Another month, another period of no conducting. There was a time when I would have been quite happy to write those words, but as the pandemic drags on, a degree of frustration is kicking in.
I only had one date scheduled for January. I was supposed to work with the students at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. This engagement had already been postponed once, and when the school decided they were not ready to get back to in-person learning, the second strike was thrown.
It is not like I didn’t have anything to do to fill up the time. In December, as those of you who read last month’s post know, I led the ONL in a Christmas-themed program featuring fine arrangements of traditional fare by Robert Shaw and Leroy Anderson. This reminded me of the two sets of holiday tunes I arranged for piano and strings, a project I started way back in 2007, when my son played three of them with his middle-school ensemble. Hal Leonard wound up publishing two volumes of my arrangements for young musicians, around 20 holiday songs in total. When I arrived home after my recent Lyon trip, I revisited these charts and realized that I could easily convert these into full-orchestra versions.
Before long, I had ten of them completed. Basically, they are extensions of what I wrote all those years ago with some expanded harmonies, revised rhythms, and of course, larger forces. Perhaps they will make a nice addition to the catalog of holiday arrangements.
The New Year did not start very well from a personal point of view. My dear friend Richard Freed passed away on January 1st at age 93. He was, in my opinion, the finest writer of musical program notes who ever lived. In addition, Richard was an esteemed critic and did yeoman work in the field of music journalism. He was in the PR department of the St. Louis Symphony before and during my tenure, writing the words everyone attending a concert would read. Very few had his knowledge of the repertoire, and none could convey the meaning of music better. He flourished in similar roles in Washington, D.C., again during my time, as well as with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Conversations with Richard were always filled with references to obscure works, usually with the idea that I needed to look at and perform the pieces he would rhapsodize about. Richard knew that I was not a Wagnerian, except for doing the overtures and “bleeding chunks” from the Ring. Nevertheless, he kept encouraging me to do a truly minor overture from a long-forgotten opera, Das Liebesverbot, which he believed was a piece that might push me onto the Wagner bandwagon. I kept putting him off, but resistance was futile, and eventually it found its way onto a program. As far as I know, this is the only work by Wagner that utilizes castanets, which should tell you something about the piece. It may have been the only time I programmed a work specifically for one person. Richard was overjoyed, but he was probably the only one who truly loved it.
In the middle of the month, another journalist died, in this case very unexpectedly. Terry Teachout was only 65. His critical bailiwick was multi-faceted; whether writing about theater, opera, concert music, or pretty much any form of artistic expression, Terry displayed a passion and elegance rarely seen today. His books about Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and H. L. Mencken should be on everyone’s shelves. No one can replace Terry.
The main thrust of this month’s blog is a follow-up to a piece I wrote back in May 2021. At that time, I had taken up swimming as my exercise of choice. With a health club only a couple of minutes from the house and my treadmill at home going unused, at least by me, this seemed like the ideal method of pretending to get in shape. After all, I had been on the swim team in high school, so my aquatic prowess was a known quantity.
Membership at a gym was not new to me. When I lived in D.C., not only did I go for a weekly workout, but I also had a personal trainer. When I was in town, I would finish up rehearsals at the Kennedy Center and head across the street to the Watergate Hotel. There, in the health club, surrounded by all manner of equipment from the Spanish Inquisition, an instructor would take me through a series of onerous routines.
I would try and find any excuse not to show up, even though I had to pay for the sessions:
“Hey, I just conducted for four hours. That’s enough exercise for today.”
“It takes six minutes to get to the gym, but it is already four minutes to 5:00. I won’t make it in time, so there is no reason to go.”
“There is going to be too much traffic going home. I shouldn’t risk it.”
“I think my agent might call today.”
“Got to get home and open that 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape so it can breathe properly.”
Long story short, I tried but usually gave up. It is almost impossible to remember the last time I was at my target weight, not to mention when I resembled some degree of true fitness. During the pandemic, the only viable excuse to stay away from the pool was that the club wasn’t open or, when it was, that other people would be around. However, I was assured that no one was positioned closely together when the Aquabatics class met.
Having been away from the group for nine weeks this fall, during which time I was conducting in Europe, I had to wonder if anything had changed in my absence. Sure enough, there were some disarming alterations in the dynamic, some positive, others not.
What had been a once-a-week class on Sundays had expanded to sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The reason appeared to be an increase in attendance. The six people who had been there when I started had grown to more than a dozen. It was all very flattering to hear some of my water buddies say that because there was a celebrity splashing about, more interest had been stirred. I thought that word had spread about our terrific instructor, Charlie.
The overwhelming majority of participants are female, more or less in my age group. The ladies started referring to themselves as my harem. In turn, I said that in that case, I was their potentate. This led one of the wise acres to say, “You are probably at the age when that might be called an impotentate.” This is one bawdy bunch of women.
With all the light-hearted banter, some serious issues were creeping into our cabal. The Olympic-size pool has five lanes, each separated by a marker that extends the length of the pond. Right before our session, one of the dividers is removed to create enough room for the dozen-or-so participants in the class. The remaining three lanes are free for the swimmers who want to go back and forth for an hour.
When I first started with the group, the water temperature was a little on the chilly side but bearable. Upon my return to action, I noticed that it had dropped by a degree or two—not exactly ice water, but adjusting to it took a little more time.
A brief investigation revealed the reason. The marathoners had complained to the management of the club that the temperature was too warm for them to accomplish their goals. Some of these water goblins were really in great shape, literally going back and forth for the full hour. They embarrassed our group into thinking that we were nothing but exercise shirkers.
My mob retaliated by insisting that we would not return unless the temperature was elevated by a degree. It turns out that the ideal setting for the athletes is somewhere between 78 and 82, but for recreational purposes, it can go up to 92. In my role as mediator between the two factions, I suggested that an hour prior to the class, the thermostat be raised by one degree and then lowered back down when we have finished.
This proved to be a lousy solution, as you cannot heat up the 300,000 gallons of water that get pumped into the pool in one hour. My only other idea was that if, upon entering, we rushed over to the jets from which the liquid comes out, perhaps we could get some warmth. No dice. The wannabe medalists had won the battle.
Soon enough, however, there was just a little bit of satisfaction for Leonard’s Legion of Hydropods. Since there are only three lanes available when our aquatic coven meets, reservations are required for lap-swimming. Much to our delight, an interloper showed up, leading to a showdown among the Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky impressionists. Four people in three lanes was unacceptable to the speedsters. We watched them bicker, waiting to see how the situation would be resolved.
Ultimately, one swimmer agreed to let the intruder share the lane but insisted that they move in opposite directions. This created a wake, making our workout a bit choppier than usual. Since that incident, management has ensured that just one person occupy each of the three open lanes when we are in session. Score one for the harem.
Our instructor is really remarkable. She keeps us moving for the whole hour, demonstrating the exercises we are supposed to imitate. But when I think about it, she has a big advantage over those of us in the water: no resistance! How are we supposed to keep up when fighting against pounds of opposing aquatic pressure? And at what speed are we supposed to be jumping around?
The incessant music that is played is not meant to be listened to. Perhaps it works well enough at the disco or a spin class, but at 132 beats per minute, it is simply not possible to keep up. I try and ignore it, but sometimes the sonic tracks become annoying, especially because I have perfect pitch. Most of the tunes are hits that go back to the big-band era. If I know the song, I also know what key it is supposed to be in. For these exercise-friendly renditions, drumbeats are added, and the key is often altered to maintain a faster speed. This drives me nuts. I wind up working out in frustration. Maybe that is a good thing—motivation, motivation, motivation.
Now if I can only stop ingesting all those calories right after the workout.
This month sees the release of what is unquestionably the most personal album I have ever recorded. Slatkin Conducts Slatkin contains compositions and arrangements by three generations of musicians in my family. It has performance contributions from not only me but also my mom, dad, and brother. There are also some transcriptions by my wife, Cindy. To be able to lead works by my father and son is truly remarkable. Talk about a labor of love! I hope all of you have an opportunity to take a listen. It is scheduled for a February 11 release on Naxos Records and is now available for pre-order.
I also wanted to mention a recent book release by my dear friend Murry Sidlin. His collection of essays entitled Conduct Becoming is available through the wonderful Politics and Prose bookshop in D.C. Murry’s voice comes through on every page of this touching, funny, and informative work. I make a couple of appearances as well. Order your copy here.
See you next month,