You never know what is around the corner.
Musical pleasures abounded as winter weather started in a bit earlier than expected. However, one highly anticipated guest-conducting trip to Tokyo had to be cancelled. Turns out that I needed to have a medical procedure. Nothing life threatening or related to the 2009 heart attack, but still, it was something that could not be put off.
All turned out well, and having a couple of downtime weeks certainly enabled me to catch up on a number of fronts.
Let me back up by a week. It had been several seasons since I last conducted the New York Philharmonic. Alan Gilbert asked me to return, and this date was highly anticipated by yours truly. Entering Avery Fisher Hall and proceeding to the conductor’s dressing room reminded me that it was almost 40 years ago that I made my debut there in 1974. There are copies of scores used by Toscanini and Mahler mounted on the wall. The room has not really changed.
But the orchestra has. Although I missed seeing my friends of many years, Stanley Drucker, Phil Smith and Glenn Dicterow, among others, many fine new players dot this orchestra’s landscape. The ensemble remains as formidable as ever and able to turn on a dime. Over a period of just three rehearsals, we put together fine performances of three pieces that were new to so many of the musicians.
I have been a strong advocate of Marius Constant’s orchestration of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Now it was time to bring this to New York. Reading through each movement, followed by a true rehearsal, showed me that the orchestra has not lost any of its ability to digest a work quickly. Even those who had never heard the original piano version appreciated the colors and technical demands of this feat of orchestral legerdemain.
El Salón México came during the last 45 minutes of the first rehearsal. In looking at the Phil, I realized that this piece, once played with frequency by this orchestra, would now be like a premiere for many. In fact, they had not performed the work since 2005, and that was at a summer concert. So many were hearing and playing it for the first time. In some ways, this became the hardest piece on the program.
The afternoon rehearsal was devoted entirely to Chris Rouse’s Flute Concerto. We were all shocked to learn that this piece, which was written 10 years ago, had never been performed in New York. Our soloist was the orchestra’s principal flutist, Robert Langevin. After a meeting with Chris and him in the green room, we proceeded to the stage.
As with the Ravel, we took it one movement at a time. After each, we dug in. Since Chris has been the orchestra’s composer in residence for a few years, they are used to most aspects of his style of writing. What a wonderful piece it is, alternating consonance and Irish melody with astringent harmonies, rhythms and colors. At 30 minutes, it certainly stands as one of the finest works of its kind. Robert was amazing, bringing facility and tonal splendor to each and every phrase.
You would think that this was enough for one day, but the evening held a final birthday celebration. Smaller venues in the Big Apple are quite popular now, and SubCulture is one of them. Located on Bleecker Street in the Village, it serves as a fine alternative to the slightly more popular Poisson Rouge. It took a bit of time to get down there, as traffic was tied up due to rush hour and rain.
The DSO public relations team had constructed the evening, with Gabrielle Poshadlo heading the group. In addition, Naxos used the occasion to launch a downloadable recording that includes excerpts from many of the discs I have made with them. Some people from Detroit came to this event, and several of my best musician friends agreed to participate as performers.
They included composer David Del Tredici, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Erik Rönmark, a string quartet composed of DSO members, and pianists Joyce Yang, Jeff Siegel, Joseph Kalichstein and Michel Camilo. I joined my brother Fred in a short piece by Ravel. Hosting the evening was radio personality Elliott Forrest. The whole thing was simply terrific and brought the three-month cake fest to a conclusion.
It was back to Lincoln Center the next morning for the dress rehearsal. There were still many matters to clean up, plus we had not even looked at Boléro the previous day. With time running out, I decided to try a slightly different way of getting an orchestra to go with my ideas. Before playing the piece, I picked out several passages where experience told me there could be misunderstandings, particularly regarding balance. We sorted these out, played the work straight through, and ended with 12 seconds left on the clock.
All three concerts saw full and receptive audiences. I spoke before the Ravel and demonstrated some of the differences between the piano and orchestral versions. Up in the dressing room, several members of the orchestra came to tell me how much they enjoyed the program and the week together. I said the same.
The two weeks of imposed indisposition gave me an opportunity to catch up on various items, some meaningful, others trivial. I began working on a couple new compositions, though I am not sure if either will come to fruition. Still, the process remains fascinating, and I believe that this exercise gets me closer to the methods employed by others.
Of course there were movies to catch up with. High on the list was Whiplash, a film about a jazz drumming student and his battles with an overly demanding teacher. Much of it is really not about jazz or music in general, but rather a method of instruction that is harsh and sometimes brutal. I can certainly remember a time when this is what music instruction was all about. The highest compliment I ever received from Jean Morel after four years of study was, “Slatkin, it was not bad.” Or, as the teacher says in the film, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Oscar-worthy indeed.
Eventually I got back to work, with two weeks of concerts devoted to American music. In the first, there were five pieces, with only American in Paris being familiar to either orchestra or audience. It also provided me with the opportunity to premiere my latest piece, ENDGAMES. This is a sort of concerto grosso, but the concertante group consists entirely of the woodwind players who inhabit the outsides of their sections.
Everyone seemed to enjoy this 13-minute work scored for solo piccolo, alto flute, English horn, bass and E-flat clarinet, contrabassoon and strings. It certainly encouraged me to keep up with the creative side of music and not just the recreative.
Five other DSO musicians were featured as soloists. Four of them performed a piece I really love, Benjamin Lees’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. I think this is the only really successful piece for this combination, utilizing elements of Stravinsky and Bartók, but with a real individual voice.
Our principal trombonist, Kenneth Thompkins, handled the solo chores in Cindy’s Solstice. Without resorting to fancy effects, she gives the instrument ample opportunity to display both virtuosity and lyricism. All of my musicians were just wonderful, and the orchestra in the Gershwin really shone. In the context of this program, American in Paris came off more like a Strauss tone poem than a light piece.
One side note: For our webcast I was able to do something fun. Prior to my piece, we had concocted a video in which I was seen interviewing myself. There were several questions wondering how we did it, especially the part where I said, “I guess we have to go to the stage,” followed immediately by the seven of us making our entrance. You will have to figure this out for yourselves.
There was also a Young People’s Concert on the Saturday morning. I have not done many of these in recent years, but I was reminded that in my first year as assistant conductor in St. Louis, we had 83 such presentations. The current one centered around the theme of animals in music. I decided to approach it from different angles. Since there was no specific age group in the audience, my assumption was that most likely families were coming to hear Peter and the Wolf. That meant a younger crowd.
Advice to any conductors starting out: You will probably be doing concerts such as these for your first appearances. The best thing you can do is engage the children in as many ways as possible. For this presentation, we started by playing short excerpts from four pieces, including Flight of the Bumblebee, and asking the audience to identify the animals. After that came Peter Schickele’s 1970 piece, A Zoo Called Earth. I premiered it all those years ago, and it holds up very well, with Peter’s voice creating an unearthly being who comes to visit us every so often.
Next, I went into the orchestra, asking them to try to actually imitate animals. The oboist took off the reed and made a sound like a rooster, for example. After that it was on to The Waltzing Cat, and the audience was asked to “meow” on cue. To end was the Prokofiev, with Damon Gupton, last seen in the above-mentioned Whiplash, as the storyteller. We reworked a bit of the script so that it had some references to local places and institutions. For example, when warned about what might exist outside the gates, the kids were told that there might be all kinds of animals including “Wolves, Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons,” referencing our pro sports teams.
These concerts had a visual component as well. An above-stage screen projected the orchestra, so the young people could see which instruments were playing at the appropriate moment. We also put a few images of the animals up, but mostly the idea was to keep the focus on the music and using one’s imagination. The only real problem for me was that there was a slight delay between what was actually happening and what was on the screen. I had to work hard not to look up, as it always appeared that my beat was behind the orchestra.
The final set of concerts for the year in Detroit also featured music by American composers. The Thanksgiving menu included works by Bernstein, Corigliano, Copland and Gershwin. We have been recording all the ballets written by Aaron, and the last to be completed was his very first, Grogh. Based loosely on the silent film Nosferatu, this rarity never entered the repertoire, so Copland reworked the material and used it in several later works. For a novice, the composer already had an amazing grasp of what an orchestra can do, and I found myself completely taken with the score.
Making her Detroit debut was the Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä. We had performed “The Red Violin” concerto in Nashville in 2013, and she once again gave an incredible performance of the piece in The D. John’s concerto remains a tour de force for both soloist and orchestra. It is certainly easy to understand why it is entering the repertoire of many fine soloists.
Bookending the program were the dances from On the Town as well as Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, as realized by Robert Russell Bennett. These days it is fashionable to play the Catfish Row Suite as compiled by Gershwin himself, but I prefer the more fully realized picture. It may not have the grit of the composer’s original intention, but if you have a full symphony orchestra at your disposal, why not utilize all the possibilities. That is what Bennett does so well. Throughout the concert, the DSO responded with all the color and flair needed for this demanding program. It was a fine conclusion to an excellent year for us.
This month, instead of the usual recommendation of a recording, I am putting up my annual treat of some arrangements made by my father. Season’s Greetings is an album he made in the early ’60s and features familiar holiday fare set for double string orchestra, keyboards, percussion and the occasional wind solo. It is one of the finest examples of creative thinking for these popular tunes. In the past, I have found some people offering up the whole recording, but this year that does not seem to be the case. Instead, I am linking you to three YouTube versions of the songs. They can all be found there, but these will get you started.
In the meantime, Cindy and I wish all of you the happiest of holiday seasons.
See you next year,