February 1, 2012 leonard slatkin

More than 6,000 miles separated conducting engagements in January. At least it was only one flight between Detroit and Tokyo, so the 14-hour trip was not unbearable. When you are dealing with a 14-hour time change, no amount of preparation can offset jet lag.

After some time off, the New Year found the DSO playing in suburbia. This was the official start of the new “Neighborhood” series. Over the course of four months, we will play in six venues. Among the lessons learned during the strike was how many people simply found it difficult to make the trip downtown for concerts in Orchestra Hall. The superiority of acoustics and sightlines made no difference to a surprisingly large segment of the community.

Among the reasons cited for not coming to our home were safety and age. We hear far too often about the older audience, but in fact it is easier for the younger crowd to come to the Max. With lower ticket prices we are seeing a significant increase in the under 50 crowd. As we played our program in the suburbs, more and more of the audience told me how convenient it is to be able to travel just a few minutes rather than half an hour.

Not that everything was perfect for this initial venture.

The program did not pander to an unsophisticated audience. It was comprised of musical fare I would perform with any major orchestra. “The Marriage of Figaro” Overture opened and was followed by the suite from Appalachian Spring. After intermission came Brahms’ sadly neglected Serenade No. 1. We did all of our rehearsals at Orchestra Hall and only dealt with the physical and acoustic dilemmas of new facilities as they occurred.

The first site was the recently opened Berman Center, located in West Bloomfield. This part of the Detroit area is where many of our donors, board members and audience reside. It is about 25 minutes away from Orchestra hall. Seating capacity is 600 and the hall was full on this occasion. The stage was built primarily for speaking and as a result the sound is a bit dry. The Copland worked pretty well but in the future, I will have to be careful about how many musicians can comfortably be accommodated.

There had been a little confusion as to the number of musicians required for the suite. There are two distinct versions: one for the original forces of thirteen instrumentalists and the other for normal symphony orchestra. We had known that this week would see a slightly reduced number of musicians and so I had said that I would do a version for chamber orchestra. Unfortunately this was construed as the solo player edition. In the score there is an indication that the strings could be enlarged and so that is what we wound up doing.

The majority of the orchestra was not familiar with the Brahms. When you consider that the composer only wrote 13 pieces of music for orchestra, not including the choral works, one would think that they would all get equal performances. Perhaps it is because the six-movement form is unwieldy for some, or that the work is too light, but I have always loved this piece. The slow movement has, IMHO, the finest example of a circle of fifths ever penned.

The second performance, and the one that was not part of the neighborhood series, took place in an area called Marine City. This charming town is on the St. Clair River, about an hour drive from downtown Detroit. The township where we played is called East China and no, we did not have to show our passports.

There is an annual music festival and this was the first time the DSO had been invited to play. The auditorium was quite good acoustically and the orchestra enjoyed the trip. I was a bit worried that the program might not be what the promoters wanted but in the end, everyone seem thrilled to be hearing major repertoire rather than Pops fare.

The third program took place in a church, not too far from my own house. The Kirk in the Hills is a beautiful house of worship but the area where the orchestra performed was simply too cramped and crowded to accommodate more than 25 musicians. We tried to squeeze more on for the Mozart but after a brief discussion decided that we would do the Brahms with smaller forces. The Copland was already reduced so that was not a problem. As with most of these venues, an evaluation will be done to see what will be practical for future concerts.

We played in another church on the East side of town, the suburb of Grosse Pointe Farms and had same problems we encountered the night before. But this time we knew that there was not much space so it was possible to inform some of the musicians that their services would not be required for this performance.

Overall, the project is off to a fine start. All the houses were full and the audiences most enthusiastic. Whether or not this translates to more interest to hear the full ensemble downtown is not relevant at this time. We are making new friends and reconnecting with old ones. Detroit’s solutions for the various troubles in the current economic environment are unique to our city. Every other orchestra will have to find out what will work for them.

This week also saw the great ringtone scandal. For those of you who did not hear about it, during a performance of the Mahler 9th Symphony, a phone went off in the front row of Avery Fisher Hall. It occurred in the last movement, during one of those moments where time seems suspended. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, stopped the orchestra and addressed the offender. His remarks were appropriate to the situation and I felt he did and said the right thing.

The real trouble is figuring out how to prevent this in the first place. Every performing arts institution has its own way of dealing with phones, beepers and other electronic devices. The most creative one I know about is in Milan. Just before the concert, a recorded version of “Spring” from the Four Seasons is played. About 10 seconds in, there is a sound of a cell phone. A voice comes on to tell everyone to silence the device. More important is that this also takes place after intermission, when everyone has been checking voice and email.

Even with that, there is going to be one person who forgets to turn off the alarm, or turns the phone on by mistake. Welcome to life in the 21st Century.

It had been three years since I last conducted the NHK Symphony in Tokyo. At that time it was for New Year’s performances of the Beethoven 9. This time it was for three sets of concerts in three different halls. There are nine orchestras in this city and with the economic downturn as a result of last year’s devastating earthquake, tourism is down. But the local audience still comes out for performances and we were full for each.

The first program was very intense and difficult. The 10th Symphony by Shostakovich was the big second half work and the Cello Concerto by Lutoslawski took up most of the first part. Rehearsals are held in a facility that is owned by the broadcasting network, specifically for the NHK Symphony. It is really not near any of the halls and takes about 15 minutes to get there from the Roppongi area, where I was staying.

I do not speak any Japanese and during my initial trips to Japan, a translator would stand next to me as I rehearsed. Today most of the members of the orchestra know enough English to understand what I am saying. This is also a wonderful opportunity to find out if my technique communicates well enough so I do not have to stop and explain everything.

The orchestra sounds wonderful. Over the years I would say that they have developed a true passion in playing, not just a representation of the notes. The Shostakovich had unbridled tension and energy where required as well as the delicacy needed in the more intimate moments of the work. The audience was vociferous in its approval, hardly the reserved reception one used to associate with this part of the world

The soloist in the concerto was the Canadian cellist, Jean-Guihen Queyras. I had performed with him several years ago in a BBC Young Artists concert. He has matured into a fine soloist, with the perfect temperament for this amazing work. The conducting technique employed for Lutoslawski is a bit different than the normal beating time. Phrases are measured in seconds rather than meter or traditional bar lines. The conductor has to be on top of the score at every moment but once you go through the piece, most of it falls into place. Most likely there are better ways to notate some of the passages but for the time being, it is nice to have the composers manuscript to conduct from.

I took a little time to enjoy some of the cultural life away from the concert hall. A trip to a Sumo tournament was an experience I shall never forget. The pomp and pageantry is something rarely seen these days and in a way, more important than the brief matches. Interestingly, many of the wrestlers come from former Eastern European countries. Contestants hailed from Romania, Bulgaria and other points non-Japanese. At the Basho I saw, the smaller of the two combatants generally won, using strategy and tactics rather than brute force.

Every time I come to Japan, a visit to Kabuki is in order. The main theater, Kabuki-Za, is closed for repairs, but there are other places where performances are held. As with Sumo, there are traditions that go back many centuries. A simultaneous English translation is provided via earpiece, so one can follow the story as well as what to watch for.

Performances last about 4 hours or more with three acts given. Usually one is a dance, another is part of an older Kabuki drama and the third is a bit more contemporary. I prefer the first two, as the latter is somewhat like what is seen in western theater. Still, everything is done with representation by the actors, accompanied by musicians playing on traditional Japanese instruments. There are no special effects.

Our second concert took place at Opera City. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a whole place called this. With an Opera House, concert hall and chamber music venue, this relatively recent addition to the Tokyo music scene is quite something. The hall is a bit too reverberant to my taste, at least when the audience is not there. For the performances, the sound was much improved.

This was a relatively popular program, with the Brahms Haydn Variations, a Mozart Flute Concerto and the Beethoven 7th. The orchestra played the symphony with amazing energy and sonic contrast. It can be easy to take this work for granted, but such was not the case for this concert. Unfortunately, we only played this program one time.

Tokyo is one of the gastronomic capitals of the world with more Michelin stars than any other city. I took time to enjoy some of the more interesting restaurants. There was a shabu-shabu eatery where the beef melted in your mouth. A small sushi restaurant at which there were only ten seats. I am quite certain I will never eat tempura in the States after sampling the delectables at yet another ten-seat establishment. Noodles were usually the order of the day for lunch, with so many different kinds that even over two weeks, I could not try them all. And I did not gain any weight!

The end of the month found the DSO announcing its 2012-13 season. It seems as if every arts organization informs the public earlier and earlier about events they will not attend for a year and a half. In Lyon, we will not make the programs available until April. Never the less it is a season we are all proud of. Perhaps the highlight is performances in both Detroit and New York of the Four Symphonies by Charles Ives, all done in one concert. You can check the DSO website for details.

For the last set of concerts in Tokyo, we moved yet again, this time to the NHK Hall. It is a cavernous place but the orchestra is used to it and knows how to play in that space. Tchaikovsky 6 and the Barber Violin Concerto were the main works on the program. I had not collaborated with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in quite a while, so it was nice to get reacquainted. Her individual musical persona makes for a lot of spontaneity during rehearsals and concerts, but this is an aspect of music making I really enjoy. The orchestra knows the “Pathetique” very well and all I had to do was give them a clear idea of what I desired.

This was an exhilarating two-weeks, and I look forward to my next visit here. But now it is time to have a new adventure, with my first trip conducting a Korean orchestra.

See you next month.