AUGUST 2021: A Tale of Two Orchestras

AUGUST 2021: A Tale of Two Orchestras
August 14, 2021 leonard slatkin

As the summer broiled along, I participated in two music festivals. Both involved a combination of professional and student musicians, but that was pretty much where the similarities ended.

I have been going to Aspen since 1964, and it is safe to say that my path as a conductor began there. Much has changed. There were no traffic lights back then. At one time, the festival comprised just three shows a week; now it features as many as three a day. During my time as a student, there was only one orchestra. They played a single concert each week, led exclusively by the music director. The student body was around 150 when I attended and today includes hundreds more.

Evolution is often difficult to accept. We get used to one way of doing things, and when that gets upended, sometimes we old-timers have difficulty adjusting. There is so much to admire about what is happening in the Rockies and the enormous benefits the festival affords young musicians. But Aspen is also a place of distractions by way of the sheer magnitude of the landscape, the proximity to so many natural wonders, and the opportunities to commune with others or to enjoy solitude.

This time around, I had the pleasure of leading off the festival season with a program performed by the Aspen Chamber Symphony. Usually, this orchestra is a bit smaller than its festival-orchestra counterpart, but due to pandemic restrictions, each ensemble was reduced to a size that was acceptable in the performance tent. Programs were adjusted accordingly, and around 65 musicians participated in each group.

One thing has not changed: the altitude. It is always a bit tricky to adjust to being up 8,000 feet above sea level, and to help get used to it, I arrived a few days in advance. With no festival last summer, everyone seemed eager to get back to some semblance of normality, but that was quickly squashed with an announcement a day before the first rehearsal. It had looked like the easing of restrictions would mean we could rehearse without masks, but the county decided otherwise, and up went our Lone Ranger disguises.

I cannot tell you how difficult it is to conduct with this garment in place. It is like asking a flutist to play using just two fingers. Almost half of the conductor’s communication is accomplished through facial movements and gestures. If I wanted the music to be buoyant and joyful, there was no way to show it in my face. The eyes alone are not enough. And with musicians separated, sometimes ten feet apart, just keeping things together becomes a factor that impedes the actual music-making at times.

When we planned the program, our focus was on Beethoven. Having needed to abandon one of the celebrations of the composer’s 250th birthday last summer, the idea was to include as many pieces in the season by Ludwig as possible. With the opening program, we decided that the Fifth Symphony would be appropriate and the kind of work that everyone would want to hear upon returning to the concert world. We also included another Fifth, the Emperor Concerto, although the soloist was not the one originally scheduled. Filling out the program was a work by an underrepresented minority composer, something that is being requested by pretty much every orchestra these days. I will have more to say about this in a future post.

I decided on a work by Julia Perry from 1952 called, rightly so, A Short Piece for Orchestra. It is more reflective of her studies with Nadia Boulanger than her racial heritage. It will become my go-to work when I am asked to submit one to fill this void. At about eight minutes, it has a bit of Stravinsky, some nods to Berg, and hints of impressionism. The score was in serious need of editing in terms of tempo indications, metronome marks, dynamics, and technical issues, and by the time I finished the rehearsals, we had made significant changes. Hopefully the composer would have been pleased with the result.

One of the most difficult jobs for any conductor is to create a festival orchestra from scratch. The professional and student participants come from all parts of the world and represent disparate schools of teaching and performing, making it challenging to come together and create a viable ensemble in a short timeframe. In addition, most of the young people have never played either Beethoven work, so one has to not only make a cohesive group out of them but also teach them the basics of the works on the program.

Beethoven’s Fifth is one of those mountains that we climb without ever reaching the pinnacle. The search for meaning and truth changes upon each encounter with the work. The pandemic gave me an opportunity to totally reexamine my thoughts on the piece. I remembered that in 1954, Leonard Bernstein gave a memorable television presentation of the first movement in which he orchestrated some of the composer’s sketches and showed what Beethoven rejected, giving us insight as to his final decisions.

I tried to get access to the parts from Bernstein’s demonstration, but it seems that they no longer exist in physical form. After a lot of correspondence, I decided to take a crack at it on my own and came up with about eight examples. It seemed like a perfect idea to precede the performance in Aspen with these extracts. However, as a COVID precaution, the concert would be performed without an intermission, and we had to complete the entire program in ninety minutes or less.

To adjust to the time restriction, we gave an abbreviated presentation of the examples and (something I really hated to do) eliminated the repeat in the last movement of the symphony. As my conducting teacher, Jean Morel, would say: “Sometimes the rules are for the musicians but against the music.” Unfortunately, time constraints also prevented our soloist, Inon Barnatan, from playing an encore after his elegant rendition of the concerto.

The rehearsals all proceeded well enough, but I felt that the mask-wearing made it impossible to truly communicate my ideas about this vitally important work. The experienced players got it, and many were intrigued. Remember a couple paragraphs ago when I wrote about changing several parts of the Perry? Well, I hate to break it to all of you, but virtually every conductor alters things in most every piece ever written. In Beethoven, it is impossible to perform exactly what is written in the score. He used block dynamics, meaning that if a bar says fortissimo in the strings, it indicates the same for all the other instruments. Trumpets playing at those decibels can easily overbalance the rest of the orchestra, so we must change the level. Some will argue that asking for less volume is insignificant, but it still amounts to changing what Beethoven wrote.

Each orchestra is different. Each performance venue is different. And each set of instruments is different. All these, as well as many other factors, go into the decision-making process, both before and during rehearsals and at the actual concert. What is most important to me is to convey the intent of the composer by adapting to the circumstances of each environment. I am not playing to an audience that listened a couple hundred years ago, or even to the same people that might have attended the rehearsal in the morning. Each concert experience is unique and must be treated as such.

It all wound up going quite well. We achieved a nice balance of dynamics, and the young musicians seemed to have truly learned the music.  I got closer to the top of the mountain but still have a ways to go.

Leonard with Renée Fleming, Carol and Harvey Steiman, and Veda Kaplinksy

Two weeks later, I was in San Francisco. It was supposed to be Taiwan. Less jet lag was probably a good idea.

This change of plans was necessitated by that buggy bug. Cho-Liang Lin—hereafter known as Jimmy—founded the Taipei Music Academy and Festival three years ago. Like the Aspen Music Festival and School, it brings young musicians together to work with seasoned pros, incorporating orchestral performances, chamber music, mock auditions, master-class opportunities, and more.

But it differs from the Aspen School in that there are only 50-or-so students, and they work full-time on the projects at hand. I suppose you could say that San Francisco might be a distraction, but the participants had little time for outside activities. But how did this whole festival get moved almost 5,000 miles?

In May 2021, Taiwan shut down upon experiencing its largest outbreak since the start of the pandemic. It had previously been considered one of the best examples of a country that managed to conquer the virus. But vaccines were at a premium, and no one could really get in or out of the country due to strict border control. Last summer, Jimmy’s forces managed to hold events, but participants coming into Taiwan had to go into a two-week quarantine, and for many, the same applied when they went home. No one wanted to go through that again, and it looked like the 2021 edition of the festival would not take place.

About two months before the original start date, I had a thought. Recently, the management agency Opus 3 Artists was purchased by the San Francisco Conservatory, and I discovered that Jimmy was on the Opus 3 roster. Given the sizable Chinese and Taiwanese presence in the Bay Area, I suggested they explore whether moving the proceedings made any sense. Turns out, it did.

In a very short time, Jimmy and his team secured the finances, locked in venues, and set up a schedule. The facilities of the conservatory provided plenty of practice rooms and rehearsal spaces. While the faculty would come entirely from the States, several students would arrive from abroad. They would have to do double-quarantine duty.

The festival would take place over two weeks, with the second week devoted to chamber music. My week included the orchestra concert as well as master classes, sectionals, and lessons. I was also able to give two lectures, one on the realities of concert life today and the other about how to read a score.

Our principal task was preparing the repertoire for the concert, which featured more Beethoven, this time the “Eroica.” Also on the program was Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and Steven Stucky’s Chamber Concerto. If we had done this program in Taiwan, more than likely I would have traded the Stucky for Appalachian Spring, but I felt that something a bit more contemporary would fit better in San Francisco.

It was clear from the opening notes of the first rehearsal that this was a very serious group of musicians. They were well-prepared and had already been coached prior to my arrival. Of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the “Eroica” is the work to which my approach has changed the most. With four hours of rehearsal each day, we had plenty of time to really dig into subtleties I usually do not address due to rehearsal limitations.

The pros were totally engaged, and many commented on nuances we were bringing out that had gone unnoticed before. But my overall conception was not about details; it was about the work’s trajectory and its overarching line. Much like my interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth in Aspen, my evolving thoughts on his Third are the result of having more time to myself during the pandemic for focused study. I think that I will start to limit my repertoire a bit and continue this search into the inner workings of several masterpieces.

It was so nice to have Richard Woodhams as our first oboist. He was the principal in St. Louis during my early years prior to winning the position in Philadelphia. This program was an oboist’s dream or nightmare, depending on how you looked at it. But with Dick there, continually showing his astonishing leadership, we needed only to listen and learn. I could mention all the others, but you get the idea of the level of talent and experience involved.

The Stucky is a marvelous piece filled with orchestral colors, virtuoso writing, and a mastery of form that always distinguished this composer. What a tragic loss his passing was. One can only hope that others will continue to program his music and that his name is not among those that will be lost in musical history. The orchestra played magnificently, as they did throughout all the works.

We gave two performances, the first at the Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University. This outdoor venue was a bit tricky in the acoustics department, but that would only serve us well when we returned to the San Francisco Conservatory the next evening. Everything clicked, and I would say that for me, this performance of the “Eroica” ranked at the top of the list of all orchestras I’ve conducted, student and professional alike. When we concluded, the musicians were both exhausted and exhilarated, none more so than yours truly.

Our patrons and hosts were more than generous, giving us luxuriant dinners and willing assistance in every area. A great deal of credit goes to Jimmy’s wife, Debbie, who really put it all together. She could have a place in orchestral management and logistics anywhere in the world, but perhaps her work as a pediatrician is even more valuable.

Cindy and Leonard with Chef Claude Le Tohic and Jimmy Lin at ONE65

I have a couple smaller events to lead over the next few weeks before my travel schedule resumes in mid-September. I am a little skeptical about the return to full-time concert-giving as we have known it. But one must take this a week at a time, even though any change can have a domino effect on other performances.

There is one more date that looms in the calendar, other than my upcoming 77th birthday. On September 15, my third book will be released. Classical Crossroads might possibly engender some heated discussion, and I look forward to signings, interviews, and perhaps a bit of controversy.

In the meantime, stay safe and healthy.