Earl Lee and Kyle Ritenauer. Just as Morel had done with me, I did not let them get away with anything. By the time the five days of work had ended, each was a different conductor than when we began. They will come to Detroit in January.

My own work with the orchestra was preparing and performing Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. It is over an hour in length and demands extreme concentration from the musicians. They worked diligently and listened carefully to everything I had to tell them. By the time we got to the performance, all was in place, and the young orchestra had the measure of this difficult work. A large audience was in attendance to give the musicians a rousing ovation.

I also had the opportunity to lead a panel discussion about the changing role of the orchestral musician in the twenty-first century. For an hour and a half, we talked about finances, auditions, contracts, vision and almost everything else that could be crammed into this timeframe. With professional musicians and heads of orchestras on the panel, we were able to give a lot of advice to the students, and hopefully they came away with a better understanding of what faces them when they enter the musical workforce. One of the reasons I chose to work at the Manhattan School was that they are allowing me to be creative in what I wish to accomplish. The next phase of the conductors’ project will be different but hopefully will continue the positive work we started the first time around.

I am very pleased that so many of you seemed to enjoy the first online conducting lesson. The second will be posted on the 15th of this month and deals with learning the basic pattern for beating a bar in four. I fully expect all of you will be ready to do the Meistersinger Overture by the end of the lesson.

See you next month,