February 1, 2010 leonard slatkin


These are not usually words I have heard, or seen in print when journalists speak about me. But each of those terms appeared following my first appearances in Washington and Detroit. It made me wonder how I had really looked prior to the heart attack.

Fortunately, my looks were not the only thing on anyone’s mind.

In some respects, it was difficult to return to the podium in a city other than Detroit. After such a fine start to this season, I really felt that walking on stage at the Max would have been the best medicine. But I guess that it was not a bad idea to “come back” in my former hometown. And the program contained enough to tax me physically, but not so much as to overtire my new frame.

Two months off, completely away from work, was a new experience. I had shed the weight needed to get my cholesterol numbers in decent range. Exercising was now a more regular part of my daily routine. Keeping up with the diet regime was not so easy, especially when being on the road. The real test would be in D.C.

In fact, just a few hours after my plane landed, I was seated in a restaurant with some very good friends. The menu was French, but I stuck by the low fat, low salt regimen. Fortunately, there is not too severe a restriction on wine intake, so it was possible to enjoy some outstanding vintages. And good conversation can easily overtake the caloric goodies on the table.

The following morning, I had my first rehearsal. The Planets was on the agenda, and with just seven relatively short movements, this seemed like an ideal way to get back to work. The previous week, I thought that it would be a good idea to actually conduct through the piece, using a recording I had made. This effort lasted all of 30 seconds, as the lack of communication with my CD player made it impossible to replicate standing in front of the orchestra.

It was nice to see old friends. There have not been too many personnel changes at the NSO. Almost all of the familiar faces are still there. After a nice round of greetings, I told them how good it was to be back, perhaps meaning it in more than one way.

For almost all of my conducting life, I have stood up for rehearsals as well as concerts. The philosophy is simple; if I sit and appear to take it easy, so will the orchestra. But this time, I asked for a stool, just in case. It was not possible to know how I would fare over two-and-a-half hours. But there were no problems whatsoever. I felt just as strong when I ended the rehearsal as when I began.

The next day I got rid of the chair.

No troubles at the dress rehearsal either. Violinist Nicolaj Znaider joined us. He played the Elgar Concerto, using the same Guanerius which Fritz Kriesler played for the premiere. I remember Isaac Stern being annoyed by a backstage critic who said how wonderful his violin sounded.

“Yeah? Here, you play it and let’s see how good it sounds!!”

Nicolaj is such a fine musician with a true sensitivity to tonal color. I enjoyed his performance immensely.

The evening of the first concert, I was greeted with an ovation when I came on stage. The cynic in me thought that people just wanted to see if I would make it all the way to the podium, but in reality, it was a very warm welcome back. By the end of the stint, I felt perfectly fine, possibly in the best shape I had been in thirty years. Coming back to my old band was not a problem at all. It is possible to be a guest in one’s home.

Then it was back to Detroit. The tough winter that plagued much of the country was not so evident in Michigan. Somehow, at least in January, snowfall was light. Maybe the New Year would be kind to our embattled region.

This program was much more demanding, both physically and emotionally, than the previous week, so I was glad to have time to see how I was really doing. The symphony was the “Eroica,” a work that remains an exemplar of structure and emotion. It is not possible to tire of this piece, and probably not even possible to unlock every secret. But looking at my still new orchestra at that first rehearsal, I knew that we were going to have an extraordinary experience.

Our concertmaster, Emmanuelle Boisvert, played the concerto by John Williams. I think the orchestra and audience were quite surprised by this piece. There is little hint of the film composer in the 35-minute work. It has the 12-tone lyricism of the Berg Concerto, but follows a more traditional path. In 1981 I premiered the piece, and it has undergone a couple of revisions. Emma played it superbly and we recorded it for eventual release on Naxos.

As in Washington, the audience greeted me with a more than friendly ovation. In fact, on the Saturday night, they stood up and cheered until I turned around to conduct. The orchestra was in great form with an amazing contribution from the horn section in the trio of the symphony. Next season we will perform all nine Beethoven Symphonies over three weeks. I can’t wait.

One by-product of the sabbatical was that I started focusing more on my posture. This has caused a change in my own conducting style, with no more hunching over. My gestures seem to be more in front of me and higher. It has also caused me to conduct ahead of the beat a little more than I would like. I have to get more comfortable with my new body.

This was also a time to reconnect with the social whirl that goes with the music director position. In this case, the main event of the season was the charity preview of the Automobile Show. I used to go to see the latest models when I was a kid in Los Angeles. But it has a bit more meaning in Detroit, especially now. As opposed to last year, this edition was much more lively, filled with hope for the industry. And the cars are even more consumer oriented. Expectations are realistic, but high.

Some of you might be wondering if, after a year, I will continue the complaint department. This is where I moan and groan about something, usually not musical, which annoys me and should annoy others. Yes, I will keep it up, as well as add a positive piece about Detroit. The city get so many brickbats thrown at it, that I believe you should know why this is still great town.

So, on the plus and minus side this month, we will talk about sports. Detroit is one of the few cities left to have the four major franchises: baseball, football, basketball and hockey. After the past two seasons, some would argue that football doesn’t count. But still, when you consider that San Francisco, St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati, among others, do not have all of these, Detroit looks like a good place for the enthusiast. The hockey and basketball teams usually do well and the Tigers have been contenders the past couple years. The fans are involved and have no problem showing both sides of their pleasure. It is a lot of fun going to the games.

Except when something stupid occurs which can provoke a …

Complaint Department

I attended my first Pistons game, played against the Boston Celtics. It was media-oriented, very loud, and there were times where it seemed the game was a sideshow to the extracurricular activities, like cheerleading and kids shooting hoops. There was a nifty couple who did a costume change/magic trick. But near the end of a very tight game, a group of ten men came out to center court. They were billed as “The Spare Tires,” and each one of them made the late Chris Farley look thin. The act consisted of uncoordinated gyrating and, at one point, their shirts came off and we were treated to belly jiggling at its finest.

Funny in the movies, perhaps. But at a family event, where kids are supposed to learn about what an athlete is and does, it seemed awfully inappropriate. I could see the potential for heart attacks right in front of me, so possibly I was the only one appalled by this display. And a few years ago, I would have been laughing as well. Not now though.

On this day, at least, no one brought guns into the locker room.

By the way, the Pistons won, a big surprise to everyone that night.

The second week in Detroit presented almost the same formula as the first. An opening work, a violin Concerto by an American composer and a standard symphony. La Gazza Ladra, Jennifer Higdon, and the Shostakovich 5th were on the bill. Whereas the first week was a bit restrained physically, it is simply not possible to conduct the Russian masterpiece and keep the reins on. I found myself getting a bit more tired than expected and decided that short afternoon naps were a truly good idea

This was one of those rare weeks in which we had a dress rehearsal on Thursday morning, a performance that night, and a morning and evening set on Friday. Basically four play-throughs in 36 hours. And my son had come to visit so there was no rest in the off-time.

Hilary Hahn was our soloist, the Higdon being a work that she commissioned. She played the piece from memory, and told the audience that she performed it this way at the premiere. These days, more and more soloists are using music for even the most basic works in the repertory. My own feeling is that there is a disconnect with the audience when this is done. I do most of the standard canon without the music and find that I have a better connection with the members of the orchestra.

Many years ago, I saw Sir Georg Solti with the CSO. He was conducting a program that included the Meistersinger Overture. The music was on his stand, but he did not refer to it very often. I asked him why he did not simply conduct it without the score.

“Because you never know when you might find something new.”

Great response and I believed him.

Nonetheless, Shosty 5 is a piece I have done quite often, and one that needs spontaneity. It is just easier for me to do without the printed page in performance whenever possible. And these were absolutely terrific outings by the DSO. Solos were beautifully judged. The brass rang out but never overpowered. The strings were heartbreaking in the slow movement. It is a work that will clearly become one of our tour pieces.

The final week of the month brought a project that has been around the DSO for 30 years, “Classical Roots.” This is one way that the orchestra has connected to the African-American community, and for most of the program’s existence, an African-American has conducted it. I chose to lead this year’s concerts because it is the duty of the music director to embrace all aspects of the concert going public. And the diversity of compositional styles that we selected was about as wide-ranging as you can imagine.

The program started with what has become an annual performance of Lift ev’ry voice and sing, featuring the Brazeal Dennard Chorale. Each year a composer is honored and presented with an award. Olly Wilson has been a major figure for a long time and we played a work from the early 80’s, Lumina, which I had performed in St. Louis many years ago. Its musical style is one that I was not in sympathy with the first time around. Now the piece seems fresh and energetic. The chorus returned for some gospel selections to close out the first half.

After intermission came the first work written by James Lee III, Beyond Rivers of Vision. I premiered this piece a couple of seasons ago in Washington and last season we presented a new piece by James. It turns out there is a nice Michigan connection. James studied at the U of M with William Bolcom and Bright Sheng, and this piece was his doctoral thesis.

To conclude, we had the world premiere of a violin concerto by jazz legend Billy Childs. Detroit native Regina Carter was the soloist. The piece is quite serious, with only a few minutes of improvisation. Most of the jazz tinges are given over to the orchestra in the form of chordal structure. It is a fine piece and it will be interesting to see if other violinists take it up.

It was certainly interesting to have four violin soloists in a row, each bringing a distinctive technique and sound to their performances. Znaider, Boisvert, Hahn, and Carter might sound like a law firm, but I enjoyed each one’s appearance in the musical courtroom.

See you next month.