February 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

Last time, I wrote a little about the orchestra in Lyon and its ability to retain its individual sound and style. This hit home even harder with my next stop on the tour.

Some people think that the Vienna Philharmonic or New York Philharmonic is the oldest orchestra in the world. In reality, it is the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Its history can be traced back to 1781. The first well-known music director was the composer Felix Mendelssohn. The city itself is a haven for cultural mavens. Bach was here. Schumann and Mahler lived here.

All one had to do was listen to the way the orchestra played the introduction to the G Major Piano Concerto of Mozart, and you were transported back in time. It is not that they play in what is called the “historically informed” manner that is prevalent these days. Much closer is to say that they have adapted to the styles of the time but understand the rich traditions from which the orchestra grew.

It was a bit of a shock at first, hearing the violins using vibrato more sparingly than usual. The solo woodwinds would take little pauses between phrases, emphasizing the linear structure of the composer’s notation. Sometimes it seemed at odds with our soloist, Jonathan Biss, who played on a modern Steinway. But the orchestra was not averse to adjusting and by the end, we had found a wonderful balance between the ethic of the 18th century and the world of contemporary performance.

Also on the program was the 5th Symphony by Shostakovich. The sheer variety of color the orchestra brought to this familiar work was extraordinary. We all seemed to get caught up in the fierce energy of the outer movements, the satire of the scherzo and the heart wrenching pathos of the slow movement. It was a performance I will long remember.

Opening the concert was a short piece by William Bolcom, Commedia. I have done this piece often with non-American orchestras. It has the signature multiculturalism that dominates much of Bill’s music. The orchestra seemed to enjoy the humor and at the second performance, a few audience members were heard tittering at the end.

A member of the bass section, Eberhard Spree, has recently made a discovery and wanted to share it with us. It seems that his research turned up some 38 documents related to Bach’s financial situation. The composer went into a kind of lottery and invested in some silver mines. It wound up not paying off but it was nice to know that even a genius can’t figure out an easy way to make money. We were also taken on a tour of a few places where Bach performed, lived and wrote his music. If you find yourself in Leipzig, do not miss the Bach Museum. We all know about the musical sons of Bach, but did you know that there were all manner of predecessors in his family who were also distinguished composers? Very much worth the visit.

The last of the two concerts was on a Friday night. A couple hours earlier, I received a message that the conductor John Elliot Gardiner was having shoulder surgery and would not be able to honor his dates with the Chicago Symphony in the following week. I was asked if I could step in. If my orchestra in Detroit came back to work, the answer would be a definite no. However, even though there had been some movement regarding the contract, negotiating sessions would not occur until the middle of the week. There was no way the DSO could get back in time and so I accepted the dates.

This was not the first time I had been asked to fill in there. In fact, my debut with the CSO in 1974 came about as a substitute conductor, when Daniel Barenboim could not come to Chicago, as his wife, Jacqueline du Pré, was gravely ill. Since that time, I have pinch-hit for several conductors in Chicago, including Solti, Tennstedt, Gergiev and Chung. Fortunately for me, I have also been a regular guest on my own.

Whenever it is possible, I try to retain the program that was originally scheduled. In this case, all of the works were familiar and I had recorded two of them. Nonetheless, it was a very demanding set of works that Gardiner had selected. Elgar, Stravinsky and Bartok, which did not seem like the typical fare for this early music specialist. Since I was leaving Leipzig the next day, I could not get the scores and study could only begin two days before the first rehearsal.

I returned to Detroit and began pouring over the works. They came back quickly.

It was easier to drive to Chicago rather than fly. Only 4 and a half hours in the car and I was in the Windy City. The first rehearsal was on Tuesday afternoon. There were two members of the DSO who were subbing with their colleagues. I began the rehearsal by saying that under any other circumstance, I would be totally thrilled to be in Chicago. But on this day my preference would have been back on stage in Detroit with my orchestra. I thanked them for inviting the musicians to join them and hoped that we would be back to work soon.

There was a nice round of applause.

We began with In the South, an Elgar work that is called a “Concert Overture” but in reality is a mini-tone poem. At 20 minutes in length, this is hardly your typical opener. After that it was a run-through of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, followed by the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. It seemed best for me to get a feel for the way the CSO approached these pieces and for them to find out something regarding my interpretation.

Chicago Symphony and Bartok? As I said at the end of the rehearsal, “It is the dream of almost every conductor to do this piece with this orchestra.”

All the rehearsals were a pleasure and the performances were outstanding. I had a ball. At the end of the run, I donned a Chicago Bears cap, walked on stage for my final bow and received quite an ovation from the audience as well the orchestra. The football team was to play a league championship game the next day. Sad to say the chapeau did not do the trick, as they lost.

Prior to the opening night, the orchestra handed out leaflets to the patrons, lending the CSO’s support for the musicians in Detroit. In it, I was asked to do everything possible to encourage the board to move forward. The tactic was clear and understandable. After 16 weeks of work stoppage, the situation was entering a truly critical phase. Both sides were quite vocal and the tone was not pleasant.

Still, I felt it was not my place to get into the fray. Taking any position for one side or the other simply would make my job impossible when we got back to work. I continued to listen and understand, including chats with the two DSO members who were subbing. Their frustration was understandable, as well that of the Chicago musicians who I had spoken with.

But no one ever asked me how I was doing with all this.

There is no magic pill for the impotence I have felt during this time. The conducting profession is about a certain degree of control as well as cooperation. Standing on the sidelines and watching the drama unfold hour-by-hour has become painful. Much sleep has been lost and the usual late night study has been replaced by worry and concern for the whole organization.

I continue to believe that we will come out of this as a strong institution. It is just a question of when that time will come.

See you next month, or possibly sooner.