August 1, 2008 leonard slatkin

Summertime and the livin’ is, well, not as easy as it should be.

July started off as planned with a trip to Nashville. Conducting on the 4th of this month is always an interesting experience, no matter where you are. I have done concerts all over the U.S. as well as a few in Europe. However, perhaps aside from Washington and Boston, it is hard to imagine a place more tuned into that date than Music City.

The orchestra and all of the performers are seated on a barge, with the audience on the river bank. The program itself is a combination of traditional American fare, populated with artists who usually have some Nashville connection. In fact, the orchestra sits out a lot of the program, as the pop acts do 30-minute sets on their own. The finale has 25 minutes of fireworks, with the orchestra doing it’s best to be heard. By the time we got to “Stars and Stripes,” the noise was so deafening that we might as well have been pretending to play.

After that display, it was on to the conclusion of our Lincoln recording project. Music by Ives, Bacon, Persichetti and Mackay were performed and then put down for posterity. It is interesting how many works there are that were inspired by this President. Several are choral, but we chose to focus only on the orchestral pieces. I believe the two-disc set will be released on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Next up was the opening of the Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Symphony. Three weeks earlier I had closed the downtown season and they had not seen another conductor during their break. As with all venues which are open air, the weather has a big part to play regarding attendance. Violinist Josh Bell was soloist in the Sibelius Concerto and we played the Beethoven 7 as well, so there was no question that the program would attract a good crowd. And with the ideal temperature and lack of humidity, both the Pavillion and lawn were packed. We were not quite so lucky the next night. Rain started about two hours before concert time, but with an all-Rachmaninov program, we still had a more than a respectable turnout.

It was during this trip that I heard of Jimmy Levine’s impending kidney surgery. Since I was already scheduled to be in Tanglewood that week, I was asked to take over his program, which occurred the night before mine. The problem was that Jimmy’s program had the 5th Symphony by John Harbison, a work the orchestra had premiered about two months earlier. The score was sent to me overnight, and since I have done John’s music before, it proved to be a piece I thought I could learn quickly.

For a few days, there seemed to be more attention paid to the fact that I was jumping in for a friend and fellow conductor, rather than the piece. Perhaps this is understandable. I started thinking about all the conductors I have replaced under different circumstances: Muti, Barenboim, Boult, Mehta, Eschenbach, Previn, Dohnanyi, Steinberg, and Marriner, among others. Most of the time I have been able to retain the scheduled program. But once in a while it might contain a piece that either I don’t know, or do not feel comfortable conducting. In Pittsburgh, I believe I filled in four times over the past three years, leading to a sign on the dressing room door, proclaiming me “principal substitute conductor.”

In any event, the Tanglewood concerts went very well, with the Harbison and Mahler 1 program truly a memorable one. The next night we played the 3rd Copland Symphony. Surprisingly, it had been close to 20 years since the BSO had performed the work. This seemed strange because, after all, they were the orchestra that premiered the piece. Since I do the original ending, there was a certain circle of history, as the orchestra that gave the first performance would, for the first time since that premiere, play the piece as it was heard in 1946.

Next stop was my old stomping ground, Aspen. It is always nice to return, see old friends, and make music with the always superb young musicians. This time was particularly moving, as my soloist was Joseph Kalichstein, yet another of my friends from Juilliard days. He was celebrating the 40th year since his Aspen debut, and played the same work as then, the 2nd Piano Concerto by Beethoven. The Chamber Symphony did a fine job with the complete Appalachian Spring and we opened with a wonderful piece by Peter Mennin, called Concertato, Moby Dick. Mennin was the head of Juilliard when I was a student, and his widow was in attendance.

Now there are just two weeks of conducting left before a four week respite. I have informed all my managers, agents and orchestras that no matter who cancels, or where it is, I am not to be disturbed. It has taken a long time to learn how to say “no.”

See you next month. (Maybe.)