February 1, 2013 leonard slatkin

When exactly do people stop wishing each other a “Happy New Year”?

This one started out with quite a varied repertoire, and some interesting venues along the way. First up was Rotterdam, scene of the heart attack. The program was certainly designed to keep the festivities of January going, with music by Strauss Jr. and Gershwin. Many European orchestras celebrate for the whole first week of the month and the Rotterdam Philharmonic was no exception.

What made this set of concerts remarkable was the presence of Sylvia McNair as vocal soloist in several Gershwin songs. She has long given up the world of opera and concert music to focus on the American songbook. Her sense of style and winning way with the audience was evident throughout her 30 minute set. There was even a fine local group of musicians who served as her back up quartet. Anyone within earshot of upcoming appearances should take note and attend.

For the Strauss selections, I had a fairly traditional group of pieces, with waltzes and polkas dominating. The Dutch are not used to a light-hearted approach to a concert presentation, and I peppered the music with little talks and shtick. Most unusual for this audience was when I dipped into the audience during the Radetsky March and brought up a patron to conduct. The first night it was a girl of about 7 years old who did a remarkably good job.

My son came over during his winter break and we had a great time. Sampling Indonesian rice tables and just hanging out was a lot of fun. Since the legal age there is 18, we went to a casino, where Daniel proceeded to the Texas Hold ‘Em table. Not bad for the first time out as we came away from the Vegas wanna be with 30 Euros.

Early on during the trip I asked someone what there was to do in Rotterdam. The reply was, “Get on a train and go somewhere else.” Well, that is not quite true but the two of us did go to Amsterdam for a day. We took a boat cruise through the canals and decided to hit one museum. The Rijksmuseum is closed right now, as is the van Gogh, so we headed for the new Stedelijk museum, which has undergone a dramatic physical overhaul. The exterior has been described as a bathtub and that is an understatement. It is difficult to imagine a structure so disconnected from the surrounding area. Fortunately the contents are what matter the most and the collection is outstanding.

Daniel and I headed back to Detroit, as he still had a week off from school and I had concerts to lead. These were the first in this year’s series of events out in the community. Our programs never play down and are very much in line with what we might present in Orchestra Hall, sometimes scaled down to accommodate the facilities. A Mendelssohn/Schumann pairing worked very well in these cases. The soloist was Sara Davis Buchener, whom I have worked with for many years now. Her story is quite remarkable and she is only the second person I have known who has undergone a gender changing operation.

Her performance of the 2nd Concerto by Mendelssohn impressed everyone. With a lithe technique and poetry as well, she brought this somewhat neglected piece to life. We also played the “Rhenish” Symphony. I use the edition prepared by Mahler. He clarifies Schumann’s textures and never imposes his own will on this piece. Audiences in the two community venues seemed to enjoy this program and it augurs well for our future performances.

At the end of the week we ventured to Ann Arbor for a special concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of Hill Auditorium. Our participation centered on the organ. We decided to try something a bit out of the ordinary for this program. Instead of the usual suspects of Saint-Saens and Poulenc, we opted for Barber and Khachaturian.

The former’s Toccata Festivo is one of my favorites, and in some ways perhaps the finest work written for that instrument with orchestra. The cadenza is just for pedals alone and is a tour de force for the organist. We all enjoyed getting to know this remarkable work.

A true rarity ensued with a performance of Aram Khachaturian’s Third Symphony. This work is scored for orchestra, organ and 15 additional trumpets, thereby ensuring that it is not played very often. Being on the University campus enabled us to utilize students for these extra parts and they were extraordinary. The piece is certainly noisy and cheesy but it is also a lot of fun to do and it makes a terrific impact on the audience.

Next on the docket was a trip to my old stomping grounds, Saint Louis. I had not been back for a while and it was nice to see familiar faces and friends. The first performances were not orchestral but rather a chamber music concert based on my parents’ time in Hollywood. The program included music by composers usually associated with film and I had the opportunity to play piano in works by John Williams and Korngold. This was a benefit for the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis, which is now run by the former English hornist of the SLSO, Marc Gordon. Transcriptions were made of the Close to You album that Frank Sinatra recorded with the Hollywood String Quartet. I am told that we raised about $30,000.

The program with the orchestra was sort of typical Slatkin fare. Cindy’s Double Play, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and The Planets. There are about 30 members of the orchestra who were there when I left 17 years ago and many who are brand new. The old-timers were clearly enjoying the reunion. I have no idea how the youngsters reacted to me.

There were book signings, parties and other events that left little time for relaxing. Daniel popped in for one day, having gone to the Auto Show in Detroit the night before. It was his hope to go to Ted Drewes for frozen custard but it turned out that they were closed for January. We did manage to have toasted ravioli and a great dinner at Tony’s. Stan Musial passed away while I was there and the air of sadness was felt throughout the city. A great man, great ballplayer and great citizen.

The next two weeks were spent with the ONL, in a project featuring the two operas by Ravel. They are part of the cycle of his works we are recording for Naxos but they also became the focal point of our first trip together to Paris.

My father used to keep a score of L’Heure Espagnole in his library. I always wondered why. Now I know the answer. It is one of the most difficult works to conduct in the repertoire. Not performed all that often, one could say that it was pretty much like a recitative for 50 minutes. No real arias, no big orchestral interludes.

Just conversations and asides to the audience.

But what incredible scoring!

We always think about Ravel in this aspect but with his vocal music, the blending of words and music is perfect. Capturing the Spanish flavor was paramount to him, as was trying to make fun of the opera buffa style. He apparently never visited Spain but certainly this country influenced so much of his musical thinking. The grace of the Habaneras, the kind look back at some of his earlier pieces and the colorful handling of voices make this piece unique. We were blessed to have a fantastic cast and the orchestra brought the score to life in every bar.

L’Enfant et les Sortileges has always been one of my favorite pieces. In a recent article in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini asked readers to submit favorite moments in music, those spots where something transformational and magical occurs. One person chose the choral ending of this opera, when the animals realize that the child is not so bad after all and the child realizes that he is still in need of his mother. I agree. This place is special, as is the whole opera. In 45 minutes, Ravel captures virtually every emotion possible and the sheer variety of sonority is enough to fill six orchestration books.

As an aside, I thought about submitting my own moment of wonderment. It will surprise almost all of you that it comes at the end of the first act of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Despite what some consider to be flaws in the libretto, the musical highlight must be the moment where all the singers bid “good night” to each other, knowing full well that the next day will be filled with tension. If you can track it down, I think you will find these last five minutes or so worth your while.

For L’enfant, our cast was terrific and the orchestra threw themselves into the project wholeheartedly. The recording will be excellent and I was honored to be able to perform these pieces. The Paris presentation was a triumph for everyone. This was important as the ONL needed to establish itself in the French capital. We return here twice next season.

Back in Lyon, there was just enough time to attend the opening of Sirah, the world’s largest food exposition. Put on every two years, the event is about three times larger in space than the Detroit Auto Show and is the height of culinary discipline. Chefs come from all over the world to compete and try to win the coveted gold prize from Paul Bocuse. There are exhibits from virtually every kitchen manufacturer as well as plenty of samples from markets and food distributors. It would take a couple days at least to get to all the booths.

Last up was a five-hour train ride to Nantes, in the Brittany region. Each year a 4-day music festival occurs, with more than 300 concerts taking place. How, you might ask, since it is only over a long weekend?

There is what might be described as a convention center, with many rooms, including a 3,000-seat auditorium. Each concert is under an hour long and the audience can visit any performance during this period, so it is possible to take in 8 events a day. In several cases the repertoire overlaps so if you missed Bolero by one orchestra, you can probably hear it with another somewhere else in the facility. The ONL played three concerts at the festival, mostly centered around Ravel, but not including the aforementioned piece. Crowds were young and varied. There are similar festivals popping up all over the world and the format is gaining in popularity. In some ways it was a bit like the Chicago Midwest Clinic I did in December.

With all that Ravel behind me, it was time to head home for a three-week immersion into the Beethoven Symphonies.

See you next month,