Usually, when I begin writing these monthly essays, I have a pretty good idea as to how they will be structured. The beginning and end are clear, and all that I need to do is fill up the space in between. But March was different, in so many ways. If there was one thought that permeated the time, it had to be the continuing devastation in Ukraine.
Tales of grief and woe, as well as ominous portents, made themselves known through stories on television, in print, and via internet. Amid efforts to censor and exaggerate, a portrait of our mad world became clear. I spent this month working and taking a bit of time off in Europe. Getting perspective away from home is always useful and, for a change, much of the world seemed in agreement regarding the crisis. Where it all fell apart was coming to solutions.
Watching the talking heads in the U.S. Congress was an effort in frustration. As far as I could tell, the only piece of major legislation that cleared Senate hurdles was making Daylight Savings Time permanent. I do not plan to watch the House debate on the measure, which will most likely include what we will call the new timeframe. Somewhere in that conversation, I expect a mention of the Jewish space lasers to emerge.
In the meantime, there was work to do. After the Valladolid experience, I spent two more weeks conducting in Spain. First up was Valencia, a city I had never before visited. Several years ago, there was a major push for a new opera house in this town. Everyone believed that this would encourage an explosion in the arts, and indeed, the good folks of the city are quite proud of their newfound musical treasure.
Spain has held many attractions for me over the years. It was the initial stop on my first international tour with the St. Louis Symphony. I have always loved the music of the country, and the food is also high on the list of enticements. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, so a pilgrimage there is easily on any foodie’s bucket list.
In the old days, every musician needed to have an agent in each country. There was a general manager for all of Europe and then a series of local managers as one travelled along. Those days are mostly over, but a few countries, and Spain is one of them, continue to rely on the local-promoter model. Of course, it means an additional layer of coordination, but in the case of this country, it is worth it. So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I had the chance to have dinner with my representative in Spain, Enrique Subiela, who lives in Valencia.
It is almost impossible to measure the exponential growth of orchestras in Spain over the past forty years or so. During the Franco regime, there was little of artistic quality to brag about. Yes, there were a few distinguished musicians, but not like today. Valencia boasts a fine orchestra, and I had a lovely time with a program that featured the Enigma Variations and Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with soloist George Li.
But I was also able to play one of my favorite recent compositions, this one by Barcelona-based Ferran Cruixent. Those of you who read this column on a regular basis know all about Cyborg, with its pre-recorded ringtones, orchestral singing, and novel ways to play the instruments. If I had done the work when I first started conducting here, there may have been a hue and cry from the musician’s union, known in Spain as the Syndicate. They likely would have insisted on doubling fees for the players, who are asked to do things that do not involve playing instruments in conventional ways.
Alas, no problems or protests emerged. In fact, everyone threw themselves into the proceedings, and we had a fine performance of the whole program. Oh, the paella was fantastic, as were all the other meals in which Cindy and I partook.
Two years ago, I conducted a program in Bilbao featuring the same work by Ferran. I was asked if I could return to lead the orchestra in its 100th birthday concert. As with other Spanish orchestras, the Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa has reached a level that allows them to handle the most difficult of orchestral repertoire, and so I happily agreed. The celebratory work was Mahler’s Second Symphony.
When I was much younger, I detested this composer. Perhaps coming from a household where chamber music ruled the roost explains my reluctance to take on these gargantuan works. But the years have altered my sentiments. Do I love all the symphonies? No, but those that I perform somewhat frequently now have a special place in my repertoire.
This is borne out by the fact that during this trip to Europe and the short hop over to Japan later this month, I will also give performances of Mahler’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies.
My custom these days is to program the Mahler 2 with Ravel’s setting of Kaddisch. It serves as a solemn beginning, being the most sacred of Jewish prayers. Then, before the audience can applaud, I launch into the apocalyptic world of the symphony. It is dramatic (perhaps slightly theatrical), but it makes great musical sense. Isabelle Druet, with whom I have worked frequently, brought her luminous vocal colorations to both the Ravel and the Urlicht. The orchestra was spectacular, making this one of the most memorable performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony I have ever conducted.
And it was the perfect way to honor those who are engaged in the battle of a lifetime. We held a minute of silence for the people of Ukraine prior to the Ravel. Isabelle told me that it was very difficult to sing the Kaddisch with these thoughts in mind. All of us could appreciate that.
Spain has addressed the Covid issue aggressively. Their case numbers are low, and the people are respectful of the guidelines. But this had a downside when it came to the Mahler. As is the fashion these days, the string players are masked, but the winds, obviously, cannot play in that manner. They are not required to wear the facial coverings. The same is true for the conductor, and with this huge work, it would have been impossible for me. I experienced some hyperventilation last year while conducting with a mask and did not want to repeat the feeling.
But the chorus was singing with the Lone Ranger adornment in place! This not only diminished the amount of sound that could be produced but also garbled many of the words. Considering the hurdles, the vocal ensemble did a good job of cutting through the orchestral clamor. Aside from the unaccompanied moments, pretty much all the vocal dynamics had to be pushed up a notch.
It was nice to see enthusiastic audiences for the two performances. I also had the honor to meet one of Spain’s most distinguished pianists, Joaquín Achúcarro, a lovely gentleman. He is approaching his ninetieth year and still performing. He and his wife were most kind in their comments to me.
Cindy and I always try to take at least a week off after three or four spent conducting. These usually take the form of trips to parts of the world we have not often visited. This time it was to Scotland, including the Highlands. Starting off in Edinburgh, we trekked along and saw some wonderful scenery.
There were sheep.
Other beasts of the wild.
And plenty of castles.
We also visited a bagpipe repair shop. Yes, there is such a thing.
We sampled haggis—not as bad as expected—and Cullen skink—not as horrible as the name.
The weather was mostly pleasant, with only one day of rain.
I used to think that the Irish dialects were difficult to understand. That has now been replaced by the Scottish pronunciations. As someone once said, “The Scottish accent is so strong that you could build a bridge with it, and it would outlast the civilization that built it.”
It was with a degree of ease, therefore, that we next went to Dublin. Yes, James Joyce can be tough going, but at least when he spoke, you could figure out what he was saying. Over the past few years, I have developed a fine relationship with the orchestra here. This time around, they had a new name. Instead of the RTÉ, I was leading the National Symphony Orchestra. This might have been even easier if I were still in DC, as my business card would have stayed the same.
Given a recent uptick of the virus in Ireland and the UK, the orchestra administered Covid tests every three days. Dublin, I recall, was one of my final stops on a tour two years ago, before we were all housebound. On this trip, I am giving two weeks of performances, and it is a relief to just stay in one hotel and not have to pack up every few days. Moreover, the hall is right across the street. I just need to remember to look the other way before crossing.
With a very lovely program in the first week, I was quite sure the orchestra would enjoy all the music. My Brahmsiana received its European premiere. This was also the first professional performance of the set. Last time around, I took out one of the winds-only pieces and substituted it with a new transcription for strings and brass. This makes the seven pieces flow together nicely.
As mentioned, Mahler 4 was on the docket. I think this is the one Mahler symphony that even people who do not like the composer find attractive. The chamber-music-like quality is welcome, and the slow movement remains one of Mahler’s most inspired creations. Ailish Tynan was a name unknown to me, but her sunny voice was perfect for the child’s vision of heaven. And I chose to begin the concert with a true rarity.
Franz Schubert wrote seven songs taken from Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake.” The second one was set for chorus by Brahms, who then orchestrated it for the unusual combination of four horns and three bassoons. Since it concerns having a nice sleep after a hunt, this works very well, and Ailish was wonderful in presenting the contrasting higher voice set against the lower instruments.
As I am writing this, there are still two more weeks to go on my European tour, with one more week in Dublin and then one in the Canary Islands. The recap of those concerts will occur next month, but there are a few more items to mention.
My little brother, Fred, turned 75. When this number came up for me, I did not think it was a big deal, but when it is your younger sibling, that is a whole different ballgame. As with many people, he has had some life changes recently. Fred was the principal cellist of the orchestra at the New York City Ballet. He must have played The Nutcracker more than a thousand times. That is a lot of Sugar Plum Fairies. Now he has put his tutu away and is thinking about becoming an astronaut.
And there was big news about my son, Daniel. He won first prize at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema for his score to a yet-to-be-released movie. With the premiere of the Detroit documentary scheduled for late April, he is now well on his way in the world of motion picture music.
As we continue to monitor and mourn the situation in Ukraine, I can only hope that there is some sort of positive resolution by the time you read this. Doubtful, but we must find a way to end this, for everyone’s sake.
The month came to a sad conclusion, but one that was not unexpected. After a heroic struggle with an aggressive cancer, Anne Parsons passed away. Her resilience to this disease was not unlike her approach to her profession. In the face of incredible challenges, Anne always looked on the positive side.
We knew each other for quite a long time, and she was one of the principal reasons I chose to go to Detroit. During our time together, so much was accomplished, much of it thought to be impossible. Today, the DSO stands as a beacon for other orchestras, and the lion’s share of the credit goes to Anne and her incredible ability to bring things together.
Now she rests.
See you next month,