January 1, 2012 leonard slatkin

How does that song go? “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

December proved the ditty correct, at least for me. Two weeks were spent in Lyon performing American music. A festival had been devised around my arrival this season and I thought it would be a good idea for musicians and audience to get to know me through some of the music created in the States.

First up was a program that featured elements of jazz, as incorporated into symphony orchestra composition. This is always a difficult proposition, as it can be gimmicky. But for this set of concerts, all the works made sense and at no point did it seem like we were just throwing pieces into the mix for no reason.

A work that I have loved since I first heard it in the 60’s is by Ned Rorem. Lions is basically a musical depiction of a dream, in which the composer sees himself drawn to a closet, which contains baby lion cubs. During his adventure, a phonograph plays an old blues recording, for which Rorem has a jazz quartet playing independently from the orchestra. As he approaches the closet, it is clear that the little ones have grown up quickly, and they scare the bejesus out of the young man.

The tie in to the city was obvious: Lions translates to Lyons in French.

Next came Bernstein’s Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety. It was great to welcome James Tocco to the orchestra, as I still think he is the finest exponent of this piece. The ONL really got into the work and the Masques had the appropriate swagger and swing.

I had been toying around with Cindy’s Double Play, with the first movement called, “The Unanswered Question” and the second “Tempus Fugit.” The reference to Ives is clear, both in the style and the material. I wondered what would happen if I substituted the earlier piece and went attacca into Cindy’s scherzo?

The long, quiet G Major chord faded out and the clocks that start Tempus began. Then there is a string sequence that emulates the Ives and so the connection was musically valid. I thought the juxtaposition worked very well.

A little respite was needed and so we played the Gershwin Promenade. For the finale, we were joined by the Big Band of the French Air Force in a performance of Ellington’s Harlem. The group had the right sound and feel for this. Clearly they love playing the Duke’s music, as the next day they presented a full program of his compositions.

I am constantly reminded of the genius of Ellington. What originality and boldness of harmonic structure. In my CD collection are three volumes of what is called, The Chronological Duke Ellington. Over the holidays I plan to listen to as much as possible.

This trip also saw me taking in a bit more of Lyonnais culture. I went to social events, attended some showing at the art biennale, heard a couple concerts of chamber music and saw a football game, soccer to some of you. Lyon has a very good team and on this night, they beat Toulouse 3-2. It is the only sports venue I have ever been to where they serve fois gras.

For the second week, I was joined once again by Sir James Galway. This time around we played the Flute Concerto by William Bolcom, which we premiered in St. Louis about 20 years earlier. What a fine piece! I suspect that this was the first work by Bill that had been heard in Lyon. The orchestra wanted to have more.

There was an amusing moment at the end of each performance. We would play Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk. At the appropriate moment, Jimmy would point to the audience and ask them to shout out the composer’s first name. But instead of the Americanized pronunciation, they were prompted to yell, “Henri.” It was quite funny.

The concerts opened with Carter’s Holiday Overture followed by the Barber First Symphony. I am not sure that the audience really understood these pieces on first hearing but showing a bit of the American classical music experience was a good idea.

One of the performances was for young people more or less in the college age range. The auditorium was packed and by the time Jimmy had finished his set, you would have thought that Justin Bieber had been on stage.

There was also a fantastic event in the city that week. It is called the Fetes Lumiere and is held every year. For four days Lyon is lit up with more than 70 installations over the main portion of the old town. Three million people show up for this, even if it is bitterly cold. We were fortunate in that relatively mild temperatures had come to France. There was no snow or rain to be seen during these days.

There was only one more week of conducting left for me in 2011. In my days as assistant conductor in St. Louis, I had done a number of Pops concerts. They were always fun and switching styles was considered a major challenge. In Detroit, I agreed to do the Home for the Holidays show. The title makes it obvious but it was important for me to connect with this audience, one that is very different from our regular subscription series crowd.

There were the usual suspects on the program but also a few surprises. We played portions of Karolju, a collection of faux carols concocted by Chris Rouse. He wrote both the music and texts, fashioning them as a holiday answer to Carmina Burana. It works amazingly well. The chorus was comprised of high school students from Grosse Pointe South and Andover in Bloomfield Hills. They were uniformly excellent.

We had a visit from Santa at each performance. The running gag was that he was supposed to be there at the top to greet everyone but each concert saw him delayed for various reasons. One night it was because customs and immigration stopped him; the TSA was having difficulty with the search. He also was in touch with Alec Baldwin and the reindeer said that they could not land while he was texting. Santa also found himself at a casino in Windsor, Canada, where he gambled away all his toys. We had to wonder what Mrs. Klaus thought about all this.

But for me, the highlight, and something I will never forget, was the guest soloist. Most of you who have followed this monthly column know that I wrote some holiday arrangements for my son about four years ago. They were intended for young pianists and their string groups in middle and high school. Although Daniel has kept up with his piano, he now focuses on bass guitar and deejaying, with an eye to becoming a business major in college next year.

In keeping with the family nature of these concerts, I invited him to play those little pieces I wrote for him all those years ago. Daniel’s poise was astonishing! He did not show a trace of nervousness, even though this was his first time playing with an orchestra and in a large hall. The full houses greeted him warmly and there was a very proud father who had the privilege to conduct for his son, something that had happened 50 years ago when Felix Slatkin led his son, Leonard, in a movement of a Bach concerto.

Last year, I posted a link to a site where you could download my father’s Christmas album. Apparently this is no longer possible at that address, but another one has surfaced. This is a wonderful recording of holiday tunes, performed with double string orchestra and recorded in Germany. My dad had a great talent as an arranger and you can hear it for yourself.

So it really has been a wonderful time of the year. Let me wish each of you a very happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous New Year.

See you next month,