February 11, 2014 leonard slatkin

After a perfectly lovely vacation, Cindy and I returned to Detroit and faced well-below freezing temperatures. It may have been cold outside, but indoors things were heating up on a very positive note.

The orchestra had voted to ratify a new contract, concluding negotiations eight months ahead of schedule. We are now secure for the next three seasons and that means planning can go forward on all levels, both old and new. There remain some significant financial challenges, and the city is mired in a huge problem with the bankruptcy and how it affects the Detroit Institute of Arts. But we are a private, independent organization, so our fate rests solely with us.

Looking at the first balanced budget in eight years, the new contract. and the announcement of the 14-15 season, it was clear that there was now an air of optimism emanating from at least one corner of the Woodward corridor.

The music making was white hot as well. There was a great deal to prepare, as these were the two weeks when everything had to be rehearsed for not only the subscription concerts but also the Florida tour in late February. In addition, we had a number of auditions and in the case of the timpani, the finalists had to play about 30 minutes of excerpts with the orchestra.

A lot of C Major was on tap during the first week. This was not exactly a program of all-favorites, but some of them appear on my own list. The overture to Beethoven’s Consecration of the House opened the concerts. It is a guilty pleasure for me. Considering that the next piece he composed was the Ninth Symphony, it is hard to imagine much more of a contrast. His love for Handel is clear, and there is something quite ceremonial about the work.

More fireworks came in the form of the Nielsen Violin Concerto. This is a piece that pops up only occasionally on American orchestral concerts. The form is strange, and as usual, the composer straddles two centuries in his harmonic language. The piece needs very strong advocates, and we had one of the best in Hilary Hahn. Although she was performing the work for the first time, her command of the style and structure of the piece was simply astonishing. But what else is new?

We have been working together for a long time now, and it has been a joy to watch her evolve into one of the most interesting musicians of our time. She has that rare ability to sense everything that is going on around her, which makes the collaborations particularly worthwhile.

After intermission, we presented one of the pieces that I cannot live without: Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “The Great.” This is a work I have loved ever since I first listened to a recording by Toscanini. Yes, it is long and can feel repetitive, but every bar is infused with life. The overwhelmingly celebratory nature of the symphony justifies its huge dimensions.

The demands on the orchestra are numerous, stamina being one of them. It is my feeling that if one keeps the architecture in mind throughout, the work is exhilarating, not exhausting. Over the three performances the DSO distinguished itself at every turn.

The Detroit Auto Show took place, and my son had to come out for that. We spent a few hours looking over the new models, worrying that various shades of blue were the new couleurs de l’année. Red came into play when we went to a hockey game. It was cold enough outside to freeze an octopus.

Less technically demanding but no less exciting was the program during the second week. We began with another work I have enjoyed for many years but have not performed very often: Morton Gould’s Spirituals. In my score I found an inscription from Gould, signed to me from “an aging composer.” What a marvel this piece is! It surprises me that his music remains relatively unperformed. Perhaps the younger generation of American conductors will discover his genius and that of so many others from the middle of the twentieth century.

The ever-popular Carmina Burana took center stage for the second part of the program. I think that many musicians go through three stages with this piece. When we are young, we love it. Then, for the majority of our lives we hate it. Finally, we come to a point where we surrender and simply enjoy the ride.

For 65 minutes, with virtually no counterpoint, this piece holds the attention in a way that few do. In some ways, Carmina was one of the first minimalist works with its constant repetitions. It’s a piece I certainly know well enough to do from memory, but between worrying about which piece comes next and how many stanzas there are, the music sits on my stand as an ally.

The years have changed my approach to the piece. Now it is more seamless, with most of the sections done attacca. In addition, I believe I am more sensitive to the inherent drama of the storytelling. When the reprise of the “O, Fortuna” movement occurs, I actually do not conduct until the final few measures. We cannot tempt fate, so why not let her simply have her way? We had a terrific lineup of soloists with Hugh Russell, Robert Baker and Kiera Duffy. The UMS Choral Union and Ann Arbor Youth Chorale did a spectacular job.

The final day of January brought the first temperatures above freezing. My thermometer in the car registered a balmy 33 degrees. For the next three weeks it will be a return to Lyon for some very important projects.

Keep warm and I will see you next month,