Nothing like jumping right into it for the New Year. A week of concerts in Detroit followed by three in Lyon. And a season announcement as well.
It was time for the DSO to begin its neighborhood series, where we hit the suburbs and play for audiences that either can’t get downtown or might even be experiencing an orchestra for the first time. We now have eight partner venues, ranging from auditoriums to places of worship. Each presents its own problems regarding set up of the orchestra, and in a couple of them, the positioning of the ensemble is a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, we are bringing the DSO to a wider audience and these programs have been wildly successful, with full houses across the board. They also give us the opportunity to explore a more intimate repertoire than is heard at Orchestra Hall.
The programs included Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ravel and Ginastera. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these concerts was the debut of our new principal cellist, Wei Yu. The Variaciones Concertantes made the ideal work to begin the first rehearsal. This mini concerto for orchestra begins with a solo for the cello, so Wei was thrown right into the mix from the start. What a fine contribution he made, and everyone was so happy to have him with the DSO.
Mozart’s 30th Symphony finds the composer in a Haydnesque mood. Logical since when he moved to Salzburg, the senior composer took the Viennese lad under his wings. The false ending during the last movement is a true gesture to the elder master.
The Ginastera and Ravel’s Tombeau both benefited from outstanding solo playing from all the first-chair principals. Mendelssohn was represented with the Violin Concerto, performed by Nicolas Dautricourt.
Those of you who have not read my book probably do not realize how much non-musical work goes into being music director. This was the perfect week to understand my role. Between meetings, auditions, receptions, fundraising and interviews, I probably did more administrative work than actual conducting.
Winter had just settled into the area and snow was evident, much of it aided by fairly high winds. It always amazes me how Detroiters cope with it. There were very few empty seats at our four concerts, and no one complained. The orchestra members made it to all the performances as well. I guess one just adapts to the conditions and figures out what to do; however, I cannot help but wonder if some of the new members of the orchestra have been surprised. They seem to have enough warm clothing to get them through the next couple months.
Now it was back to Lyon, for what was a first. I had been working with the head of the Conservatoire, Géry Moutier, for a couple years. We wanted to find a way to combine the school orchestra with the ONL, so I suggested a joint rehearsal and performance. There were a number of logistical issues to sort out, and many of the professionals were not really sure what I had in mind.
We selected a program that would challenge the students. The opening work would be performed with just the Conservatoire orchestra. They had suggested something by Cindy, in this case, Timepiece. It is one of the few pieces of hers I had not conducted, but having performed Circuits with a wind ensemble back in September, I felt that this jazzy style of writing would be great for the students. Indeed, they met it head on, with great preparatory work by Hélène Bouchez. I doubt that many professional ensembles would play it any better.
From that point, we put each of the ONL members with a Conservatoire musician. The Dvorak Cello Concerto, featuring one of our principal players, Edouard Sapey-Triomphe, had the ONL playing first on all the parts, but the Shostakovich 5th allowed the students the opportunity to show off. For the first two movements, the ONL strings sat on the outside of the stands, and they switched before the third movement.
We all loved the project and learned a great deal. It is my hope that this becomes an annual event, as the concert itself was well-attended and appreciated by everyone. And some of those students really were incredible. It was also nice to have 14 double basses. I think I will make that a contractual obligation in the future.
The majority of the second week was devoted to Richard Strauss. Three big pieces comprised a difficult but rewarding program. We began with the Oboe Concerto, which I had never conducted. It was also a piece that I had never really cared for. Certainly I had heard outstanding oboists play it, but perhaps it took my getting to know the work from the performance point of view to change my opinion. In any event, it was played by one of our two principals, Jérôme Guichard. He brought a playfulness and rubato to the piece that I had not previously encountered.
Next came the great Four Last Songs. If memory serves, both the concerto and these pieces were also on the same program when I first heard them in Aspen, back in 1968! The final musical utterances by the composer are something special. Those last chords, with the two piccolos trilling their way to the beyond, are simply among the most moving moments in all of music. The Swedish soprano Malin Byström was amazing and clearly someone I would love to work with on a regular basis.
The Alpine Symphony was the finale, a work rarely heard in France. It has always been a piece I adore, although I am aware of the work’s detractors. Possibly this is due to the dual nature of the piece, portraying both physical mountains as well as the ones we encounter during our lives. I use the metaphor when conducting this work and find the journey to be an honest expression of Strauss’ feelings and philosophy. Although Nietzsche is not to be found directly, the fact that at the moment of reaching the summit, the composer invokes the three-note motif that begins Zarathustra certainly conveys the spirit of the writer.
The ONL players threw themselves into this piece, reveling in the sonorities, extremes of dynamics and balances we were trying to achieve. I found that we did not sound like a French orchestra for this, but we also did not sound like a German one. It was something in between, and this suited the international nature of what I was trying to accomplish. A very satisfying program extremely well-played.
To round out this visit, we had a couple of run-out concerts, two in Barcelona and one in Aix-en-Provence. Our repertoire was primarily French, but the soloist, Hélène Grimaud, played Brahms 1. As with our performance of this work a couple years ago in Miami, she brought her customary flair and individuality to her interpretation—nothing flamboyant, but rather a serious artist making serious music. The response to both these performances and a recital in Lyon was enthusiastic.
Saint-Saëns 3, Mother Goose and a recent piece by one of our two resident composers, Bruno Mantovani, completed the repertoire for the week. Very few of you will know Mantovani’s music, and some of you might associate his last name with a conductor/arranger from the ’50s and ’60s. Believe me, Bruno’s music is nothing like the cascading strings of those days long gone by. He is head of the Paris Conservatoire, and this piece, Postludium, is a mélange of sounds prevalent among many European composers today. But he knows what he wants, and the work grew on me with each performance.
Over the past few weeks I have been listening to the vocal stylings of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They created something called “vocalese,” basically taking instrumental jazz licks and putting words to them, sometimes intelligible sentences and at other times just scat singing. In addition to being terrific individual performers, each brought a distinctive personality to the various solos. Annie Ross, in particular, was simply astounding—witness her very own “Twisted.”
Once again we can turn to the Real Gone Jazz label to get these albums, but they can also be purchased separately on various reissues. My main thought was how much they would be an influence on such groups as the Manhattan Transfer, Take Six and even The Singers Unlimited. If you don’t know about the trio, take some time out and be suitably impressed.
February promises to be very exciting. Over the course of three weeks in Detroit, we will present our Tchaikovsky Festival, covering the six numbered symphonies, the three numbered piano concerti and various other works, some familiar and some rarities. I hope you can come visit or at least tune in for some of the webcasts.
And do try to stay warm.
See you next month,