APRIL 2024

APRIL 2024
April 1, 2024 leonard slatkin

Adventures new and old marked a busy March calendar. Overall, it was a most pleasant time on the road.

I had never visited, much less conducted in, Vancouver for reasons unclear. Perhaps it was not on my agent’s radar until recently, but the VSO is certainly a prominent orchestra on the Canadian landscape. Fortunately, the stars finally aligned for my debut in British Columbia.

What a wonderful city. Vancouver has pretty much everything one could want in terms of conveniences and culture, including great restaurants and possibly the finest Asian cuisine to be found in North America. With almost two-and-a-half million people, the city and environs encompass a wealth of diversity. It could be a model for many cities in the U.S.

The orchestra has been around for over one hundred years. They play in the old Orpheum Theater, formerly a vaudeville house. With a seating capacity of about 2,800, perhaps it is a bit too large for today’s classical music market. Nevertheless, presentations of film events with live orchestra fill the hall consistently.

I chose a program that would showcase the ensemble, as I had heard such impressive things about them and thought they might enjoy the challenge. We opened with “Triana” from the Albéniz Iberia suite, orchestrated by Enrique Arbós. The short trip to part of Seville was certainly worth the stop. You could smell the perfume of the flowers in the gardens of Spain.

Next came my third foray into Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. With the piece now deeply ingrained in my body and brain, I have found an effective and efficient rehearsal strategy. The piece could easily have been called a concerto for orchestra, as it features prominent solos in addition to collective sounds that astound and amaze.

Kudos to the timpanist, who plays on nineteen drums and is kept about as busy as one could imagine. The orchestra took to the work immediately, and the audiences cheered and shouted upon its conclusion.

The second half was a presentation of Strauss’s Don Quixote, with principal cellist Henry Shapard depicting the hapless protagonist. I had performed this piece alongside the Bates in St. Louis last season and discovered that they complement each other very well. Again, a concerto for orchestra would be an appropriate subtitle for this Spanish journey. The soloist elected to play his part while seated in the orchestra rather than in the traditional soloist position.

I opted to take this decision one step further and moved the second violins to the outside right, more in line with the orchestra configuration Strauss had in mind. The cellos sat next to the first violins, which worked superbly. I did not want to ask the orchestra to change seating for the second half, so we did the whole program with this setup. It turned out to be excellent for Mason’s piece, as there are times when the sound fans out from the first desk of each string section to the last. Sometimes music is meant to be seen as well as heard.

This engagement turned out to be a particularly moving one for me as well. My dearest friend from my childhood had been the orchestra’s principal double bassist for many years. Ken Friedman and I not only grew up together in Los Angeles but also were roommates at Juilliard. We went our separate ways, and I had not seen him in at least fifteen years.

Ken retired a while ago, but the bass section comprises musicians he either led or taught—he left quite a legacy. Spending time with him was a reminder of so many good times. Perhaps, if I have the opportunity to return to Vancouver, he and I will continue the journey together.

Most of you reading this are aware of my trepidation regarding music competitions. As Bartók said, “[They] are for horses.” About a year ago, however, I was asked to be a judge in Paris for La Maestra. Needing to be in Europe for concerts later in the month, I thought this was a good opportunity to reevaluate my position.

This year’s conducting competition was the third installment of this event, and it has quickly become very prestigious. Still, I cannot not help but wonder, with the rapid rise of women in the conducting field, how much longer this competition will continue. It remains the case that females do not hold the top posts in the world, but that will probably change soon.

Conducting competitions are quite different than their counterparts for instrumentalists and vocalists. Because of the need for an orchestra and the restrictions on rehearsal time, the repertoire is often the same for each candidate. This can result in an unfair advantage for the conductors who take the stage toward the end of a given round. From a technical standpoint, the first candidates prepare the orchestra for subsequent competitors. In this case, the orchestra had rehearsed in advance, so everyone was on more or less equal footing.

Altogether, the competition, which was open to all ages, featured 14 conductors, the youngest of whom was 19. We jury members were introduced to them at the first-day draw, during which seven contestants were selected to compete the next night and the remainder the evening after. Over the next two days, we saw all of them in the quarter-final round. With just 25 minutes to rehearse and run through their pieces, they faced a tough task.

Equally difficult was choosing which seven would move to the semi-finals. We managed to decide, and then had to confront the conductors who did not make it to the next round. Hopefully, the feedback sessions were helpful and will encourage the candidates to continue on this career path.

Next up was the accompanying round in which the seven remaining contestants worked with an instrumental soloist as well as a vocalist. With compositions by Tomasi, Tailleferre, Britten, and Mozart, we had the opportunity to judge the collaborative nature of the conductor’s art. In what turned out to be the longest day of the competition—thirteen hours—we narrowed down the contestants to three very different finalists with no clear frontrunner.

With a one-hour rehearsal followed by the performance, the conductors were in for a strenuous final day. Each presented four pieces, with mandatory works by Debussy and Brahms as well as a piece commissioned for the competition. The competitors could then choose between two other works to round out their 35-minute performance.

A full house greeted each of them, and when the event concluded, the winner was Israeli conductor Bar Avni. She showed great flair and an outstanding command of the orchestra. She still has a long path to a full-fledged career, but I believe she has the aptitude to sustain growth. Keep an eye out for this talented individual.

Then, I was off to a debut of sorts in Romania. Although I had been there about 20 years ago with the Royal Philharmonic of London, this was my first extended stay in Bucharest. The orchestra was the Enescu Philharmonic, named, of course, after the most prominent composer from the region. I did not really know all that much about this ensemble, but upon the first rehearsal, my initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive.

They play in an old building called the Atheneum, a Greco-Roman indoor theater that is round rather than a shoe box. We ran through the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, and I was most impressed by the depth in all sections of the orchestra. By the time we got to the concerts, everything had come together, and the performances were truly outstanding.

The soloist was the young Austrian-Iranian cellist Kian Soltani. He dashed off Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with great style and flair. The opener was a piece called To Bartók with Love by Romanian composer Ștefan Zorzor, who happens to be the father of my agent and manager, Stefana Atlas. He is about to turn 92 and lives in Munich. Sadly, he was not able to attend the concerts.

The week included an amusing moment involving a remark I had made to the orchestra at the dress rehearsal. The third movement of the Berlioz ends with about a minute and a half of mostly quiet music featuring the English horn player and four timpanists. When we got to this point, I said, “I do not go directly into the March but take some time between the movements. This is a place where even people who have never coughed in their lives will cough.”

Sure enough, when I brought my arms down during the performance, a cascade of near tuberculin proportions rained down from the audience. The whole orchestra giggled. Of course, the public had no idea why, but it broke the tension and resulted in a wonderfully over-the-top rendition of the last two movements.

After a rejuvenating week-long holiday in Sicily, I head to the Canary Islands for three weeks, followed by Prague. It is finally spring, and one could not ask for a better time to go to either destination.

See you next month,