Between impeachment and Brexit, working in the States and Europe is provoking more questions than answers. Good thing that I could concentrate on some truly wonderful music-making during the first month of the New Year.
Before heading east, Cindy and I went out to LA, visiting Daniel and Bridget for a few days. After a half year of marriage, they are doing great, and both have really exciting projects ahead. We spent a lovely New Year’s Eve with her family, and the next day had dinner with Jeff Beal and his wife, Joan. Daniel and I also took in the ninth installment of Star Wars. It seemed to wrap up the story, but it also seemed just a bit cumbersome in having to deal with so many threads from the past films. Still, being old enough to have seen them all in a theater, I can say that it has been a true pleasure. Watching the cycle grow and reach several generations is a thing of wonder.
This year sees a couple trips that are a bit longer than usual. With no music directorships to keep me tethered to one or two orchestras, I have given a greater number of weeks over to my agents in Europe and Asia. If a conducting engagement does not get put in place, Cindy and I get a nice vacation abroad. The start and conclusion of this voyage were in Spain, and the first stop was to a part of the country I had never heard of.
Valladolid is about a two-hour drive from Madrid. With no idea of what it would be like, I tried to build a program that can usually work when going to an orchestra for the first time. Music by Berlioz, Copland, Hindemith and Elgar made for a satisfying meal, with each piece providing contrast and balance. We started with a read-through of the Enigma Variations, and I was stunned by the level of expertise from Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León. Even though I had not planned it, we worked our way through the whole program at this first rehearsal.
The Hindemith Metamorphosis, Quiet City and Roman Carnival Overture were surprisingly in everyone’s fingers, giving us the opportunity to rehearse quite thoroughly. Adding to the surprise was one of the best halls I have encountered—very easy to hear each other onstage, and clear as well as resonant. The only strange thing was that about 20 of the regular musicians in the orchestra were on tour in India, so I had several fine substitutes.
The rapport that we had from the get-go stayed all the way through the two performances. Audiences were enthusiastic and demonstrative, and the concerts were sold out. Being January, the city was a bit quiet in terms of tourists, but Cindy and I had a free day and took a train to Segovia. This charming town is famous for its aqueduct and ancient churches, and maybe a guitarist or two as well.
You might wonder why I would take a date like this in the first place. The classical music world is pretty small. Word of mouth takes precedence when it comes to accepting debut engagements, and I had heard from a couple friends that the experience would be worth it. Most of the time, this is reliable advice, at least with those musicians I trust. Such was also the case last year when I went to Künzelsau, Germany, to conduct the Würth Philharmonic. I continue to look forward to these opportunities taking me to new and interesting places.
Not new but always interesting was a two-week return to Lyon. And what wonderful programs were on the docket. It has been two-and-a-half years since I left as music director, but the musicians of the ONL still feel like my own. There is a sense of homecoming each time I step onto the podium at the Salle Ravel. Surprisingly, I had never conducted the Second Rachmaninov Symphony with them, but we finally collaborated on this hour-long specialty.
The orchestra has played it frequently enough that there were not too many technical hurdles to overcome. And for the second week in a row, we were literally all on the same page from the start. With my bowings and phrasings already in the parts, much time was saved, allowing us to give a bit more attention to the other pieces on the program.
I think it was about twelve years ago when two people from Lyon came to a concert I was conducting in Berlin. One of them was the manager of the orchestra, and the other was the concertmaster, Jennifer Gilbert. They had come to offer me the music directorship, taking me totally by surprise. It took a little while to get all the pieces in place, but when the dust settled, I started what would be a very happy six years. So it was lovely to have Jenny as my soloist playing the Glazunov Concerto.
With her highly musical family’s background, she brought a real feeling of old-school maturity to this somewhat rare piece these days. It is only about 20 minutes long, but it certainly shows off the soloist and is orchestrated quite well. I fear that this piece might someday disappear entirely from the repertoire, and that would be a shame. The two of us had a great time putting it together, and with three performances, we could really dig into the work.
Opening the concert were two pieces by Ravel, also not heard so often in concert. We played a fanfare written as part of a ten-composer project as incidental music for a ballet called L’éventail de Jeanne. This was followed by the three songs based on poems of Mallarmé. These works were, for the time being, the final recordings to be made for the ONL Ravel cycle on Naxos. This ninth volume will consist primarily of works for voice and orchestra. With the exception of the three student cantatas and a few other choral works, we have completed the orchestral output by the man for whom the hall is named.
And with Isabelle Druet as soloist, we all knew we had the best possible voice to complete the project. Her attention to every syllable, nuanced range of expression, and impeccable intonation were all in evidence once again. These somewhat unusual songs find Ravel moving in a direction that takes him into a slightly atonal world. They are marvelously scored for string quartet, flutes, clarinets and piano. I look forward to this volume being released, although I do not yet know when that will be.
The ONL has a series of concerts that were started by David Robertson. These are called “Expresso” and take the form of casual performances, sometimes during the lunch hour or a bit later in the afternoon. It is one of the few times when I attempt to communicate to the audience in French. During this week, I chose to do something I have done in the past: teach the audience how to conduct.
Once in a while, I have had a couple members of the public come up to the podium and lead the orchestra. Well, in truth, the piece in question is always something any group of musicians can play without a conductor, such as “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” But I still take about ten minutes to show the audience beat patterns and independence of the two arms. It is quite a bit of fun to watch 2,000 people trying their best to not hit the person standing next to them, not to mention those who have difficulty figuring out left from right.
My all-time favorite march is the one from The Empire Strikes Back. The John Williams piece is so familiar that even people who have not seen any of the films know how it goes. With a steady beat, it is not so difficult for the non-conductor to get through. I showed the audience what I do in terms of leading the piece, and then the whole crowd had a chance. They loved this. And at the rehearsal, the two bassoonists stood up and used their instruments as light sabers, dueling and just plain old having a good time.
The second week brought a slightly different kind of program. Because of various rules and regulations, musicians’ vacation weeks do not always wind up occurring at the same time. This is true for most orchestras. I had basically half of the ONL and did a chamber orchestra program. Music by Clyne, Haydn, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky made up the repertoire, with a couple of Expresso concerts thrown into the mix as well.
A couple years ago, an idea was presented for a few composers to write a piece based on a Haydn symphony. The new works would be performed on the same program as the original by Papa Haydn, and for my concert, the big piece was Haydn’s 60th. It has the nickname “Il distratto,” with much of the music taken from incidental works written for a play. Certainly unusual because it is in six movements rather than four, the work still bears all the hallmarks of middle-period Haydn, both in sophistication and in humor. At one point, the violins discreetly tune the G string down a half tone or so, and that is supposed to elicit laughter or shock from the audience.
Anna Clyne took her cue from this symphony, writing Sound and Fury as a result. There are references to the Haydn, but unless one really knows the symphony well, it is a bit tricky to discern them. Towards the end, there is a pre-recorded quote from Shakespeare: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Given the start of the impeachment proceedings, I had to wonder if there was a political statement being made. We did one performance with the voice and one without. The composer will decide which version she prefers.
In both pieces, the smallish forces did a great job. I was particularly impressed with the clarity the ONL brought to the Haydn. Playing this intimate music in a very large hall is never easy, but the musicians know how to handle the problematic acoustics.
Originally, I planned to do the complete Pulcinella, but the marketing team thought that would make the program a tough sell. We settled on the suite and ended the concert with the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings. This made me wish I had more opportunities to do music like this, and perhaps my newfound freedom in scheduling will make it possible.
As far as the Expresso concerts were concerned, there were a couple tricky political hurdles to jump. Many of you know that there have been all kinds of protests and strikes going on in France. There are the yellow jackets who take to the streets on Saturday in most of the country’s larger cities. There has been a lengthy work stoppage at the Paris Opera, which seems to be drawing to a conclusion. But there are also protests against other economic developments being proposed by the Macron government.
It is all very confusing, so all I will say is that on the day of the Expresso performances on Friday —there was one at half-past noon and another at 3:00—a couple of the ONL members wanted to go to Place Bellecour and participate in the demonstration being held there. The original program had the Water Music by Handel and my musical nemesis, the Pachelbel Canon. Pulcinella would fill out the short program.
The two musicians were absolutely necessary in order to play the Stravinsky. The demonstration was to take place around 1:00 in the afternoon, thereby making it impossible to do the original program. Everyone is entitled to participate in these gatherings, so clearly, we would have to abandon the puppet show. I suggested we change to the Tchaikovsky, and most everyone thought this was a good solution for the first performance. That was until it was pointed out that one is not allowed to change a program at the last minute, as dictated by the contract.
Expresso concerts are always sold out, and the prospect of losing the revenue, much less the goodwill of the audience, was concerning. In the end none of the musicians objected, and we managed the program change. But the Handel turned out to be another casualty at the lunchtime concert, as one of the players headed out to march. Pachelbel and Tchaikovsky made the cut for the first performance, and the demonstration ended in time to present the originally scheduled program at 3:00.
I sat at the harpsichord, trying to remember my figured bass from student days. The Water Music Suite we did was a bit tricky, but the ubiquitous canon only has eight chords spread over two bars. It goes on forever. I kept injecting jazz-tinged harmonies and rhythms, just to keep myself awake. We had intended to play the version made by Raymond Leppard, but no one could find the music. His is full of humor and makes the most out of the least.
By the end of the two weeks, the trial was in full swing, Australia was devastated by fires, an outbreak of a virus was paralyzing China and other parts of the world, Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash, and Brexit was about to begin for real. With all that going on, we headed for Dublin, one of the possible casualties in the European Union mess.
Oh, and the DSO and I lost to the LA Phil at the Grammys. Watching the rather lengthy pre-show, I started to wonder about all those categories in which I have no idea what kind of music they are awarding. What is the difference between traditional blues and contemporary? Best improvised jazz solo? How do you even decide this? Biggest surprise: The 50th Anniversary of Woodstock album beat out the Furtwängler Radio Broadcasts from 1939 to 1945.
One thing that the Grammys does better than almost all the other award shows is that it does not differentiate between male and female in any category. Whoever is voted as the best is the winner, period. Yes, there are still diversity issues, but I suspect that comes down to the people who vote and their own preferences. The record companies have a say as well, but overall, even if one disagrees with who won or lost, at least some progress is being made.
But back to Ireland. I had the first of just a few programs devoted to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. What will we all learn from this particular year? Not much, I suspect. He has never gone out of favor. The manner of performance style has changed, but not so much as to destroy anything. It is all starting to look like marketing simply wanted a way to sell tickets, and this was as good an opportunity as any. I never turn down the chance to play these masterworks.
The Consecration of the House Overture made for a slightly unusual opening. Not among the most popular of his works, its place in history is significant in that the next piece he wrote was the Ninth Symphony. One cannot imagine two works that are more different. Almost Handelian in its structure and fugal writing, and perhaps just a shade too long, it represents the composer writing occasional music. It is great fun to conduct, however.
Stefan Jackiw was soloist in the violin concerto. There has probably never been a greater work that is based mostly on scales and arpeggios. And it remains the summit for every person who has ever picked up a fiddle. Just to play it in tune is hard enough, and keeping cohesion through passage work that seems improvisatory at times is truly challenging. I enjoyed the collaboration with the young American, and the orchestra gave him a very sensitive backdrop.
The Seventh Symphony brought the program to a boisterous conclusion. These days, I tend to move tempi along more than I did in past years. There is an accumulated sense of energy to this piece, one that does not allow too much time for reflection, with the exception of the trio portion of the third movement. The RTÉ strutted its stuff gloriously, with outstanding solo contributions and a particularly fine sound from the string section. It is always nice to come to the home of James Joyce knowing that I will not have to take a test on Ulysses.
To end this edition, I want to share a lovely note sent by someone from my youth. Eileen Wingard was the music teacher at John Burroughs Junior High School when I was a student there in the mid-Fifties. She just turned 90, and I had sent her a birthday greeting. She responded with this, hopefully not remembering the time when some of us tried to lock her up in the double bass cabinet.
Happy New Year to you and your wife. Thank you for the beautiful message you sent in honor of my 90th birthday. I appreciated all the kind words you said about me and about the importance of music education. I continue to follow your outstanding career with great pride in the knowledge that you were once my student.
I will always remember how, as a seventh grader, you were already elected to be one of the two orchestra managers, commanding the respect of the eighth and ninth grade students as you tuned the orchestra before I took over the rehearsal. I also recall how you conducted Morton Gould’s Pavanne with accuracy and clarity. I believe that was your first podium experience.
Your dad, Felix, took time out from his busy schedule to come to our class and conduct the orchestra. If I remember correctly, he did this on two occasions. What a thrill that was for the students.
Two people at my celebration were former classmates of yours: Bob Gilson, whom I started on clarinet at John Burroughs Junior High and who continues to lead one of the best youth orchestras in the region, and Yoav Talmi, your classmate at Juilliard, who served as conductor of the San Diego Symphony for seven years. He and his wife, Er’ella, became good friends with my husband and me, so they came from Israel to celebrate my 90th birthday.
I played in the San Diego Symphony for 37 years. My greatest regret was that the orchestra never engaged you to guest conduct during those years. Now that the orchestra has increased in stature, perhaps there will yet be a time when you come to guest conduct and I can at least be in the audience.
With all best wishes for your good health and continued success in all you do to bring music of the highest caliber to the world.
Your grateful junior high school music teacher,
Mrs. Wingard is an inspiration to us all, and a strong reminder of how much we need to value our arts educators.
See you next month,