December 1, 2012 leonard slatkin

Another busy period, one filled with great music and sports heartbreak. The Cardinals did not make it to the World Series but the Tigers did. They needn’t have bothered. San Francisco took them out in four straight games.

I had a wager with Michael Tilson Thomas. Whichever team lost, the losing conductor had to wear the opposition’s cap to a rehearsal. In addition, a gift basket of local foodstuffs was to be sent to the other orchestra. Not only did I sport the chapeau upon my return to the DSO, I also wore it on our webcast.

And Michael doesn’t even like sports.

The debacle occurred during a two-week stint in Europe, so I did not get to see the games as they began around 2:00 in the morning. Sometimes I would wake up and check the score but since there was nothing to cheer about, I simply went back to sleep.

The music making was a winner on all fronts, starting with a week in Lyon. Our soloist was my good friend Manny Ax, performing the Brahms Second Concerto. We have known each other since Juilliard days and have shared many fine moments together. He captivated the orchestra and audience, as usual.

Haydn and Hindemith were on the first half. Both composers are underrepresented in the concert hall these days. It is difficult to understand why that is the case. They each are eminently listenable and present highly individual musical personalities. Haydn is always good for creating disciplined ensemble and Hindemith gives the orchestra a chance to shine sonically. Both the 67th Symphony and the Metamorphosis were played with great panache.

Three years ago, I was supposed to conduct the Czech Philharmonic. The day of my departure was when I suffered the heart attack and I never made it to Prague. When the opportunity to make up this lost date occurred, I asked that we play the program that had originally been scheduled. Kind of a “get back on the horse” deal.

What a wonderful city!

Most people concur that Prague is the most beautiful of European capitals. The elegance of the architecture is evidenced everywhere. Cindy enjoyed walking all over town. For the most part, I was rehearsing the majority of the daytime. Only when we began giving concerts was there time to partake of some of the cities delights.

My teacher and mentor, Walter Susskind, was Czech. He was always regaling me with stories about Prague. When I first went there, he told me to go to a particular restaurant and try the ham. Susskind had not been back to his homeland in quite some time, so I smuggled the delicious delicacy back to the States for him.

The orchestra plays in the Rudolfinum, a grand old building with superb acoustics, a bit overly resonant for some. The program consisted of Haydn 85, the Barber 1st and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. Three symphonies and no soloist, with two of the pieces being totally unfamiliar to the orchestra. The hall gives the musicians every opportunity to create a distinctive persona in virtually every repertoire.

This particularly suited the Barber, a work I have performed often. With wonderful solo playing, particularly from the oboe, and a gorgeous string sound, the symphony came off very well indeed. In fact, the entire program was a joy from beginning to end. Several musicians came up to me asking for a return as soon as possible. I will be more than happy to comply.

They also started talking about some of the concerts we had done together many years ago, prior to the fall of communism. To a person, the musicians said that they never expected to see this change occur in their lifetimes. We reminisced over a Mahler Sixth and a Rite of Spring from years past.

After the final concert of the series, we had the chance to go to dinner with the orchestra’s current music director, Jiri Behlolavek. He has brought change to the organization and is clearly on a good path for the future. They are starting a Dvorak symphony cycle for recordings, and will be touring together in the States in a year. He and I both shared the same management a long time ago. Mariedi Anders was a force of nature and both of us agreed that she was the one who helped shape our careers.

A quick turnaround brought me back to Detroit for a week. This was a particularly tough program, with all the pieces being recorded for release on Naxos. We began our project of the complete Copland ballets with Rodeo. There is only about four minutes of music that is added to the Four Dance Episodes, but they include a honky-tonk piano as well as some interpolations in the “Hoedown.”

Our principal bassoonist, Bob Williams, continued the ongoing cycle of concerti by John Williams with an outstanding performance of The Five Sacred Trees. This piece is becoming a standard in the relatively small world of solo bassoon repertoire. What a fine piece! It has been a pleasure to commit John’s concert works to posterity and we will continue to do so next season.

After the intermission, and the fateful presentation of the spoils to San Francisco, we dove into Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1. Still a novelty in the concert hall, the work is slowly starting to enter the repertoire of several conductors. The history of this piece is well known now. Clearly the composer never returned to edit the work and so it is up to the conductor to decide whether or not the orchestration needs some help.

I discussed this with Eugene Ormandy, who brought the piece to light in the States. He said that he was very comfortable with the emendations he made to the symphony. And, for the most part, they are unobtrusive and give certain melodic lines a chance to be heard more clearly. I use most of his suggestions and add a few of my own. Hopefully there is nothing that damages the spirit of the composer.

Back on the plane for a return to Lyon, this time for a three-week stint. Longer stays with orchestras are always welcome. Just being in one place makes all the difference when one gets to the end of a long work period. I have gotten the hang of the transition at De Gaulle airport in Paris. You get off the plane, head down for the luggage, walk to the left, go down two escalators and then you are at the train station. The biggest surprise is how few places there are to eat at the gare. It’s Paris, for God’s sake!

The program in the first week had a great deal of variety. We began with Chris Rouse’s The Infernal Machine. Written in 1983, the piece is still one of the most effective contemporary curtain raisers I know of. Chris’s musical style has changed quite a bit since this early foray, but it was already clear that he knew his way around the orchestra thirty years ago.

Victoria Mullova was soloist in the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto. We have not worked together all that often, but she is certainly one of the most interesting soloists around. Always thoughtful and possessing an infallible technique, her approach in this piece was one that put substance and structure over flash and virtuosity. Since its premiere in 1955, the concerto has been a staple in the repertoire of many violinists. And each seems to bring a distinctive approach to the work. Vika was absolutely in command of the piece and I look forward to future collaborations.

After the break came Saint-Saëns Third Symphony. The Auditorium in Lyon has a wonderful organ, played on by the composer for several occasions. It will go on hiatus for a lube job this summer, as the mechanism and intonation need a bit of an overhaul.

What fun to play this piece with a true French orchestra. We worked very carefully on balance and texture, which the orchestra seemed to appreciate. It is easy to take this piece for granted, but I find that it is not just an exercise in sonics or bombast. The careful structure that Saint-Saëns uses must be made clear in order to understand why this is a great piece of music. The audience responded with the rhythmic applause that is characteristic in many European cities.

How do they know when to start this and in what tempo?

The following week saw rehearsals and performances of the lengthiest symphony in the repertoire, Mahler’s 3rd. Due to the forces and duration, this is not performed quite as often as some of the other works in this form. I had done it four times previously, but not for quite a while.

As we began to prepare, I started getting inquiries as to what I was going to do about the oboe and English horn solos in the fourth movement. There are vague indications from the composer as to how one gets from one note to the other. The instruction says that it is “herunterzichen” or “drawn-up.” This is not very clear and many assume that it is a glissando. Others, myself included, are not so sure. There is another indication that says it must be like a sound in Nature. Fine, but what is that sound and how do you get it?

So I started poring over commentary on this subject. Earlier in the month, Bernard Haitink issued a criticism of what he deemed “cultists” in the Mahler world. I agreed with him but now found myself amongst this lot. In a symphony that lasts more than one and a half hours, it does seem a bit like tunnel vision.

Okay Mahlerites, here is what I came up with. An older German oboe can actually produce this without it sounding chromatic. I have yet to see evidence that there was an equivalent English horn instrument that could also make a proper glissando.

So the logical solution is to only try it if you have the proper instrument. If, as in most orchestras, the reed musicians are playing on today’s French instruments, just leave it alone. The sound is not right for this special moment in the piece.

We worked very hard in rehearsals, focusing on the sonic world created by Mahler. With outstanding contributions from the orchestra’s solo players, the concerts went very well indeed. We were sold out for the two performances, quite the opposite of what I was told when I began my directorship here:

“Mahler does not do well with our audience.”

Sasha Cooke was the wonderful mezzo soloist and we employed 40 women and 40 children for the 5th movement choral moment. The principal trumpet, who looks like Daniel Craig’s brother, played the off-stage solo in the 3rd movement, using a “corno di caccia” for this. The original calls for posthorn but these days it is not practical. Some use a flugelhorn and some just play it on a trumpet. The solution that my musician came up with worked very nicely, giving a somewhat darker sonority for these passages.

The first performance was on Thanksgiving. Searching for turkey in Lyon is not so easy, as this usually is not served until Christmas time. Considering that we were working anyway, I settled for the traditional fillet of sole after the concert.

During the week, Cindy and I celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary. We decided to splurge and went to the Paul Bocuse establishment, the culinary capital of the world. The chef was there to greet us and, of course, the meal was fabulous. Clearly someone had alerted the staff of this occasion, and just before the first of three desserts, an attendant came out with a music box, that played “Happy Birthday.”


Because in French a birthday and anniversary are the same word: anniversaire.

We were told that the 1st year of marriage is the most difficult. If that is the case, we will have nothing but good times ahead, as these past 365 days have been wonderful.

See you next month,