January 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

Greetings from Taipei.

The final two weeks of 2008 have been spent in Asia: the first in Tokyo, and the current one in Taiwan. It has been eight years since I last conducted any resident orchestras here in the Far East. Most everything has been on tour with American and English ensembles.

The NHK Symphony is the oldest in Japan and has always had a fine reputation. Many of the countries that were being exposed to Western symphonic music had imported primarily German-based conductors in the early years. The idea was to keep repeating the same repertoire over and over again, until the orchestras became totally familiar with the music. The same principle applied to the public as well.

Over the years I have probably worked with the NHK six or seven times. Repertoire has ranged from Haydn to Strauss, to Takemitsu and Schwantner. We even did three consecutive programs, each with one of the Barber Concerti on the concert. This time it was the traditional presentation of Beethoven 9.

Almost every orchestra in Tokyo plays this work during the holiday season. Depending on how you count, there are between nine and 11 professional orchestras in the Japanese Capital. The NHK has the advantage of being the orchestra of the radio and television, so almost all of its performances are broadcast. The unusual thing for me about this set of concerts was that the chorus, 200 strong, was made up of university students. So the sound was not the huge depth that you would expect from so large a group, but there was a lot of enthusiasm. And they sang from memory!

Then it was off to Taipei. I was here in October with the Royal Philharmonic, but this was the first time I had conducted this orchestra here. It is called the National Symphony. This gave me a very easy opening line when greeting the group at the first rehearsal. Prior to that, there was a press conference. These often occur when there is a visiting conductor or soloist. We had to start late as the former president of the country was being hustled off to jail for embezzlement.

The first two concerts take place on New Year’s Eve and on the Day. I do not know why, but I was asked to do The Planets as the first part of the program. Seems like an odd choice, especially since the first movement is called “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Not exactly the sentiments I would like to be reminded of as I read about the turmoil in the Middle East.

The second half will be a potpourri of Viennese bon-bons. We have to end at one minute before midnight, as a clock descends and the audience counts down the end of the year. It is possible that we will be in the middle of The Blue Danube and might simply have to stop playing.

It has been raining every day so things seem a bit gloomy. But this is the last travel for me outside of the U.S. until almost April. I am not a big New Year’s person and usually refrain from resolutions. However I thought that for the coming year, I would put in a little Complaint department for each of these columns.

The first has to do with something that I encountered in Pittsburgh at the start of December. For a couple days in a row, first at the hotel restaurant and then at the barbershop, I was subjected to what is an awful holiday alternative: adding contemporary drum beats to classic songs. Now, I don’t mind cover versions or new renditions, but to hear Bing Crosby with a rock section behind him, while he is crooning “White Christmas,” was just too much to take. I asked the restaurant to turn it down and the hair salon to shut it off. Let’s lose this concept for next year.

In the meantime, I wish all of you a very Happy New Year.

See you next month,