Do you remember when airplane travel was fun? There was a time when the flights were just as exciting as the trip itself, for all the right reasons. Today, travel is an adventure before you even get to the airport.
Organization is the key to relieving much of the stress that accompanies journeys both domestic and international. This means you have to know the rules and, at the same time, understand that forces outside of your control can change even the best-laid plans.
When I was in my infancy (professionally), getting to destinations from St. Louis was never easy, but compared to the situation today, it was like a cakewalk. Trans World Airlines dominated Lambert Airport, followed by Ozark. Other carriers also used the airport as a transfer point. I cannot count the number of times people would say something like, “Oh, you live in St. Louis? I stopped at the airport there a couple of times.”
Besides the easy trips within our borders, there were regular nonstop flights from St. Louis to London, Paris, and Frankfurt. Since those cities were often my destinations or at least close to where I was scheduled to conduct, traveling to Europe was pretty simple. Then, in 1985, TWA was sold to a private businessman who promptly ended the international routes. Ozark closed its doors in 1986. All of a sudden, getting in and out of St. Louis was not so easy.
Today, St. Louis is no longer a hub for any airline. There are some pluses, such as shorter lines to get through security. At least it is located right in the middle of the country and therefore within reasonable distance of major hubs like Dallas, Chicago, and Detroit for making connections. Weather plays a large part in the travel mix. You never know if tornados, snowstorms, or sleet will cause delays. You also have to build in extra time just in case the flight is delayed, which is often the case.
Good news came in the form of Lufthansa initiating a nonstop flight to Frankfurt. This began about a year ago, but it only operates three days a week. To take advantage of this new benefit, sometimes you have to get to the destination city a day earlier than planned. The aircraft itself is a bit smaller than many on international routes. Even though the business seats recline almost fully, the width can make sleeping a bit uncomfortable, as there is literally not much wiggle room.
And then there is the problem of the routing itself, exemplified by the trip Cindy and I began at the end of February. Although this new direct flight to Europe seems helpful, it usually means that you have to travel further east than is logical. Dublin was our destination on the outbound leg of this trip, so we had to take the nine-hour flight to Frankfurt and stick around for a couple hours, only to fly back to a country that appeared on the in-flight screen a couple hours before we landed in Germany. That added two hours to the travel time, which could have been avoided had we flown to Chicago and taken the nonstop to Dublin from there. But the various airline partnerships and pricing schemes impact the routing decisions—it can cost several thousand dollars more if you do not book a round-trip ticket within the same airline group at the beginning and conclusion of the overseas trip.
Nevertheless, we made it and had a wonderful couple of weeks with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, formerly the RTÉ. Now that I have seen them each of the last few seasons, we know each other quite well, and rehearsals are both concise and a lot of fun. The National Concert Hall is right across the street from the hotel, no more than a five-minute walk.
Our first program was all about the ocean, with music by Wagner, Elgar, Mendelssohn, and Debussy. I had not done the Flying Dutchman Overture in many years. Although everything went well, I did not find myself in sync with the music itself. Wagner’s music has never been a big part of my repertoire, but this piece always used to be enjoyable, and I remember getting much satisfaction when I led it as a younger conductor. Now it seems just a bit boisterous, which of course goes along with the story. I have a feeling that this piece will not pop up again for me.
Another work that I had not revisited in a long time was Elgar’s Sea Pictures. These five songs, each with a different poet’s texts, were written around the same time as The Dream of Gerontius, but they could not be farther apart musically. Sung on this occasion by Jennifer Johnston, they made a strong impact. The first four are wonderful and perfectly matched to the words, in my opinion. The problem is the final movement, in which Elgar almost returns to the land of Pomp and Circumstance. The mood seems less about the ocean and more about its surroundings. I am not sure this one will reappear in my repertoire either.
It was an entirely different matter for the music on the second half. The Hebrides Overture, sometimes known as “Fingal’s Cave,” remains a perfect example of Mendelssohn’s ability to seem a classicist while showing his more adventurous side with a particularly unusual dynamic range. The orchestra had the full measure of the work, and it was a most satisfying performance.
The same, and perhaps even more, could be said about the concluding La Mer. Having spent several days writing about this piece for an upcoming project, I had discovered many details that had gone ignored or unnoticed by me in the past. With plenty of time to get into the heart of the composition at rehearsals, everyone gave 100%, and this was a memorable occasion.
For those of you who follow these kinds of things, one of the research elements I dealt with in my essay is the controversial matter of two “fanfares” that occur just before the coda. Here is what I have written, but you will have to wait until we announce the details of the whole project to read about it within the context of the entire piece.
Perhaps this will whet your appetite for what is to come. Scores at the ready, everyone.
Now we come to the most hotly debated spot in the entire work, the “fanfares.” These occur in the eight bars before 60. You can look up the history, but we know that Debussy wrote them in the manuscript and then excised them for reasons unclear. In the past, most published versions omitted the fanfares, but conductors nevertheless knew that they existed.
Some feel that the interruptions are intrusive. Toscanini, as well as others, managed to infuse these bars with plenty of energy without the additional material, making the passage quite effective. But the fanfares also add a dramatic charge into a static section of the piece. I listened to twenty recordings, past and present, and found that it was almost a 50/50 split among the conductors, spanning almost the entire recorded history of the work.
My preference is to keep the brass away for the first two of the original entries. Then I have them come in four before 60, allowing the fanfare to be heard twice rather than four times. It feels right as a setup and builds the tension. Debussy might not have condoned this, but since there is no truly conclusive evidence of what he wanted, I feel it is fair game to try something different.
A Brief, Related Diversion
Since this eight-bar passage has been so controversial, I thought it might be interesting to learn who observed the fanfares and who omitted them. It was not feasible to listen to each and every conductor, but here are the results for several:
Conductors who included the fanfare:
Conductors who omitted the fanfare:
Haitink (but French horns only)
This at least gives you the idea that the discussion is ongoing.
After a week at sea, we more or less returned to land. An American first half and the blockbuster concerto by Rachmaninov were on the docket. However, we were slightly hampered by an unusual rehearsal schedule.
Typically, rehearsals take place beginning two or three days before a performance, meaning that the learning process is cumulative. It is easy to tell how far everyone has come from the downbeat on the first day to the final cutoff at the concert. For this week, we had a full rehearsal on Monday, but the orchestra was participating in another show over the next two days.
Although I had never heard of the female Irish pirate Grace O’Malley before, she was the subject matter of the presentation, which was a sort-of multimedia event to mark International Women’s Day. The creators were writing the music literally up to the rehearsal time and even changing things as they went along. The show itself was more than three hours long.
I didn’t see the NSO again until Thursday morning, when a weary bunch of musicians straggled in. Uncharacteristically, they were having troubles of all sorts, still trying to recover from what I gathered was an onslaught of sonic volume and long rehearsals. It took a while for them to regroup, but eventually, everybody woke up and managed to remember most of what had taken place more than 48 hours earlier.
The program itself wasn’t overly complex, but three of the four pieces were new to the orchestra. Staying with the Women’s Day theme, we started out with Joan Tower’s Made in America, based on the tune “American the Beautiful.” I have no idea if any of the Dubliners recognized the melody, but the piece makes a most effective opener.
Then came Cindy’s Adagio, taken from the second movement of her First Symphony. This is a truly effective lament and a nice alternative to the Barber work of the same name. Then we played Bernstein’s Suite from On the Waterfront. Although the composer hated his time in Hollywood, he was part of one of the greatest films ever made, and I love performing the 20-minute orchestral work fashioned from his score.
Our soloist was Olga Kern, playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Although there was a bit of a battle between her and the instrument—where was Grace O’Malley when you really needed her?—the performance was riveting and brought the audience to their feet immediately. It remains the greatest of pleasures to make music with this fabulous Russian-American artist.
Cindy and I had two weeks free before heading off to Warsaw. Deciding where to go is always an interesting dilemma. Spring had not yet arrived, so a bit of warmth and sunshine was in order. My go-to country when it comes to relaxation is Portugal. If I were 35 years or so younger, I would invest in a piece of property and use it as a retreat. With Cindy’s incredible skills as a photographer, it seemed like a natural place to hang out and explore areas that we had not yet seen.
There is no purpose in making you all jealous, so I will not go into any detail about the scenery, food, people, or anything else. Suffice it to say, should you find yourself with some time on your hands, come visit, but perhaps not at the high tourist time.
And respect the “do not disturb” sign outside of my hotel room.
See you next month,