February 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

After two very intense weeks in Detroit, I thought it would be a simple matter just to go back on the guest circuit. After all, no administrative responsibilities and all I had to do was just conduct.

Naturally, it did not work out quite that easily.

First stop was Dallas, where I had not conducted in almost 20 years. I arrived on Monday, January 19th. When I got to my hotel room and switched on the television, I realized that we had a problem. Inauguration day was less than 24 hours away, and with the one-hour time difference between Texas and the East, the orchestra would miss the ceremony.

Fortunately the New World Symphony was on the program and I had sent a complete set of parts for the orchestra to use. This meant no stopping for bowing changes or too many other details that sometimes make the rehearsal process a chore for everyone. When I arrived at the hall I simply told the orchestra that all we would be doing is playing through the piece and that we would most likely be finished in about 45 minutes.

When the final E minor chord faded, I said that it was time for all of us to “watch history.” Televisions had been set up in different parts of the building and most everyone stuck around to watch the proceedings. The irony was that, as this was going on, George W. was heading where? Dallas!

The other DSO was very grateful for the time off to see the event, and the next day we put most of the program together quickly. It included the second set of performances of a new work for harp and orchestra by Bright Sheng. The melding of traditional Chinese melodies and sometimes harmonies, coupled with a keen understanding of all the instruments associated with the orchestra of our time, made the work almost irresistible. Yolanda Kondonnasis was the more than able soloist and we all had a fine time putting it together.

That night, my good friend, composer Cindy McTee, picked me up and drove me to the school where she teaches, the University of North Texas. I worked with the excellent band, rehearsing them in music by Persichetti and Schuman. Then I spoke about the perils of auditioning and what life might be like for some of them as they pursue musical career paths. I enjoy these talks as it gives me a chance to reflect on lessons learned when I was a student.

There were four performances of that program, and for a moment, during one of them, I found my mind wandering about, trying to understand the illogic and subjectiveness of a given performance. How can one be so different from the same work played less than 12 hours before? As the days passed, I thought about an article that appeared in Gramophone Magazine, in which the editors tried to select what they felt were the 20 greatest orchestras in the world.

Of course it is a flawed concept to start with. What is great to one could be ordinary to another. And under what criteria could such a judgment be made? I thought about this because already during this season, I have conducted concerts in Baltimore, Atlanta and Dallas, all orchestras that have not seen me in a long time. And in each case, there was superb music making going on. I think, at least in the States, on any given night, there are at least 15 orchestras that can be called the greatest. Even if just one phrase catches the listener, that is enough to qualify.

Much of this came home the following week when I returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They are one of the 20 cited in the article. But they are also a good example of how we change the definition of greatness in music. Certainly they cover the musical mainstream just fine, but it is for their work in contemporary, or at least 20th century music, that gives them the accolade. And certainly that is fine, because they have established themselves as a beacon for so many composers.

This program contained two romantic Russian works and two pieces by Americans, Stephen Stucky and William Schuman, the latter’s Third Symphony. It had been close to 20 years since the LA Phil had seen this piece. I don’t think they have played another one of his symphonies since either. But that is the story of Bill’s entire generation. Think of it: Harris, Piston, Schuman, Mennin, Sessions and so many others, creating a distinct American symphonic heritage, and so few people willing to tackle their output. Perhaps it is, as I suggested to the audience, that we have so many fine composers now that the younger generation of conductors is passing by this important period of creativity in the States. I truly hope that these pieces will simply be in the province of those of us old enough to have known and worked with the composers directly.

Hilary Hahn delivered a fine performance of the Glazunov Violin Concerto, a piece heard more on records than in the concert hall these days. Stucky’s Son et Lumiere was right up the orchestra’s alley. Steve has had a long association with them and it showed. Odd to think that his music has probably had more performances than those of Schuman.

I also had the chance to connect with some of the composers who are writing for film. James Newton Howard and Tommy Newman were among them. Interesting that I had never met Tom before, considering how close my father and his were. Anyway, I am looking forward to some potential collaborations here, one of which is already set: a concerto for the Kronos Quartet that we will premiere in LA this December.

Then it was time to go to Nashville for the first of three weeks this season. Another unusual program, one planned a couple years ago. It featured three works on the first half by living American composers, with two of them receiving World Premieres.

Leanna Primiani, the youngest of the trio, had her work Sirens up first. A thoughtful piece which attempts to musically portray the Greek myth, it succeeded in capturing some wonderful sounds, particularly with muted trumpets. I knew her as one of the participants in my final Conducting Institute, but think she will find a nice balance between writing and performing.

Next came a remarkable work by the composer I had seen in Dallas a couple weeks before, Cindy McTee. Her piece, Einstein’s Dream, combined strings, percussion and pre-recorded computer generated sounds. There were times when it was impossible to tell if it was real or Memorex. The use of a Bach Chorale coupled with garbled bits of speech and the sounds of tolling bells was most compelling. This is a piece I will return to many times.

The final premiere was by Rob Mathes. Most people know him from his arranging and orchestral settings of popular cultural icons. But he has a wonderful ear for melody and a great way of making the simplest of chord changes seem complex. This piece was a perfect example of why the word cross-over simply does not work in music. We had a 15-minute symphonic structure in which one could detect elements of the popular idioms of various times. Sounds like Mozart or Verdi, doesn’t it?

Manny Ax joined us for his usual great performance of the Brahms First Concerto. We don’t have to discuss things anymore, at least not about the music. There are some artists who simply click and perhaps it is what goes unsaid that is more important. In any event, Nashville certainly had a treat they will remember for a long time.

I promised that I would honor the “Complaint Department” this time around. When I thought about writing this, little did I know that Thomas Friedman would beat me to the punch. You will see what I mean.

Last month, when I got back to the States from Taipei, my layover was in San Francisco. But I had to transfer the luggage after clearing customs. Since I am on the road more than usual this season, I have more to schlep around than normal. It was a long flight and the last thing I needed was to fish around for three dollars to get one of those luggage carts, which barely hold enough anyway.

What bothered me most, however, is the same thing Tom complained about in a New York Times column a month earlier. Why do we, or for that matter any countries, charge for this? What if you don’t speak the language, don’t have the proper currency, or, in the case of some European cities, dispense the carts without the ability to pay for them using credit cards?

In these difficult economic times, let us at least welcome our visitors openly and only start gouging them after they leave the airport.

See you next month,