January 1, 2010 leonard slatkin

Hanukah is over, Christmas approaches. Since I am taking it easy for the next few weeks, it seemed like a good idea to write a bit earlier than usual. It also gives me the opportunity to give some unusual musical suggestions for last minute holiday giving, plus a short follow-up to that fake news release of a few months ago.

It is very rare for me to have an entire month free of conducting, much less two. Clearly the first one, this past November, gave me no choice, what with having the heart attack and recovering. But the surprise was how willing I was to let go and take the second month off for purposes of recuperating.

What did I miss?

A couple of important premieres, for starters. Three weeks with my own orchestra, at a time when we are really starting to gel. Interesting trips to Belfast, Moscow and Beijing, plus a program centered around my growing up in Los Angeles. But given how I simply did not feel physically capable of doing these programs, the decision to cancel made the most sense.

It became a question of what to do with all this free time. I could have just stayed at home, taking it easy and catching up on studying, reading and the music I am to conduct in January. Instead, I chose to follow my doctors’ advice.

And so, just a couple days after Thanksgiving, I checked myself into the Pritikin Clinic in Miami.

Sounds like some sort of rehabilitation center, but in fact, it is a facility that was designed for people like me. After the coronary, and subsequent trip to the University of Miami Hospital, it was determined that the primary cause of the heart attack was most likely the arterial blockage. There are many factors that can contribute to this, the leading cause being high cholesterol. My own numbers have always been high, even with medications. So it was decided that I should have a real try at reducing these numbers through diet and exercise.

Most people seem to believe that conductors live long lives because they have an aerobic activity that occupies them during working hours. That may be so, but we also tend to eat heavier meals after concerts, snack between rehearsals and never truly work the lower half of our bodies. Upper strength is great, and my jacket size will attest to that, but the legs really don’t move around all that much.

At first, I was highly skeptical of an organized regimen, one that dictated no fat, no salt and, at least for the first few days, no flavor. And then there were the physical tortures of stretching, weights and aerobics. The good thing is that these were preceded by yoga, so one could veg out for an hour before encountering the grunting and groaning of everyone in the class.

The first week started off at the Center’s location in Aventura, a suburb of Miami located in an area dominated by high rise apartment complexes. A tour of the facility was promising, with luxury yachts docked right next to our accommodations. No such luck as none of us ever got on board one of these behemoths. Watching the folks on board, as scads of mouth-watering food went up the gangway, was a bit much.

There were about 60 people each week, and we were divided into groups named after one of the sports teams in Miami. Mine was the Dolphins. Football is really not my favorite so I tried to trade out and get on the baseball team. Guess I was not on the free agent market or else no one wanted me.

Surprisingly, I found myself really enjoying the exercise classes. There was one devoted to weights, another for stretching. Aerobics came into play every day, with me mostly confining myself to the stationary bicycle. We would do about an hour on the equipment, with blood pressure and heart rate monitored. As it turned out, because of one of my heart medications, I saw a dip in the blood pressure numbers and was taken off the pill. After three days, I was back to normal.

Now, I really don’t mind disco music so much, but the incessant pounding away at the bass drum, or whatever that is, got to me after a while. And watching the television did not help, what with Tiger, Global Warming and continued deficits blaring at us. So one day, I created a couple of CD’s for the class, based on recordings I had made. The upbeat one was called, “Classercise,” and had things like the Candide Overture, the finale of William Tell, and Russlan and Ludmilla.

We needed one for cooling down as well, so “Classicalm” featured the Faure Pavane, Gershwin’s Walking the Dog, and, yes, sadly the Pachelbel Kanon. The class loved the change and even though there would usually just be one or two from each disc in a given day, I felt a sense of triumph over Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and Andy Gibb, not to mention Michael Jackson.

In the afternoon, we were usually attending lectures given by various members of the staff. These included such mouthwatering topics as, “The Calorie Density Solution,” “Diseases of Affluence,” “Belly Fat, Metabolic Syndrome and Diabetes,” not to mention “Improve your Performance.” No mention of the last time I did a Bruckner Symphony at that presentation. There was also one titled “Preventing a Heart Attack.” Too little too late.

The nutritionists and medical staff actually dispensed a lot of useful information. Here is something helpful for everyone. There was a lecture on Label Reading, to be used when going to the market. Those of you who look at the information on a jar or package probably see only the calories. Right below or next to that stat, is one that says “calories from fat.” This is the critical one to notice. For instance, most people think that olive oil is healthy. Well, the calories from fat are exactly the same as the total number of calories, meaning that the oil is 100% fat. And make sure that you really understand that this number is not for the whole bottle, but for a serving, which is usually one tablespoon.

Salt was the other item foremost on the health agenda. Hypertension, possibly resulting in stroke, is the number one concern these days. Americans take in way too much sodium, almost 5,000 mgs a day. This should be lowered to 1,500. The program at Pritikin pretty much eliminates all salt, other than the natural ones that occur in fruits and vegatables.

Let’s not even speak about sugar.

Putting everything that was learned into practice, outside of the facility, is not so easy. We are bombarded with foodstuffs which we believe is healthy, but in reality, harms us. So the journeys outside the clinic were the most helpful. A nutritionist took us to the market, where we did nothing but look at labels. This was truly revelatory, but the stares we got from the other shoppers was equally enlightening. Then we went out to a restaurant, to see how we would do without the benefit of the ingredient numbers in front of us. You have to be a little more forceful to get what you want. Ask for dishes to be prepared with little or no salt. Salad dressing on the side, if at all. Smaller portions of meat. No butter or sour cream on the baked potato.

For me, the most fascinating instructor was a man named Tom Ellison. He gave a lecture about correct posture. This gentleman is 80 years old and looks a good 25 years less. Tom took us apart, one by one, and found so many bad habits that none of us thought we could correct. By the end of his presentation, he had us convinced that we could grow another inch in height and 4 inches less around the waist. I took a couple private lessons with him, in the hope that he could actually give me a better demeanor when walking to the podium. I usually rush out, head down. Tom had me believing that I was really taller. We shall see if the audience notices.

I am not sure that the Pritikin type of discipline is for everyone. Certainly it has its detractors, the people who feel that more protein and fewer carbs are the answer. But the bottom line for me was that it worked. After two weeks, I had lost 11 pounds and, more importantly, brought my cholesterol numbers into the middle of the normal range. Many people who were there for a second, third or more visits. Being under control makes it easier. For me, on the road for 30 or so weeks a year, makes me an ideal candidate for a return.

Now on to the holiday special.

Over the past 20 years or so, I have enjoyed alternative musical renderings of works from the classic repertoire. There are some extraordinarily creative ideas out there as well as outlandishly tasteless one.

For example, most of you will have heard the Miles Davis/Gil Evans rendition of the slow movement from the Concierto de Aranjuez. But you might not know of the equally beautiful version by guitarist Jim Hall. It is on an album called “Concierto.”

The Swingle Singers, along with Jacques Loussier, gave us unforgettable versions of Bach. Now we can add a group called “Bach to the Future” to the list. Despite the tacky name, they blend many stylistic elements to create fine jazz interpretations.

A highly unique collaboration occurs on an album called “Classic meets Cuba” and its sequel, “Mozart meets Cuba.” Two German musicians team up with a couple percussionists from Havana for a fun and sophisticated take on various works from the repertoire.

Remember Emerson, Lake and Palmer? They gave us 70’s rock versions of Pictures at an Exhibition and Copland’s Hoedown. What got lost was a remarkable rendition of the last movement of the Ginastera First Piano Concerto. It is called Toccata and is on a couple of compilations from the trio.

Did you ever think that The Rite of Spring was fodder for a jazz interpretation? Well, think again. Flutist Hubert Laws put together a portion of the ballet, again, not the parts you would have thought, and given them a completely different spin. It is on an album with the same title as the Stravinsky.

Pretty much anything by Uri Caine makes interesting listening. Whether it is the Goldberg Variations, Das Knaben Wunderhorn or selections from Wagner operas, you never know where this extraordinary musician will go next.

There are a couple of lovely albums from Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour, which fuse classics with jazz, and contributions from artists such as Josh Bell and Renee Fleming. “Between Two Worlds” and “Amparo” are worth checking out.

Off the wall best describes Mary Schneider’s “Yodelling the Classics.” The name says it. Along with Woody Phillips “Toolbox Classics,” in which staples such as the introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra are played on power drills, these two albums are guaranteed to make listeners either laugh or wince. Maybe both.

Finally, there is an extraordinary album by the Vernizzi Jazz Quartet called “Play Bach, Play Paganini.” Between the clarinetist and the sax player, I have never heard fingers go so fast. Just listen to the Solfegietto or Perpetuem Mobile, then try to figure out when and if they breathe.

So now all you have to do is look them up. I did the finding for you.

Lastly, here are a couple quotes from journalists concerning recent opera productions. It seems as if a few people are catching on. Don’t worry. I am not going to fake anyone out with another press release. At least not on this subject.

From Graham Rogers in Classical Source:

“It may be a stretch to say that John Copley’s venerable production of La bohème looks as fresh on this, its twenty-third revival, as it did at its first run 35 years ago, but it is almost impossible to envisage a more entrancing staging in the traditional mould.”

And Larry Lash, reporting for Musical America, writes of the new Macbeth in Vienna:

Where were the company dramaturges Andreas Láng and Oliver Láng to say, “Whoa! This has nothing to do with the intentions of Verdi or Shakespeare or librettists Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei. This is not a ‘Monty Python’ sketch.”

If I was running a major opera house (probably not a good idea) and I had the money to do it, I would have two versions of a standard opera a couple times during the season. One would be a traditional one and the other would give the director and musical persona leeway to experiment. In that way, young people, coming to these works for the first time, would have some frame of reference when seeing an alternative production.

But I wonder which one the financial supporters of the houses would attend? If we are lucky, both.

Have a wonderful holiday season and a very Happy New Year.