December 1, 2008 leonard slatkin

Another month filled with travel and good music making. When I think about my original plan, no permanent orchestra and just guest conducting, I now realize that this kind of schedule would have been too grueling. But it is still nice to see both familiar and new faces once in a while.

The month started off in Baltimore. Contractual restrictions had prevented me from conducting Marin Alsop’s orchestra, as D.C. was too close. Now that I no longer have that clause to deal with, it seemed appropriate to work with the BSO. I knew several of the musicians from other dates I had done over the past 12 years with various pick-up bands. But working with the whole orchestra was quite different.

Basically, they play in two different venues: one in Baltimore and the other in the Bethesda area. The latter, Strathmore Hall, is an excellent facility but so is the orchestra’s home base, Meyerhoff. They are quite different, so some adjustments have to be made in balancing for the two. We played the Second Symphony of Sibelius, a work I used to do often but had not performed for some time. It is useful to put a piece aside for a while and then come back to it fresh. There is always something new to discover in a great score.

This year marks the 200th birthday of Baltimore native, author Edgar Allan Poe. I had been asked if I knew any pieces that would celebrate this occasion. Works by Rachmaninoff, Caplet and Dukelsky, among others, came to mind. But so did one early work by a fledgling composer named Slatkin. This piece, based on five of Poe’s works, is scored for narrator and orchestra. I wrote it in 1971 for the great actor Vincent Price. In Baltimore we used a different person for each poem, culminating in “The Raven,” intoned by veteran actor John Astin. It is interesting to me that when I return to a piece I have written, I approach it as if someone else had composed the work. It holds up pretty well, and I did enjoy bringing it back to life.

Next, it was back to Europe for three weeks in three cities. I started with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, where I had a very nice time. The orchestra has improved greatly under the direction of Marek Janowski. Among the pieces we played was Appalachian Spring by Copland. This is not a regular piece for most orchestras outside the States. One listener commented that she did not think the orchestra sounded “American.” I am not sure what that really means but I took it as a compliment, in that the personality of the orchestra itself was well defined. Why should any piece sound like the country of origin of the composer? Great music changes with each performance and the persons playing the work. The better the ensemble, the more individuality they bring.

Next it was a return to Madrid. Spain is a very happening place for music these days. In retrospect, it is still possible to remember the repressive time of Franco. The explosion of cultural activity that is taking place now gives Spanish cultural life true vitality. Halls are packed, and the audiences enthusiastic. Josh Bell was on hand for the Corigliano Violin Concerto and the orchestra managed this difficult work very well.

I had a couple of free days and went to Burgos to hear a trio concert by Michel Camilo. He just gets better and better. The next day, back in Madrid, I was taken to a jazz club to hear a new group from Salvador, called “Hip Hop Roots.” It is difficult to describe what they do, but here goes. Lead female singer, a violinist, a man who seems to play every instrument, an electric guitar, and six percussionists! They combine all sorts of styles, singing about the difficulties in their country as well as the exuberance of the people. Both visually and aurally, this was a spectacular evening. Look out for them. When they hit the U.S. they will be big.

The last stop was Paris. Josh and I did the Corigliano again. This was my first visit to the Salle Pleyel since the renovation there about four years ago. It is a good hall, perhaps a bit loud but certainly much better than before. The orchestra was the Philharmonique, one of two radio ensembles in Paris. Tchaikovsky 6 took up the remainder of the program and we did work very hard on it. Sometimes the most familiar of pieces can be the most difficult.

Josh and I spent Thanksgiving together at a fine bistro, Chez Benoit. So many restaurants, so little time. When he was 16, Josh made his first European tour with St. Louis and me. It is gratifying that he has kept his musical instincts intact and remains a superior artist. I always look forward to working with him.

And now I can finally look forward to actually standing on the podium in Detroit. It has been a bit frustrating to be the music director of an orchestra but not conducting it for the first third of the season. But all that is about to change.

See you next month,