December 31, 2021 leonard slatkin

Happy New Year!

Just when we thought nothing was worse than 2020, good old Father Time reminded us that he still had some tricks up his sleeve.

December ended quietly for Cindy and me. The only conducting I did was a set of holiday concerts in Lyon and Aix-en-Provence. Originally, we had planned to do the rarely performed Christmas Oratorio by Saint-Saëns, but the ONL was still in concerts-without-intermission mode, so that idea went away.

Instead, we did something a bit closer to the holiday concerts that take place in the States. The first order of business was to find music that would be recognizable to the French. A lot of Christmas music is not well-known outside American borders. The Lyonnaise have no idea who Burl Ives was, and there are no orchestral transcriptions of Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby.

Questions arose concerning how to deal with the Covid crisis as regards both the orchestra and public. A further complication was added when the city’s Fête des lumières conflicted with the start times of the concerts. People had to decide if they wanted to see the lighting installations or come to the Auditorium. There were two shows in Lyon, and my guess was that we were about two-thirds full, even though all seats were available to sell.

Europe is quite far ahead of the States when it comes to measures designed to keep as many people as possible safe. All buildings, regardless of ownership, require masks upon entry. You also must show proof of vaccination when you enter. This does not feel intrusive at all, and it adds perhaps three seconds of time to your visit.

The orchestra’s string section wore masks, but the other instrumentalists did not. However, they had to distance themselves from each other by about three feet. The real problem was that the chorus was also required to wear face coverings, and each singer was spaced three feet apart. The result was a slightly muffled sound and some unintelligible words.

We opened with Leroy Anderson’s seasonally appropriate (although not holiday-specific) Sleigh Ride, a piece that plays in shopping malls throughout the world. By the way, last month Naxos issued a five-disc set of all the orchestral music Anderson wrote. I recorded this with the BBC Concert Orchestra way back in 2008, so it was a bit of a surprise that the company waited so long before putting them into a box. It might have been even larger if they had included, as a bonus, the various suites of carols, which were released on a compilation disc entitled Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites. Maybe next year?

I sat down in a chair next to the podium for the second selection, O, Holy Night, presented by the choir Spirito with organ accompaniment. I decided that it would be a nice gesture to have the group’s director, Nicole Corti, lead the work. This tune is actually French and was written by Adolphe Adam. All three verses were sung, which hardly ever occurs.

Scattered throughout the program were the Robert Shaw/Robert Russell Bennett arrangements called The Many Moods of Christmas. These are so well thought out and, of course, perfect for the voices. We did not do them all, again because some of the songs were simply not familiar to French audiences. I particularly liked the one that used Bizet’s “Farandole” from L’Arlésienne, which was converted into a holiday song.

We performed a couple of non-French selections, including Greensleeves in the Vaughan Williams arrangement, better known to many as What Child is This? We also played extracts from Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Christmas Eve suite, taken from an opera that was written the year after The Nutcracker. It was a nice break from all the familiar music on the program. In many ways, it has some of the same orchestral colorations as the Tchaikovsky staple.

That reminds me. My brother, Fred, retired as the principal cellist of the New York City Ballet Orchestra earlier this year. The company puts on The Nutcracker and performs it about 35-40 times each season. Fred has probably played the holiday classic something close to 1,600 times. He and his stand partner did it from memory during his last few years in the pit. I think he knows it well enough that next season, I fully expect to see him in a tutu.

Meanwhile, back in Lyon, it was more Leroy Anderson. To conclude the printed part of the program, we played his Christmas Festival, which I remember playing in high school. What a treat to have the organ part played on the Auditorium’s fantastic signature instrument. Many times, the organ is left out due to logistical constraints. But when the piece is heard in its full glory, the sound is tremendous.

There was a bis, otherwise known as an encore. I wanted to end with something that would also include the audience as performers. I suppose it would have been possible for them to sing along earlier, but the various Shaw arrangements are not conducive for this sort of thing. My selection was once again a piece by Anderson, although not one designed for either the holiday or the season.

I don’t think the composer intended it, but The Waltzing Cat is ideal for this kind of participation. I told the audience that they had one word to say and demonstrated how to vocalize the “meows.” After a two-second rehearsal, we proceeded to engage everyone, and the audience members threw themselves into the fun. As an added bonus, our tuba player gave one of the best dog barks I have ever heard.

After a runout to Aix-en-Provence, Cindy and I headed home. We had to take three flights to return to St. Louis. This was further complicated by a five-hour delay, which meant we were stuck at Charles de Gaulle airport for almost eight hours. Our already-long day was made more difficult because we could not get a connecting flight home until the next morning, necessitating a brief stay at an Atlanta airport hotel.

But there is good news on the horizon. Lufthansa announced that they would begin non-stop service from St. Louis to Frankfurt starting in June. It looks like our future European trips will mostly have just two flights, and that should help ease our usually hectic travel schedule.

Earlier this month, my son, Daniel, flew out to Detroit, where he stepped onto the same stage I conducted on for ten years. In two days, he and members of the DSO recorded the soundtrack for Gradually, Then Suddenly. This is a documentary about the city’s bankruptcy in 2008. Daniel has been working on this project for a long time, and I breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally concluded. At this point, we do not know when the film will be released, but I will keep you informed.

The remainder of the year was spent at home. Cindy and I were supposed to go on a ten-day cruise to the Galapagos, but it just did not make sense for us to be on a boat for that length of time right now. The lizards will have to wait.

Now we look forward to 2022. I usually do not make resolutions, but I will make an exception this year, inspired by some ideas others have posted on the web:

  1. Buy all the leftover 2021 calendars and burn them.
  2. Stop drinking orange juice after I have flossed.
  3. Floss every day instead of just the week before the dentist appointment.
  4. Put on a pair of pants for Zoom sessions.
  5. Find a more accurate scale.
  6. Get rid of at least three email accounts.
  7. Start removing the refueling nozzle before getting back in the car.
  8. Get in shape. In my case, that shape is round.
  9. Keep an extra safe distance when driving behind police cars.
  10. Remember to write 2022 instead of 2021.

Stay safe and healthy, and I will see you next month.