December 1, 2023 leonard slatkin

To say that November was a jam-packed month would be an understatement. With the middle portion of a six-week concert tour in full swing, I realized that no two works would be repeated during this trip. Only one of them was new to me, however, and as I explained in last month’s journal entry, The Fountains of Rome became an old friend during the first stop back in October.

Continuing in Spain, I moved on from Valencia to Madrid. In times’ past, the country, in general, was not a pleasant place to make music. Its resident orchestras were undisciplined and did not possess the musical values I was used to in other parts of the world. That has changed drastically over the past fifteen years or so, with exciting and vibrant music-making now taking place throughout Spain, even in smaller cities.

The capital city of Madrid boasts several orchestras, and this time, I was with the Radio and Television Orchestra (La Orquesta Sinfónica de RTVE). It was the only stop on the trip where we played a program more than one time. Covid still seems to linger, both as a living organism and as a vestige that has taken its toll on audiences. Many institutions throughout the world are cutting back on the number of performances they give and playing it safe with programming.

At my age, I can dictate which pieces I want to play and avoid, for the most part. When an orchestra asks me to perform a work by a female composer, I have a built-in advantage. All I have to do is turn to Cindy, whose music is always well-received by ensembles and audiences alike. Such was the case for the Madrid program, which opened with Circuits. With an outstanding percussion section, the RTVE Orchestra played the piece particularly well.

The pianist Joaquín Achúcarro, who turned 91 during our week together, represents one of the last of his generation to achieve legendary status. He played the Second Chopin Concerto for an adoring audience, bringing elegance and poise to the work with flashes of brilliance and a lifetime of familiarity with the piece. It was an honor to work with him.

Returning to Sibelius’s First Symphony, which has not been in my repertoire for quite a while, felt like reconnecting with a dear friend. My approach to the piece is probably not much different after all this time, but it certainly goes against the current trend to move it out of the 19th century when it comes to matters of tempo and rubato.

It used to be said that Sibelius’s first two symphonies had more of a connection to Tchaikovsky rather than his native Finland, and I continue to think that way. I used to believe that these pieces were disjointed and not as structurally sound as Tchaikovsky’s later works. However, I have since discovered that form is crucial to understanding Sibelius. In any event, I will continue to offer the piece and hopefully will have the chance to perform it again.

Leaving Spain, Cindy and I travelled to Poland, where Cindy lived for a year as a student of Krzysztof Penderecki. Our flight landed in Krakow, and we took the opportunity to visit with the composer’s widow, Elżbieta, who runs two major music festivals. She continues to amaze with her energy and passion for the work of her husband.

Like the RTVE in Madrid, the NOSPR Orchestra in Katowice is connected with the radio. They have a magnificent hall, and all the rehearsals took place in that venue, making it relatively easy to obtain the optimum balances of sound. The program itself was something that could be described as “borrowed” material. Two musicians had a hand in transcribing some short works of Sir Henry Purcell, with Benjamin Britten’s setting of the Chacony and Sir John Barbirolli’s arrangement of the Suite for Strings, Flutes, and Horns. This repertoire is currently unfashionable to play but used to be part of any conductor’s portfolio. While audiences do not come out very often to hear a consort of viols, hopefully these arrangements encourage them to appreciate this music.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was my very first soloist when I began my tenure in Lyon and was on hand in Katowice for the Third Bartók Concerto, another work I had not performed for at least 25 years. Unlike Bartók’s previous two works in the form, this one looks back to Bach, Beethoven, and others for its inspiration; however, the composer’s Hungarian roots are never far behind. Our soloist was loaded with energy as well as poetry, and the audience demanded—and got—two encores.

After intermission, we performed an American second half comprising a combination of pieces I have done a couple times now. They work together because of the contrast provided, with Alan Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain approaching the world of a cathedral and Gershwin’s American in Paris going in the opposite direction. The hall was ideal for the former and also gave clarity to some of the latter’s dense orchestration.

Next up was a two-week stint in Dublin, where I have enjoyed wonderful collaborations for the past several years. Formerly known as the RTÉ, the recently minted National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland has been a most welcome stop on my European tours. And what’s not to love about Ireland? Okay, I still haven’t found any leprechauns or seen the end of a rainbow, but aside from those shortcomings, even in inclement weather, the atmosphere is warm and wonderful.

It was American fare for the first concert, with works that might be considered standards in the States, although less prominent today than in former times. Starting off with Barber’s expertly crafted Second Essay for Orchestra, we gave the audience a taste of the composer’s considerable skills as a structuralist. He deftly combines two themes to weave an incredible tapestry of tonal wonder. And with a slight nod to his Adagio for Strings, the work comes to an exultant conclusion. The orchestra handled this tricky score with aplomb and warmth.

The keyboardist Wayne Marshall joined us for a brisk interpretation of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Perhaps not as well-known among my American readers, Wayne has a considerable reputation in Europe, not only as a pianist but also as a conductor and organist. Versed in almost every genre of music, he brings virtuosity and elegance to his playing.

We had never worked together before, but last season, he conducted my Kinah at a concert in Turin. He brought his copy of the score to our first rehearsal, and I signed my first autograph as a composer. Wayne is delightful in every sense of the word, and I look forward to performing together in the future.

As iconic as it is, Copland’s Third Symphony is still a relative rarity outside of the States. The demands on the orchestra are immense, but the NSO took pride in the challenge and gave a magnificent performance of the work. And much to my surprise, the audience responded with an uncharacteristic standing ovation at the conclusion. The work never fails to move me and still impresses with its scope.

To round out November, the NSO and I “visited” the ocean with three works related to that theme. Mendelssohn’s rarely heard overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage made for a proper beginning to this concert. With one of the most sublime introductions featuring an entirely independent double bass line, I find this D-major excursion simply marvelous in its dark representation of stillness. The coda is a bit silly, but it made for a nice change of pace.

I harbor no such reservations about the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s Peter Grimes. Long staples of the repertoire, these pieces are exquisite miniatures that continue to weave a magical spell, especially when performed with the requisite dynamic contrasts skillfully provided by the NSO.

Concluding the drenching was Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony. He dared to write the first of his nine symphonies for chorus, going the opposite way of Beethoven. And what a magnificent first effort it is, including thrilling climaxes, stunning orchestration—with organ—and the fluid choral writing that distinguishes much of the English repertoire. Soloists Elizabeth Watts and Mark Stone projected well over the din of the large forces, which were supplemented by several students, making for a total of more than 250 musicians onstage.

The next day we played portions of the first two pieces for a family concert, complete with a presenter who had the young folk moving and singing along. I am not sure what they made of the very unfamiliar music, but any kind of outreach is always welcome.

Since the final leg of this trip sees a return to Lyon, I thought I would save that roundup for the end of the year, when I will also share some interesting news in addition to my take on Maestro, the Bernstein flick.

See you next month,