APRIL 2013: The Russian Connection

APRIL 2013: The Russian Connection
April 14, 2013 leonard slatkin

Rather than wait, I felt compelled to write sooner regarding my sojourn to Moscow at the beginning of the month.

It is important to have some background in several areas.

First, my family origins are in Russia with my mother’s family coming from Belarus and my dad’s from Odessa. Those of you who have read Conducting Business will know the story. My great-uncle, Modeste Altschuler, founded the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York in 1903. He conducted many U.S. premieres of important scores from his homeland, including the 2nd Symphony by Rachmaninov.

My only other trip was in 1976, but I did not conduct in either Moscow or St. Petersburg (Leningrad back then). That particular journey took me to Kiev, Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. It was a great adventure with many stories that I will relate in the future.

In 2009 I was supposed to come here to Moscow as part of a celebration with the pianist Denis Matsuev. We had worked together several times before and have the same agent in the States. All was set, visas were acquired and plane tickets purchased. Then my heart decided that I should not come and so that time was spent recuperating. That also forced the cancellation of concerts in Belfast, Beijing and Detroit.

Now, four years and forty years later, the game was on.

It was again at the invitation of Denis that I was invited to conduct two programs in commemoration of Sergei Rachmaninov’s 140th birthday, which took place on April 1. It took a bit of reorganization in order to work it out, as I had to be in Lyon for concerts at the end of the week.

There were lots of bureaucratic hassles to deal with. For quite a while I did not know which of the several orchestras in Moscow I would be conducting. The rehearsals also seemed poorly planned, with just three scheduled for two programs. I assumed that Rachmaninov was a familiar presence to Russian orchestras but no matter which one it would be, this would be a first meeting. I needed it to go well.

Checking various web sites was of no help. Until a couple weeks before the performances, I could not find mention of these concerts. Even Denis’s own web site contained no information about April. Finally I was told that the orchestra would be the Svetlanov State Symphony Orchestra of Russia. Huh? I had never heard of it. A little more research revealed that the name, in honor of its past music director, was changed a year ago. It used to be the State Academic Symphony Orchestra and then the “Academic” was removed. The current music director is Vladimir Jurowski and that certainly allayed much of my trepidation.

I had heard the orchestra once before at a concert in Prague. Svetlanov presided and seemed not interested in playing for the public in then Czechoslovakia. At one point in the Scriabin 2nd Symphony he casually took out a handkerchief to wipe his brow but stopped conducting while the orchestra gamely carried on. He was a taskmaster of the very old school, demanding tons of rehearsals and even calling individuals into his study for instruction.

About a month or so prior to the concerts, I learned that it would be recorded by Mezzo, an Internet broadcast service based in Paris. They are well respected but this added a bit to the dilemma of rehearsal time. The first program was not problematic: Vocalise and the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concerti. But the other presentation was trickier with the rare Caprice Bohemian, Paganini Rhapsody and 2nd Symphony. Eventually it was decided that we would repeat the Vocalise and a fourth rehearsal was added.

Now most everything seemed in place and I boarded the plane for the long flight over with an eight-hour time difference. Arrival was at 11 in the morning and I did not get much sleep. Fortunately there was no rehearsal that day and I could get some rest, but all of a sudden, my mouth was starting to feel a bit strange. I thought nothing of it the first day.

Spring was supposed to be here but no one told it, and we had rain and snow instead. The presenter of the concerts met me. Traffic into town was awful, with almost an hour and a half spent in the car. By the time I got to the hotel I was ready for a hot bath and some sleep. Not so easy when the room isn’t ready. But at least the old days are gone, when you had to leave your key with a matronly woman sitting at a desk.

Finally I settled in but not for long. That night I was taken to a performance by the Bayrische Rundfunk Symphonie, led by Mariss Janssons. This took place in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the very same venue where Van Cliburn conquered all. Both hall and orchestra were wonderful in a program of Shostakovich and Berlioz. I could not wait to start rehearsing there the next morning.

Not so fast. My concerts were not at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory but at the Tchaikovsky Hall! Not as famous or glamorous as its counterpart, it still houses a number of outstanding artists all season. From the outside it looks quite severe but the inside is inviting. And it was only a five-minute walk from my hotel.

Upon arrival I was escorted to a room near the stage. Everyone wanted to know in what in order we would rehearse the pieces. Denis and I agreed that we would start with No. 2 and them move to the next one. Vocalise would be last. I asked how long the rehearsal would be and was told that I could take as much time as I needed. That was different! The operative time was four hours but it could be adjusted.

Clearly the orchestra knew the concerti inside and out. In fact, they had performed the 2nd with Denis a couple weeks earlier on a tour. The first thing that struck me was the richness of the string sound. That big tune at the start never was less than sumptuous. The wind solos had the distinctive dark hue of Russian sonority. Even though Denis and I had not done this piece together before, we had no trouble adjusting to each other. He is quite the star here and there were journalists and camera crews aplenty to document his every move. I did three interviews as well, focusing on my family’s relation to Russia and my own love of Rachmaninov.

It was getting colder so I postponed any sightseeing for the time being. And my throat was getting sorer as well. Room service seemed like the best bet. I ordered pasta and for the first time in my life was asked if I wanted it al dente or well done!

The second day of rehearsal was not at the hall. We travelled about 15 minutes and arrived at a truly forbidding structure where the orchestra has a rehearsal facility. It was time to have a go at the 2nd symphony. I did not send my own set of parts, as that would have been just a little insulting. As it turned out, I only needed to alter a few to fit my own phrasing ideas.

This was an uncut version and it was clear that once again, the orchestra knew every nook and cranny of the piece. One section in the last movement that is usually excised gave the orchestra a turn but they quickly learned it and seemed wholly involved. I did not even attempt to speak in Russian save for the occasional “spasiba” and “pahzhalsta.” By now a few of the musicians were coming up to me and engaging in light conversation. Some had actually played with me in different parts of the world. No one claimed to be related.

April 1 arrived, Rachmaninov’s birthday and the first concert. Snow was falling heavily in the morning but I was not thinking about it. My tongue and gums were in bad shape. I could not eat anything, as swallowing was impossible. Reluctant as I was, a visit to the dentist seemed in order. This was arranged but would take place after the rehearsal.

We had to do this in concert attire, as the Mezzo crew were taking all kinds of camera angles and needed two shots at this. They were not intrusive but there was a robotic camera that moved back and forth the whole time. It was a tiny bit distracting.

All went smoothly and the little Vocalise sounded beautiful. Now I would go to get my mouth fixed, a phrase that some orchestras would probably like to adopt. Foiled again for a bit. There was a press conference and I had to attend. Fortunately they put me on first and I could get out quickly. The questions were mostly about Rachmaninov and one journalist asked if we were going to rehearse. I said that considering the concert was in 6 hours, I hoped so.

The dentist’s office was located near the Conservatory. I had visions of something out of Marathon Man, but things have certainly changed. This was an incredibly modern facility, with the lobby area done out as a cabin of a yacht. There was a rolling video taken from a boat as well as a huge fish tank.

After filling out some papers the dentist came out wearing a captain’s tee shirt and introduced himself as Alexander. He examined me and started putting an astringent all over my mouth. It stung but I could definitely feel improvement. A couple of gels and other things and he told me it was a pretty severe case of gingivitis. I take good care of my teeth so I was not sure how I contracted it. Alex gave me some gargle stuff, more gel and some special toothpaste. He did not tell me to call him in the morning.

By the time I got back to the hotel, the concert was three hours off. A car was being sent to get me, due to the continuing snow. I was told it would take 15 minutes to get to the hall. This made no sense as I had been walking it in 5 minutes. Turns out that the one-way system is really complicated and they keep closing off streets. The trip actually took half an hour. I arrived 10 minutes before the 7 o’clock start time. That changed as well as many people were caught up in the traffic jam. No one was sure when the concert would actually begin.

Around 7:30 the orchestra was called to the stage. But there was more. It is a tradition here that a presenter introduces concerts, in this case a famous actor. He spoke for about ten minutes. Eventually I heard my name and went on to the platform. The Vocalise was played meltingly with great freedom and rubato. It makes a calm start for a concert that is mostly filled with fireworks. The orchestra actually applauded me after the 6 minutes were up.

Denis was spectacular. His presence, command of the keyboard and sensitivity were all in evidence and after the 2nd concerto, about 12 people rushed to the edge of the platform to give him flowers. He placed them at the foot of the stage and I thought it was starting to look like a funeral. The 3rd concerto was equally staggering. Even more flowers this time and one young lady presented me with a single red rose. I was touched but of course managed to grab it where there was a thorn sticking out.

This was a triumph for Denis. Quite understandably he did not want to play any encores. The ovation went on for about 10 minutes. Eventually a signal was given for everyone to leave the stage. A party followed in one of the restaurants contained within the building. I was still sore and only drank a lot of water and a fruit juice called “mors.” Still not sure what it is but I will look for it when I get home.

The snow ended and it was starting to look like spring might actually arrive. The walk to the hall was pleasant the next morning. Once again we had to rehearse in formal wear. The run through of the Symphony was marvelous. There were a couple places that needed some adjustment but it was clear that this would be something special. The Rhapsody also progressed without incident, although we did go through it twice. I thanked the orchestra for all their hard work and the applause from them was very moving.

Whatever medications the dentist gave me were working very well but they were also making me a bit tired. No sightseeing again but a couple of afternoon naps instead. We decided not to take a car to the hall and so I made the 5-minute walk with no problem. There were last minute interviews with camera crews crowding into the dressing room.

Denis played two Rachmaninov solo pieces as encores and then came to thank me. He also had to say goodbye as he had a flight that night for a recital the next evening.

Now it was time to do something that turned out to have much more meaning than I could have imagined. Going on stage to conduct the 2nd Symphony, the work my granduncle introduced to America, was overwhelming. Was I channeling his spirit, the spirit of the composer, or had I done this work so often that it was truly my own?

Perhaps a little of each.

I literally threw myself into it, enjoying the plush string sound, reveling in the glorious tunes and feeling in some way connected to this music and its Russian soul. The hour passed quickly. With the final note the audience burst into the rhythmic applause that usually occurs after a couple bows. I gave the bouquets that were presented me to various members of the orchestra. It is my habit to remain backstage to thank the musicians and virtually every one came up to thank me. The compliments were returned.

It is rare for me to make a major debut at this point in my career. This one will remain in my heart and memory for a long time. It was a journey to a part of my history. One thing is certain: I will not wait another 40 years to come back.