December 1, 2015 leonard slatkin

The slight delay in this posting is due to what many of you now will know. After what will be ten seasons with the DSO, I am moving into a different position with the orchestra. At this point, I have no idea what the various questions will be from journalists as well as my regular readers. So I thought it would be a good idea to let you know what is occurring.

This past summer, I took nine weeks off from conducting. Some of that time was devoted to really thinking about what the remainder of my career would look like. I also reviewed what had been accomplished and what was left to do in Detroit. At the same time, contract negotiations for the future were commencing.

In short order I decided it was time for a change. The DSO ship had been mostly righted, and I had supervised the hiring of about 30 new players, including filling most of the principal positions. We established a great many initiatives during the post-strike era, and I was very proud of the scope and breadth of what we had all achieved. Last season I told the board that it was clear that my job was to get the orchestra into shape for the next music director.

That time has come.

I will move aside after the 2017-18 season and then become the Music Director Laureate. This is usually nothing more than a title, but in Detroit it will have real meaning. While the hunt is on for the next leader, I will serve as an advisor and conduct at least four weeks each season. If need be, I can do more, but this enables me to ease up on the administrative end and help out as desired. It also provides a continued long-term relationship with the orchestra and city that I have loved.

As far as Lyon goes, at the time of this writing, we are also in negotiations regarding my future with the ONL. My work there is quite different than with the DSO, as areas such as fundraising and overall programming are decided by others. As soon as we reach an agreement, I will let all of you know and perhaps share what I envision for the future.

In the meantime, here is what went on in November.

Supposedly, fall was in full bloom, but for the start of the month, we had moved ahead about eight months.

Lyon was the home of a unique production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the play accompanied by the Mendelssohn incidental music. The idea came as we had decided on a season with several works based on Shakespeare. Research for this project was intensive and fun, with a lot of discoveries, some quite worthwhile, others not so much. Clearly there has been no other author responsible for as many musical treatments as the Bard.

Certainly we would have to do the Mendelssohn, but whether or not to just play the big pieces was the question. Our Artistic Advisor, Christian Thompson, had been working with the founder and director of The Factory, a theater troupe based out of London. Tim Carroll took one look at the Auditorium and his brain went into overdrive, this taking place about six months ago.

Obviously we could not perform the entire play, because if we included all the music, the whole thing would take almost five hours. So a distillation into a two-and-a-half-hour event with intermission was the outcome. Seven actors took on all the parts, and each was amazing. The orchestra was indeed the set, representing the woods where most of the action takes place. In fact, when the Overture began, it seemed as if this was just going to be a normal concert with two narrators.

But after the E Major chord at the end, and with a few words from the two characters seated at the front, all of a sudden, the other actors emerged from within the orchestra, each having pretended to play different instruments throughout the 10-minute introduction. From that point, we entered the three worlds Shakespeare presents us, including the group of mechanicals. They tell us that the proceedings must halt as the hall is booked for another event. Then there is a cry from the audience, and a man carrying a pizza is looking for who ordered it. Turns out it is for “Claire Inet.”

It was all great fun and very clever. The actors were brilliant, and the time seemed to fly by. I even got to make my Shakespearean debut as Philostrate, delivering a few lines punctuated by wearing Martin Scorsese-style glasses. Not only did we receive the traditional rhythmic clapping from the audience, but they leapt to their feet as well.

A seemingly calmer week followed, but tragedy would come into play at the end of this visit. After a fine performance on Thursday night and a lovely Haydn program the next afternoon, we were all looking forward to the Saturday evening concert. This was all thrown into chaos when the attacks in Paris commenced. Everyone was in shock throughout the country. Plans were made to do something prior to the start of the final concert, but that performance never took place. The mayor of Lyon declared a three-day mourning period, during which time there could not be any cultural events or demonstrations in public spaces, of which the Auditorium qualifies.

Most of us were taken aback with this decision, especially since it came just two hours before the start of the concert. We had altered the program, and here is the speech I was going to deliver to the audience.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

Tonight’s program was intended as a celebration, filled with joy and good feelings. The horrific attacks in Paris have reminded all of us that we live in perilous times. What do we do in the face of senseless violence? How do we explain it to our children and ourselves?

On stage tonight, you see the members of the ONL. They are joined by colleagues from the Opera de Lyon. We come together to help bring a degree of solace and comfort to you. What cannot be said with words is best conveyed by music.

Instead of the announced pieces by Sir William Walton, we will play the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. This piece has become the one the world turns to in times of grief and sorrow. It was heard at the funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was played by orchestras around the world after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And it was the work of choice after the atrocities of Sept. 11.

The Adagio has been called “the saddest piece of music ever written.” I do not agree. The aching, long melodic line is a thing of beauty, not tragedy. The crescendo at the work’s climax is one of the greatest affirmations of music’s power. And the ending—indefinite—reminds us that the world carries on, even at its darkest hours.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the friends and families of those who perished last night.
But the resolve of the French people is strong, and we will continue to believe in the best elements of our society, not the worst.

And so, as we still mourn, we also celebrate what brings us together this evening, the everlasting message of music. I would like to ask each of you to observe a moment of silence at the end of the piece and please refrain from applause.

Thank you.

I know that the members of the orchestra were very upset at not having the opportunity to assist with the healing process. Lyon seemed subdued all Saturday, but businesses were open and people seemed more sad than angry. Mourning is done by different people in different ways. With no insult intended, I truly believe that those who wished to play and attend a concert should be allowed this as their way of expressing and perhaps escaping what they feel. At least we could offer comfort with our music, and that would say a lot more than the sound of silence.

The one performance that took place included the first European premiere of Endgames, the piece I wrote last season. It features instruments from the orchestra that are rarely given solo opportunities. Piccolo, alto flute, English horn, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabassoon are the ones that sit at the end of their respective sections, hence the title. I labeled the work a Concertino Grosso, much in the manner of Corelli. The ONL musicians had a good time and distinguished themselves in their star turns.

Another work sort of in this category is Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for four solo instruments and orchestra. For this, the violin, cello, oboe and bassoon are employed in a most delightful way. With ten ONL musicians on solo display, it was evident that the quality and level of playing makes this a terrific ensemble.

Rounding out the program, played to a packed house, was the Beethoven Fifth. Each time I come off the podium after conducting the piece, I always think about how many more years will pass before I get it right. Don’t misconstrue. The performance went very well, but this is one of those pieces that always begs reexamination. From the decisions regarding the phrasing of the opening to the gauging of the accelerando to the coda, there is a minefield of musical traps in almost every measure.

Most conductors come to this work early in their careers, and so did I. But this is probably a mistake, at least in terms of believing one can deliver a superb performance. A lifetime of study and experience goes into this one, perhaps more so than any other Beethoven symphony. Our performance had tremendous energy, and there were very few moments of actual repose, even in the second movement. Tension seemed to be the watchword for my interpretation this time around. Who knows what the next encounter will bring?

Back in Detroit, there was a lot of buzz about the new Symphony in D, which we would premiere during my one week home. Tod Machover, Musical America’s Composer of the Year, had been writing several works in which the sounds of different cities were incorporated as an electronic component to the orchestral fabric. Detroit presented a different kind of challenge.

Since he had done a similar piece for Lucerne around the same time as ours, time was running out, and Tod was a bit late in getting the whole piece to us. In fact, I did not receive the score until 10 days before the first rehearsal, although the composer and I had gone through the basics of the work a couple weeks earlier.

Another difference was that several live elements were added to the performance. These included poets, electronica, a couple guitars, an African drummer, some senior citizens, four kids, and a Chaldean choir! Little of their contributions were actually in the score, so we had to figure it out as we went along.

In the end, it came out fine, and although it is unlikely that the piece will be performed again, simply because it is so Detroit-centric, perhaps there are other uses for the idea, more expanded, in which the history of the city is chronicled. It could be a video project or something that might be used as a tool to attract more people to the revitalized city.

The first half of the program was given over to our new principal cellist, Wei Yu. The vehicle for his DSO solo debut was the same one that he played during his audition, the Dvorak concerto. His sensitivity to the various moods and extremes of this work were absolutely perfect. In the slow movement, as well as the second section of the finale, you could feel the audience on the stage with us. How fortunate we are to have yet another brilliant musician and leader in our orchestra.

And that brings me back to how this note began. Everything that has been accomplished has been a collaborative effort, including the hiring of new musicians. But I have been a big part of all that has occurred, and if ever there were a time to step away, it would be when things are going so well.


As is usual during this time of year, I will share a few of my father’s arrangements of songs for the season. One day the whole album will be released, and Cindy and my assistant Leslie have actually tracked down the scores for these. Perhaps they can be done live at some point. Just another project to consider for the future.

And for those of you wishing to hear a few more of my dad’s arrangements, tune in New Year’s Eve at 10 p.m. EST for the DSO’s Live from Orchestra Hall webcast. We will give the first live performances of some very clever adaptations of classical chestnuts, realized in a more popular vein. Cindy fleshed them out from recordings, and they are truly delightful.

Have a great holiday season, and I will see you next year!