Berlin, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Hannover, Munich, Friedrichshafen, Heidelberg, and Vienna. Almost enough for a German baseball team. This was a tour schedule that took me to all these places over the course of nine days. Everything went well but you would never have known it from the way this European jaunt started.
It had been more then two months since I last saw my orchestra in Lyon. I looked forward to seeing everyone and of course, making music with the musicians. But I had to get there first and as this trip began, I felt the exasperation of international travel once again.
The plane was on time, almost everything else was not.
When Cindy and I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, we did what was becoming standard for these visits. It seemed simple enough. Check a bag, pick it up and hop on the TGV for the two-hour train trip to Lyon. Only this time, it did not go so smoothly.
Everyone knows that baggage claim is a bit of a crapshoot. You never know when your bags will show up. After about 30 minutes of watching the carousel go round and round, I inquired about the status of our luggage. It was then that we were told that the baggage handlers had gone on strike. This did not present a problem, as our train for Lyon did not leave until two hours later.
After an hour, the bags arrived and we headed for the train station, located right in the airport. Guess what? The train operators were on strike! There was at least a three-hour delay for each train. This actually worked in our favor, as we could get on one that was scheduled for an earlier departure. We wound up in Lyon an hour ahead of what was originally planned.
During my last trip, I rented an apartment. Cindy had not yet seen it so there was a bit of anxiety on my part. It turned out to be exactly what she would have chosen as well. Although it is not big, it has enough space to accommodate what we need for these trips. I am hoping that we can make it a summer destination and use the apartment as a home base, allowing us to travel a bit and see some of the world that we never seem to have time for.
Our program was more or less traditional. Olga Kern was the soloist in the Shostakovich 1st, which was the first piece we had ever performed together. Once again she was dazzling and poetic. The audiences and orchestra loved her. In a short time, we will be announcing a major project with her and the ONL.
The “Eroica” was the major work on the concert. Anytime you do a Beethoven symphony with an orchestra, you start to establish performing and rehearsal patterns that will carry you well into most of the repertoire. With all the attention these days on Mahler cycles, Ring cycles and other mammoth projects, it seems like poor Ludwig van has been almost forgotten. Yet, his is the mountain that is still the most difficult to climb. No composer has ever showed the sheer variety of compositional output akin to what the German master produced.
Somewhat to my surprise, the ONL caught on to my ideas quickly and we had glorious performances. Everyone worked hard and there seemed to be a new level of collaboration between the orchestra and myself. This first leg of the trip was certainly productive.
Next up was a two-week visit with another DSO, the Deutches Symphonie Orchestra of Berlin. Known since 1946 under different names, formerly RIAS, then Radio Symphonie Orchestra, this group has the unfortunate position of always being the number two orchestra in town. But perhaps this works to their advantage. They really do try harder and sometimes, at least with me, there are some extraordinary results.
We have worked together many times during the past 35 years, but this was the first time I would be doing a major tour with them. Planned a couple years ago, it took a bit longer than usual to come up with a program plan that would satisfy the presenters in the cities that we would be playing. On each concert the only certainty was that the Dvorak 8th Symphony would be heard.
Playing a work so many times in a row can be tiring and it is possible to have a bit of boredom creep in. Not so this time. The DSO gave it their all in each of the cities, always adjusting well to the varying acoustics of the different halls. Some were dry, others a bit too reverberant for my taste. And of course there were gems in Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna.
Each program had a soloist. Sol Gabetta joined us for Bloch’s Schelomo. Her passionate approach worked very well for this richly orchestrated tone poem. After the first night, we both realized that it would be a good idea to record the work together and so it was quickly organized that Sony Classics would come to Lyon in April. We had scheduled the 1st Shostakovich on the programs but felt confident that our audience would not mind the change.
I should add that the orchestral contributions were outstanding, with particularly fine solos from oboe and bassoon.
One of the biggest disagreements I had regarding this trip was the inclusion of a violinist of whom I knew nothing. Her name is Patricia Kopinchinskya, and the concerto proposed was Beethoven. I rarely object to any soloist, and I really did not to her, but this is a piece I can only do with a violinist I know. Like the symphonies, it is yet another Beethovenian mountain to climb.
I was directed to her recording of the piece, and listened, somewhat shocked. Patricia’s rendition adds many of the sketches Beethoven elected to remove from his final thoughts. In addition, she plays it in a somewhat “historically informed” manner, which is simply not in my own musical vocabulary.
The end result was that we all agreed to do the Tchaikovsky Concerto. This would seem to suit her more flamboyant and gypsy like way with music. Patricia also comes on stage, utilizes the music and plays barefoot. There are times when she moves around on stage, playing and facing the orchestra or walking up near the edge of the stage, staring at the audience. It is quite a show.
But how is it musically?
At first, at least in rehearsal, I was not sure that this approach was suitable, but after two performances my opinion changed. Here is a remarkably talented violinist, someone who takes chances. Even if I did not agree with some of her choices, there was no arguing the degree of commitment she brought to this work. I am certain that with time, and perhaps even more chamber music playing, she can become an important visitor on the international scene.
There was no question that changing from the Beethoven to Tchaikovsky was the correct decision. Perhaps next time I work with her, a new exploration of the former might appeal to me.
The third soloist was clarinetist Sabine Meyer. She is known worldwide as the first female member of the Berlin Philharmonic. This tenure did not last very long, as her own aspirations moved from orchestral work to solo and teaching. The concerto was by Mozart, and I have to tell you that this is not my favorite work by this composer. Perhaps it is the overexposure to the piece, as in European countries it is heard constantly in elevators and coffee houses. However, a few soloists are able to bring nuances that make the piece fresh, and certainly Sabine does just this.
She plays on the clarinet intended, extending the range of the lower notes. Her sound is rich and subtle. All of us enjoyed the experience and the audience in Hamburg really loved her.
Sol returned for a couple more Bloch’s and then, in what was a first for me, we had another cellist, playing the very same piece! Usually on tour, if there is a change it involves not only the artist but the repertoire as well. Sol has been in residence in Berlin with another orchestra, and therefore was pretty much prohibited from playing in the orchestra’s home. Steven Isserlis, who had recorded Schelomo with the DSO a few months early, came in for this single performance. He is a remarkable artist, completely different from Sol in this work. He sees the piece as a long architectural entity and she views it as a series of declamations. Both brought intensity and artistry to a piece that I have loved ever since I was a child.
Eight concerts in nine days. It all went by quickly. Travel was done mostly by train and car. There were no delays and it all went smoothly. At the final rehearsal, the orchestra gave me a “Berliner Bear,” as a lovely parting gift. I look forward to seeing them again as soon as possible.
In other news, my book is now in the final stages of editing. Most of it is complete. There remains a forward to be written by one of the leading musicians today, plus a few blurbs for the back cover. I will let others handle the indexing. We are still not sure of the release date, but my guess is that we are probably looking at early September, in order to reach students returning to school and concert patrons returning to symphony halls.
While I was away, a fistfight broke out at a Chicago Symphony Concert. Guess the hockey players love their Bruckner just a bit too much.
See you next month,
I have just learned that the publication date for Conducting Business will be July 24th. It is already available for pre-sale on Amazon.