December 3, 2021 leonard slatkin

It has been three years since I stepped down from my more-than-40-year role as a music director. Having held this position with orchestras both in the States and Europe, I covered a lot of musical ground and accumulated a planeload of airline miles. Some people believe I have retired from conducting, but that is hardly the case.

However, there are some very different aspects to life as a veteran guest conductor, most of which I had not really anticipated until recently. The experience of focusing solely on the music has been much more profound than I expected. Not required to make any administrative decisions, I have been relieved of stress that only became apparent to me after I left my positions. As a result of having fewer responsibilities, I have had time to reexamine several pieces that I have wanted to focus on, whether they were going to appear in upcoming programs or not.

Over the course of three weeks in November, with three different orchestras in three separate countries, I found myself immersed in the music-making in an unexpected way. To start with, I was able to suggest every piece on each of the three programs. Without any specific requests from the orchestras, I simply submitted a few ideas, and they selected from them.

In each case, the major second-half work was on my list of pieces I could not live without. First up was a return to Palma de Mallorca, Spain. I realize that this ensemble may not be on every conductor’s radar, but the Orchestra of the Balearic Islands is a fine group with great spirit and energy. It boasts musicians from thirteen different countries. So it was with a very international flavor that we embarked on the journey that is the Seventh Symphony by Dvořák.

As it turned out, I had not conducted this piece in quite a long time, perhaps fifteen years. It hasn’t seemed to pop into my mind when orchestras have asked me for repertoire, even though I have known and loved it for as long as I can remember. It will be among my priority submissions from now on.

Of course, I also love the two symphonies that followed the D minor, as well as the Sixth, but this one captures the very heart and soul of the Czech spirit. Brooding, dramatic, tuneful, dance-like, and bold, this piece provides the conductor with so many opportunities to bask in its sonic radiance. Sometimes one must make some rather drastic changes to the dynamics indicated by the composer, especially if the performance venue is particularly dry.

That was the case in Palma. Having conducted in this city twice before, I thought our performance would take place in the auditorium where I had conducted my other concerts. But this season, partially due to Covid, the orchestra is playing in three separate venues, and we were situated in the Teatre Principal, which is basically an opera house. With the strings moved out from under the proscenium and the winds up on high risers, balances were very difficult to manage. But we worked hard on it, and the result was probably as good as it could get.

The orchestra enjoyed playing the work and, as is the case with many European ensembles, was just getting back together as a unit. The stage was not all that roomy, so we had to do with a reduced string section that included just four double basses. Since the hall only seated around 600 people, that seemed to be enough for the symphony to make the proper impact. The other two works fared better in this acoustic situation.

When I need a twenty-minute opener, one of my go-to pieces is the 70th Symphony by Haydn. Almost every time I perform it, the orchestra members want to know why they don’t play more of this composer. It is a discussion I have had many times, and I still cannot answer the question. The sheer delight on the musicians’ faces tells you everything you need to know about the piece.

Over the past few years, I have been performing music by the Spanish composer Ferran Cruixent. His output is prolific, and he has an impeccable sense for how to use the orchestra. His main obsession is with the great works of science fiction literature—he tries to give orchestral life to some of the creatures and places contained in the works of Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Wells, and many others.

We gave the Spanish premiere of Solaria (2012), that other world where there are 10,000 robots for every human on the planet. This ten-minute work includes his signature “cyber singing” concept in which the members of the orchestra download pre-recorded ringtones and then play them back at designated points in the piece, resulting in a true feeling of another galaxy. The audience was enraptured when we finished, giving the composer three quite vociferous curtain calls.

It was purely accidental, but my program the following week in Helsinki had a direct connection with the composer of the symphony we played in Palma. Josef Suk was a pupil of Dvořák and, in 1904, when Dvořák passed away, Suk began work on a symphony dedicated to his teacher. In addition to the professional relationship, Suk was married to Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie. Halfway through the composition of his Second Symphony, Otilie passed away. Suk was then faced with writing not only a tribute to his mentor but a memorial for his wife as well.

The result was a true masterpiece, not heard very often outside of the Czech Republic these days. “Asrael” is the angel that accompanies the departed on their journey to heaven, and this is the title of the hour-long composition by Suk. It is an extraordinary work, huge in scope and in some ways similar to other works being composed at the beginning of the twentieth century. One can find traces of Wagner, Strauss, and Janáček as well as references to works by Dvořák and Smetana. Yet, at the same time, it has its own voice and is one of the most moving and demanding pieces for any orchestra.

The Helsinki Philharmonic delivered the goods in an outstanding performance, totally committed to conveying all the virtuosity and colors needed to make this an early highlight of the new season. With a marvelous sense of balance and beautiful solo playing from all the principals, the concert was a memorable occasion for me. I wish to thank the orchestra and its talented conductor, Susanna Mälkki, for allowing me the privilege of performing this work.

But this was not the only benchmark of the concert. Angela Hewitt was the soloist in the big Mozart E-Flat Piano Concerto, K. 482. Coming in at over half an hour, it is the longest of his concertante works, and Angela was the right person to tackle this most engaging of concerti. Supported by the fine musicians of the wind section, who play constantly in dialogue with the soloist, Angela gave an enthralling account of the work, and the audience rewarded her with a demand for an encore, in this case, the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s “Widmung.”

The last time I was in Helsinki was about six years ago with the other orchestra in town, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. At that time, we opened our program with Cindy’s Circuits. I had forgotten this when I suggested the piece for the Philharmonic, but they accepted it as the curtain raiser. It is probably the first time that both orchestras in the city played the same contemporary piece by an American composer in such a short period of time. Its intricacies proved to be no problem for either ensemble.

While the third program of the month was unconnected to the two prior sets of concerts, sometimes just the combination of pieces is enough to make a week truly interesting. I had only been to Budapest one time before, and that was on a tour with the Royal Philharmonic of London many years ago. So my appearance with the MÁV Symphony Orchestra represented my debut with a Hungarian orchestra.

The city has an unusually rich cultural heritage, especially when it comes to music. The list of distinguished composers and performers from the area is immense. As much as it might have appeared as a “coals to Newcastle” idea, I decided to bring one of my very favorite works, the Suite in F-Sharp by Ernst von Dohnányi, grandfather of the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. Even in his native land, this piece is hardly ever performed, and so it was with a sense of honor and respect that I presented it.

As is common with many European and Asian orchestras, rehearsals are not held in the venue where the concert takes place. And in this case, the regular facility for practice is being renovated, so we were in a very temporary space. It was cramped and completely dry acoustically. Due to Covid restrictions, the woodwinds and brass were in self-contained cubicles, playing with glass shields in front of them. It literally looked as if they were in zoo cages.

Consequently, we were unable to know what balances would be like when it came to the presentation at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. By the time we got there for the dress rehearsal, I had become so accustomed to the awful sonic properties of the rehearsal hall that the very resonant auditorium came as quite a shock.

With the audience in place for the concert, the acoustics seemed much closer to normal. We began with John Corigliano’s Elegy. The Dohnányi followed, and after the intermission, we tackled Beethoven’s “Eroica.” Throughout the week, the orchestra seemed focused and energized. Although there were a couple moments when the sense of ensemble was not as tight as I might have preferred, the energy and colorings of all the pieces came through well.

In the past, I have commented on the different ways audiences respond to a performance. The rhythmic clapping phenomenon presented itself a bit unusually in Budapest. Although I cannot understand exactly how and when this form of appreciation begins, once it starts, it usually stays at a steady pace, with no change in the speed. However, this time the start was very slow, and then gradually, a collective accelerando began to take place, with everyone seeming to know how to stay together.

Cindy and I met some wonderful people in Budapest and had the chance to experience many of the charms of this very old-world city. One of the highlights was going to a Hungarian restaurant where an extraordinary group of musicians was playing various songs in the gypsy style, with incredible contributions from the solo violin and cimbalom. It was an experience I will never forget.

We also took the time during this month to travel a bit. One of the performance weeks was supposed to be in Moscow, but the city locked down, and we were unable to go. Now, out of the eight weeks in Europe, three of them turned into vacations. We spent the first one on the Amalfi Coast, one of the most spectacular regions in the world. With beautiful vistas, great food and wine, as well as fabulous hotels, it was a week to remember. I also learned how to make pizza.

Prior to leaving the States, we had many concerns as to what would face us with various Covid restrictions in the five countries where we would step foot. For those of you contemplating a European trip anytime soon, all I can say is that each of our destinations had different guidelines.

Just after Budapest, and in place of Moscow, we went to Paris, where Cindy and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. It was a quiet evening, and since every day we are together seems special, there was no need for anything other than the City of Lights to brighten the occasion.

Although I still have one week of concerts in Lyon to go, that program is on the light side, featuring mostly Christmas and holiday music. So I won’t really tackle complex repertoire again until after the New Year. Let me wish all of you a safe and healthy end of 2021 and good wishes for what comes next.

See you soon,