The Old Year went quietly, including a couple weeks off before starting the new one with a lot of work. But there still is plenty to catch up on.
December began in Lyon with the OLN. The first of two weeks of concerts featured French premieres of three pieces by Mason Bates, one of our two resident composers. Having gone through several American works over the past three years, the orchestra was comfortable with Mason’s stylistic musings.
We began with Mothership, the piece written for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra a couple years ago. Although not required, we were able to get four musicians to play the short improvisatory solos, two with piano and one each for flute and electric guitar. The program also contained a piece for organ and The B-Sides.
This took place during the Fête des Lumières, an annual event that features about 80 light installations placed all over Lyon. We were trying to think of a way that the orchestra could be involved, so Mason and the staff of the ONL decided that lighting effects could work in Digital Loom. That was all that was intended, but the light designer had other ideas.
A huge screen was set behind the ensemble and in front of the organ pipes. The effects were quite simple, kind of like the ’60s had returned but without the drugs. Very much to our surprise, all of the pieces on the program were given a Lumières treatment of their own, including the “New World” Symphony.
Once I found out about this, it made more sense to put Mason’s pieces on the second half of the concert, as the lighting made poor Dvořák seem anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the symphony was beautifully played, and even though we had one less rehearsal than usual, it all worked out. Mason had a great time and will return for a couple more pieces next season.
In between my two weeks, Cindy and I took a little trip to Italy. First up was Florence, a city I had been to a few times but was new for her. We engaged an excellent tour guide and saw all the usual sights as well as a few that probably fall off the normal radar. And there was a three-star Michelin restaurant. Since it was the start of the holiday season, Firenze was not crowded and getting into everything presented no difficulties.
In fact, on the Monday there was a bank holiday. Even the locals did not realize that the museums would be open, so we did not have to fight throngs in order to see the David or the slaves. Being able to visit the site where the giant slayer was first placed was most interesting, and one has to wonder how Michelangelo and Co. knew exactly how to make something last.
Next it was on to Venice, where Cindy had visited before but was a first for me. It is truly remarkable but at the same time sad. Virtually all the industry is from the tourist trade. Again we were fortunate that the city was not crowded, so the Piazza San Marco was filled primarily with pigeons.
Although we opted not to take a gondola ride, the vaporetti provided more than enough adventure. We did a little sightseeing on our own and viewed glass blowing as well as mask making. No matter where we went in both cities, it seemed like there were always people selling mounts for mobile phones, I assume for taking selfies from a short distance. The vendors are a bit aggressive and one wonders if they are all legitimate.
Again, good meals were plentiful and the local wines outstanding. It was a nice short vacation before the longer one.
But first we headed back to Lyon for the final concerts of the year. This is a difficult time to sell programs, as a lot of people leave the city, so we tried something that worked well. It was all Tchaikovsky, with the First Symphony followed by the second act of The Nutcracker.
In February I will lead the DSO in a three-week festival devoted to that composer. All six numbered symphonies will be played, so it was good to revisit the earliest one. I had not conducted it in a long time. In fact, the only performance I ever gave was the one that was recorded back in St. Louis. I have directed even the Third more often.
There was a time when I thought that this initial outing was the weakest of his symphonic output, but I see the work differently now. The first three works in the form clearly rely on dance and song. They have a more nationalistic feel than the final three. One has to marvel at Tchaikovsky’s use of the orchestra and his command of structure. We know that he struggled with this, but the end result is quite remarkable. Very few in the ONL remembered playing it before, and some said they were not convinced at the first rehearsals. But they came to really enjoy it, and they played with gusto and poetry throughout.
Of course The Nutcracker brought everyone back to familiar territory, however it seemed as if the members of the orchestra were encountering the complete act for the first time. Almost every page has something incredible to offer, either through melody or orchestration. It remains a piece that I never tire of. My brother, who is first cellist with the City Ballet, has probably played the work more than 500 times now. He claims that he and his stand partner no longer use the music. I can believe this.
There are only a handful of ballet scores that can be played for an entire act minus the dancers. However, one interesting question comes into play: how does this affect the way we perform the piece? By that I mean, in particular, tempi. Certainly most conductors don’t think about it when doing the familiar Nutcracker Suite. I found that for the most part, my speeds were quicker than the times when I led full performances of the ballet. Also, there are flexibilities that might not be possible with a staged performance.
This reminded me of what Jean Morel said when I asked him about the essential difference between ballet and opera.
“It is very simple. When the dancers reach the top, they have to come down.”
So it was with the spirit of the season that we left Lyon and headed out for visits to both our families. But there was an unexpected comedic set of incidents at de Gaulle airport that were worthy of an Ealing film, Monty Python sketch or Jacques Tati epic.
A few days before we departed, airlines started implementing a new regulation that required all passengers to have their electronic devices charged up. I wondered if this was because security had concerns that some people might be trying to smuggle copies of The Interview into other lands. Nonetheless, the usual ease of checking in online was made unavailable.
The actual check-in was not difficult, but there were more security checks than I could ever remember. The fun started when we got to the gate.
Over the top of the service counter was a sign that had our names listed. It said that we needed to check with the agent. When we went up to him, he told us that the actual desk was not his station and that we had to go to the gate counter.
So we hiked over, and they said not to pay any attention to what was on the board! We were also informed that we would get on the plane in about 20 minutes. Cindy and I waited and watched with amusement as the same thing happened to all the passengers on that list. Some of them came from the far side of the terminal and had to go through the maze of ropes leading to the boarding gate, only to be told to go back.
After a while this became very funny, as different people had different reactions. The French shrugged their shoulders, as if this was normal procedure. Americans were annoyed. Others never bothered to see either counter. By the time we finally boarded the aircraft, virtually all the passengers on the flight were confused.
We did arrive in Seattle, and later visited LA and spent a week in Arizona trying to create a somewhat different lifestyle as regards health. No music for two weeks and the hope that this time off would give us both a chance to catch our breath for whatever awaited in 2015.
For the first recording recommendation of the New Year, I have been considering a few collections of pianists released recently. Sets featuring Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis and Van Cliburn are all amazing testaments to the great talent these artists possessed.
But there was another American pianist who is just slightly overlooked in comparison to those three: Gary Graffman. I have been a fan ever since his first recording was issued and find his artistry masterful. Like the above mentioned, he also ran into physical troubles. Unable to use his right hand, Gary, like Fleisher, entered into the left-hand repertoire. Once, I was fortunate to conduct both of them in William Bolcom’s Gaia, written for the two of them.
But his early recordings are amazing! Prokofiev sonatas, Liszt virtuoso showpieces, collaborations with Szell, Bernstein, Munch and Ormandy are but a few of the gems included in this remarkable collection. 24 discs for about 50 dollars on Amazon is a terrific deal, and this set should be in every piano lover’s library.
Cindy and I wish each of you a very Happy New Year. See you next month.