November marked a relatively calm month of conducting good music, and nothing overly strenuous. Consequently, as I begin a period of several weeks off, I do not need much time to wind down. Well, maybe I should not discount jet lag as I adjust to the time difference between Japan and St. Louis.
In the past month, I had the opportunity to lead a group of wind players in a Chamber Music Society of St. Louis concert, which included a beautifully played Serenade for Wind Instruments by Dvořák; Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, a piece I had not conducted in quite a while; and the Petite Symphonie by Gounod.
The almost-summerlike temperatures gave me the chance to fire up the grill a few more times. I will use most of this month to reacquaint myself with the oven and gas burners.
The last time I visited Japan, getting into and out of the country was time-consuming due to very stringent Covid restrictions. Protocols have eased up a bit, but the country is still a bit on edge, with masks required at all public events. No one has a problem complying, as the Japanese were used to this well before the pandemic.
I have always considered the opportunity to work with the marvelous musicians of the NHK Symphony Orchestra to be a season highlight. I recognized a few familiar faces, but as with so many ensembles worldwide, vacancies and retirements have given the orchestra a new look. The rehearsal studio has undergone a bit of a transformation since my last visit as well, and now has a much-better acoustic. Even the dressing rooms have been renovated. No longer did I have to walk down the flight of stairs that led to the rehearsal hall.
A couple of traditions have developed when I visit certain orchestras. For example, at the NY Phil, the smell of freshly made popcorn awaits me. In Tokyo, it is a seemingly endless supply of a beverage that is simply called Nectar. This is a peach-flavored drink that I was introduced to sometime around my first visit in 1984. Many in Japan seem to know that I love this, and fans bring me cans of it during the post-concert signing sessions.I have learned that they have a sequel, which is a mixed fruit drink. Time to track it down.
But meanwhile, we had work to do. The first week consisted of two pieces by Copland, played without intermission, making the whole concert about an hour long. I don’t know when, if ever, the orchestra had played the complete Rodeo or Appalachian Spring, but they dove right into these ballets with swagger (in the case of the former) and elegance (the latter), making me feel very much at home.
If you are not familiar with a short passage Copland omitted when he put together the Four Dance Episodes, the complete version of Rodeo includes a 24-bar interlude for solo piano. The music resembles what might have been heard in a saloon in the Old West.
Ever since I first started playing the complete ballet many years ago, I have always asked for this to be performed on an out-of-tune upright piano. I am sure the piano technician here was not amused, but the young woman who played was great and was so physically into it that for the recorded video and performance, the director turned the instrument so that everyone in the audience could see her. At the conclusion of the concert, she and the piano got solo bows.
We performed the complete, large-orchestra version of Appalachian Spring commissioned by Eugene Ormandy in 1954, which includes around ten minutes or so of music that was omitted in the Suite. Everyone was in great form, and the ending had the requisite cautious optimism. The audience held the silence and then gave all of us numerous curtain calls. As was the case during my last trip to Japan, audience members are not allowed to show vocal approval, so some of them held up handwritten signs with the word “Bravo” inscribed, as if we were at a sporting event.
The second week encompassed not only a change of program but a change of venue as well. Tokyo boasted 11 professional orchestras before the pandemic. I am not sure how many remain, but there are certainly plenty of halls available as performance spaces. The Copland concert took place at the main hall of the NHK, and the following week we performed at Suntory Hall.
NHK Hall is run by the country’s public broadcasting corporation, somewhat akin to the BBC. They have several television and radio channels as well as their own stable of artists and musicians who travel around to reach different audiences.
Suntory is the major distributor and producer of alcoholic beverages in Japan, among other things. They built and opened their concert hall in 1986. The St. Louis Symphony was part of the opening ceremonies. It is probably the choice of most artists when it comes to where to play in Tokyo.
Because one of the products they manufacture is whisky, they do not allow anyone who has an association with a competing company’s beverage to perform at their hall. This accounts for why Kathleen Battle was not allowed to perform at Suntory when it opened. Years ago, she did a TV ad for Super Nikka whisky, and that got her barred from the high-profile concert venue. The ban was finally lifted almost forty years later, when she made her belated debut there. Luckily, I don’t imbibe in this libation, so no problem for me.
While Rodeo on the first program and the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams—the final work on the second week’s program—were written around the same time, they could not be more different. The orchestra had played the Copland a few times, once under my direction about 20 years ago. But the VW symphony, with one of the most poetic and beautiful slow movements ever penned, was something new for most of the musicians. I was interested to see how they would react at the first rehearsal.
The result was as I hoped. When we finished this extraordinary third movement, and with the Finale still left to read through, the orchestra applauded—not for me, but rather in recognition that they had discovered something amazing.
The concerts also included Vaughan Williams’s charming Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. This is a string work with harps, and I have loved it ever since I recorded the piece in London back in the early ’90s. I knew of the title back then but had never heard or conducted it. We were in the middle of a Vaughan Williams cycle and needed a short piece to fill out one of the discs.
My producer, the incredible Andrew Keener, suggested it, and put a score in my hands after one of the sessions. It is not a complicated piece and seemed easy to learn overnight. When we arrived at Abbey Road the next morning, I proposed that instead of rehearsing, we should start recording right away and see what happens.
I was caught up in the beauty of the writing and wallowed in the lush sonorities being produced by the Philharmonia. When we had finished this initial stab at it, I said to Andrew over the talk-back system, “What a great piece. Thanks for recommending it. How did it sound?”
He said that it was indeed very beautiful, but I was conducting it almost twice as slowly as it is supposed to go. Ouch! We started up again with more-or-less correct tempi in place, and those have stayed with me ever since.
The soloist was the Taiwanese Australian violinist Ray Chen. He has become very popular and plays on what is billed as the most expensive violin in the world. The Mendelssohn Concerto is of course a staple of the repertoire, and everyone gave a finely tuned performance.
But it was the VW 5 that really showcased the orchestra at its best. Suntory, very much like NHK Hall, has undergone some refurbishments, and the acoustic now has a warmth that had been missing all these years. This was perfect for the symphony, and the audience was clearly captivated, which is not always easy to accomplish with a piece that is rarely played.
Huge kudos to the woodwind section, particularly the incredible first oboe and English horn players. They were sublime in their extended solos and duets. In addition to two concerts in Suntory Hall, we gave two subsequent performances in Osaka and Fukuoka. Maybe there will be a Vaughan Williams spree here.
The final two days of the month were spent recovering from the long trek home. In December, I do not have to conduct at all, which will allow me to get reacquainted with my kitchen.
The Silver Screen, Episode 2: Conductor Unbecoming
As some of you may have read, I turned into a film critic last month, reviewing Tár mostly from a conductor’s perspective. Several of you enjoyed it and, since I am a movie buff, I thought it might be fun to put that hat on a few times in these columns. The screen epics I choose will be mostly musical in content, and they may come from unusual sources, both old and new.
This month, we are going to jump into procedural television with an episode from the series Law and Order: Criminal Intent. For the three of you who have never heard of this franchise, each episode of the original as well as the myriad spin-offs follows the literal trials and tribulations of the police and legal teams, tracing the cases they inherit. The shows are generally well-written and well-acted. I enjoy catching up with some of the earlier incarnations when I have a spare 45 minutes.
More than halfway through Season 5, I was intrigued to see that episode 16 was called “Dramma Giocoso.” This would seem to suggest something lighthearted about the story, and most certainly it would be filled with musical references. The episode originally aired in April 2006, and that will be important, as the setting of the story is usually concurrent with the period in which the show is filmed.
Virtually every episode begins with the leadup to a murder or other crime. This one starts promisingly, as star soprano Gillian Booth (played by Alice Krige) is delivering the “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor at the Hudson Opera House. Apparently, the Met had a competitor back then. This will be appropriate for what is to come and is the first glimpse of at least one of the writers knowing how to place the right piece for both the drama and the giocoso. The recording used for syncing is excellent.
Our initial glimpse of the conductor reveals a delightfully over-the-top Julian Sands portraying the overbearingly ego-driven Philip Reinhardt. No one paid any attention to even make the slightest effort toward coordinating his gestures to the music. But that is normal for most portrayals of maestros onscreen. We also get a quick look at a young violinist in the orchestra, Laura Booth, who it turns out, is the diva’s daughter. For some reason, she is not playing here, just sitting with violin in hand, but all the other extras in the section are sawing away, and quite terribly, at least visually.
Philip hastily stops the proceedings, bounds onto the stage, grabs a nearby sword, and decapitates a statue. “I’m trying to create something beautiful,” he declares, “and you just stand there banging away.” This is followed by, “You’re all here to support me.” This type of behavior stopped being in practice after Toscanini and Reiner. Reinhardt (was this choice of name meant to reflect the great Hungarian maestro?) would be fired on the spot today.
Out of nowhere, the personnel manager of the orchestra tells the group that the intermission after Act ll has been shortened to 22 minutes. “If you are not back on time, management will mail you your severance check.” Yeah, sure.
We cut to opening night. The famous duet sounds great, but now with Laura not even trying to play, the violinists are shown in various states of bowing disarray. At the end of this scene, there is a brief exchange in the pit between Laura and Reinhardt. If we didn’t think it before, we certainly know something is up with them.
After the intermission, we see Laura’s chair in the orchestra, but only her violin is on it. And there is blood dripping from a pipe that was coming from the roof of the opera house. This all happens within the first three minutes of the show!
I will not give away any plot spoilers, but if you have not figured out who did what within 20 minutes, you are not a super sleuth. To that end, this is one of the least interesting storylines of the whole series, but the musical references have some truly priceless moments, making it almost a must-see. Here are some highlights:
We learn that Laura joined the orchestra three years earlier, when she was 18. The personnel manager says to detective Barek that “her bowing was strong.” Not according to what we saw in the opening scenes.
Detective Logan (Chris Noth) asks, “During intermission, what do the musicians do?” Answer: “Eat and sleep.” Sure. And wait until you find out what they do on the roof of the opera house.
Barek notices that Laura’s body has some sticky stuff on her fingers. “Probably from the rosin on her strings.” That’s pretty sophisticated thinking and creative writing.
When Gillian shows up, the detectives want to know what she is doing here. This is the moment we find out that she is Laura’s mom, and the company’s manager tells the detectives that Gillian is the star of the theater. The manager asks Logan, “What, you never heard of her?” The detectives exchange glances and Logan says, “That makes two of us.” This is really well done but does play into the stereotype that police are uncultured. This generalization will be clarified a bit later.
Gillian tells them that “Maestro Reinhardt was going to make Laura first violin.” This is the most egregious error in the show. Maestro Reinhardt may hope that she will become the concertmaster, as she is already in the first violin section, at least according to the opening sequences in the pit.
However, it just doesn’t work like that anymore. She would have to go through a lengthy audition process. But you can probably guess why they included this plot device.
The unquestioned highlight of the show, at least for me, occurs ten minutes in. Poor Laura’s body is lying on a gurney in the morgue. Medical Examiner Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers, the brilliant Leslie Hendrix, gets a couple of memorable lines to deliver: “I am such a huge fan of hers,” referring to Gillian. “I heard her do Rigoletto with Pavarotti.”
Then she breaks into song, and very well I might add, with “La donna è mobile / Qual piuma al vento.” Think about it. The corpse is right in view, and we are treated to roughly, “The woman is mobile, as a feather in the wind.” I am sure this was intentional, and kudos for putting it in and getting it past the censors, as that thought is pretty sarcastic and grim.
This is immediately followed by the tone-deaf Logan saying, “I never thought I would envy the dead.” Giocoso indeed.
There are so many other little musical gestures, some accurate and many fabricated, but enough to keep a music lover interested in seeing how it all turns out—from the conductor being referred to as Fearsome Phil, to the three grievances filed against him by the union, to the police chief saying, “I’ve seen too many operas” when trying to unravel the plot. We also learn that Reinhardt led performances of Aida with Tebaldi, Price, Milanov and Caballé, which in at least two cases could not have occurred unless he started conducting the work when he was six years old or so. But big credits for effort on the part of the screenwriters.
Another highlight that I must share: The detectives are following up leads, and they interview a Bronx patrolman, complete with that accent we all love. When he is asked about picking up Gillian once, he says, “Me and my wife are big fans.” He then produces an autographed photo of the diva, which she sent to him as a thank-you for helping her when she was lost. Guess that makes up for Logan and Barek not ever having heard of her earlier in the show.
This is a tough one to rate. I think music lovers will have a ball with all the references, but those looking for a compelling storyline will have to wait for another episode. You can find it on streaming services such as Peacock, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
I give it three Golden Batons out of five, but mostly for the musical references and in-jokes.
As an end-of-year treat, I am going to leave you a track from from my dad’s album Season’s Greetings, released in 1961. A remastered version was recently re-issued. Let me wish each of you a wonderful holiday and all the best for 2023.
“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”:
See you in 2023.