August 1, 2012 leonard slatkin

As I write this, we are less than a week from the publication of Conducting Business. The first copies are now in my hands and it looks very good. There was just the slightest tremble in my hand as I ripped open the box containing the tome and wondering if this really was happening.

There will be some book signings, radio shows and newspaper interviews to do. In Lyon I was asked if there was anything about my new orchestra in the book. Sadly, no, as not enough time has passed for me to include this experience. Maybe there will be a second edition, with an expanded last chapter. And then there is volume three, which will come after book two, Conducting Standards.

Last month I wrote that the next couple postings might be a bit different. True to word, there are a few things that I want to discuss.

In a recent blog, the esteemed author and musicologist (among other things) Joseph Horowitz posted about an experience he had at the Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C. Apparently some music that was being played in the café was bleeding into the art space and Mr. Horowitz contemplated the clash between the visual and auditory exchange. In the end it seemed to be about the problem regarding music in public spaces.

Most of you will recall the incident of a few years ago when Josh Bell played in the subway of that same city. Most people did not pay attention to the beauty of his music making, much less recognize who he was. After all this time, I wonder if this was more about the incongruity of classical music during a busy rush hour underground.

As Anne Midgette pointed out in a later posting one of the questions the Corcoran experience raised was whether the music was appropriate to the art. Mr. Horowitz felt that the dichotomy between what was heard and seen was distracting. Certainly there have been a number of collaborations between visual and aural artists, but those have usually been planned as such, so any clash of culture is not the fault of the creators, unless they intended that result.

Does Bach go with Monet? Bartok with Van Gogh? Glass with Titian?

More important, does it matter?

IMHO there are distractions aplenty when it comes to virtually any cultural event. It is better if some thought has been put in to how one artwork affects another but there are bound to be difficulties along the way. It is possible that pitting one classic work against another can be off putting, but in this day and age, sadly, most of us have learned to tune what we consider irrelevant out of our heads.

When we go to a restaurant, and assuming that it is not possible to have the Muzak turned off, our response is to let it become part of the background. But that is different than listening to a masterpiece while trying to enjoy fine Bordeaux. Musicians will usually focus on what they hear, trying to identify the piece or performance and thereby not thinking about the fine vintage that sits waiting in the glass.

Let’s take this a small step forward. Suppose that you are at home, in your living area. Somewhere in your living space resides a painting that you adore. It is in the same room as your sound system and you want to hear some Schubert. Who wins? You focus on what you wish but both coexist in the same space.

Perhaps Mr. Horowitz is right to call for the museum to abandon the playing of music that is audible in the galleries. It is also possible that some patrons enjoyed the strains of Bach’s incomparable Cello Suites as they viewed the paintings.

I guess it all depends on how you look at it, literally.

Why did I choose to write about this? Because precisely the opposite occurred during my first concert at the Hollywood Bowl!

In collaboration with the Getty Museum, the Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commissioned a video to go along with the last movement of Beethoven Nine. The museum was hosting an exhibition of sketches of Gustav Klimt, of which several were drafts for what would become the “Beethoven Frieze” at the Secessionist museum in Vienna. This contemporary creation took as its starting point both the sketches and the text. There was no real attempt to synchronize the visuals with the music, although the artist made adjustments with the images as we proceeded with the performance.

Here was the reverse of Mr. Horowitz’s experience. Once again, two artistic elements were occurring simultaneously, although in the case of the Beethoven, there was some context.

It helps to know that at the Bowl there are two large monitors that usually feature shots of the conductor, soloist and orchestra. Most of the time I cannot stand this but it seems fine for the outdoor, 17,000 seat venue. For this performance, an additional large movie screen was positioned over the stage. For three movements and the introduction of the Finale, all was as is normal, with the audience being able to watch either the stage or the screens.

At the moment the bass soloist enters, all the projections were of the video creation. The audience never saw the four vocalists, percussion or other elements that Beethoven added in the extraordinary last movement.

It really does not matter what I thought of the video, as I did not have to coordinate anything to the screen. I did have the opportunity to view the presentation a few weeks before. But I find the problem of moving image to music very troubling.

We live in an age where seeing trumps listening. I prefer to believe that most people want to develop their own images as they listen to a great piece of music. Unless the audience members closed their eyes at the Bowl that night, it was not possible to escape. Essentially, it seemed as if a movie was being shown with poor Beethoven relegated to background music.

Not really.

Most likely people came away with the power and majesty of the 9th resonating more strongly than the images. But for a few, the visuals may have been even more powerful. And for fewer still, the combination of the two seemed ideal.

So I come down on this supporting both Mr. Horowitz and Ms.Midgette. We must be careful as to how we present great art. Sometimes two rights make a wrong.

It rained during the second concert in LA. Yes, you read that correctly. Back in 1984, the deluge was so strong that a concert had to be cancelled. Coincidentally I was the conductor on that occasion as well. This time the show went on.

The weather had been threatening all day but held off until about 30 minutes before the start of the concert. Umbrellas sprouted up from the seats and an announcement was made that they would not be allowed because it eliminated sight lines. The ushering staff passed out ponchos to everyone. One has to wonder how long they have been in the warehouse.

After a 15-minute delay, due to a protective tarp above the canopy of the Bowl, we got started. I joked, “We were sorry to delay the start of our performance of Water Music. For the first piece everything was fine for about 10 minutes but then the outburst started in earnest. Some of the rain came onto the stage and spattered onto the double basses. We moved them for the concerto but the rain continued anyway. Somehow we slogged through.

You have to give the hearty souls in the audience credit. Through it all they stuck around and cheered lustily at the end of the performance. Such is the gamble one takes with outdoor performance.

No rain issue hampered the concert in Lyon. The performance took place in an old Roman amphitheater, Fourviere. It uncomfortably seats about 3,500 people and since the weather was lovely, we had almost a full house.

The Festival has performances every night for two months. A large stage is constructed, as this is not just for music but dance, drama and other shows. The night before our concert, Bob Dylan was the attraction.

All went superbly, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a Lyonnais by birth, soloist in Ravel and Gershwin.

There is a tradition that I discovered when it occurred. At the end of performances, the audience tosses the seat cushions toward the stage. One hit me and I threw it back. Kind of like a Chicago Cubs home run by the visiting team.

Now it is vacation time. Hopefully some of you will have read the book and I sincerely hope you enjoy it. Any comments can be passed along to me at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In the meantime let me wish all of you a nice summer.

See you next month,