- leonard slatkin
Finally, it was back to more-or-less regular music-making. Although one could still see signs of Covid with different restrictions in place at restaurants, in public gathering places, and in concert halls, everyone seemed happy to be back doing what they love.
The first stop on a three-week tour was in Hannover, Germany. This northern city is home to my longtime agents in Europe, KD Schmid. Ever since I began conducting, they have overseen most aspects of my career in Europe. I was quite sure I had never conducted in the city where they are headquartered.
It turns out that I had, in fact, conducted there once before. During a break in one of the rehearsals, a member of the orchestra came to my dressing room and told me that he remembered playing with me 42 years ago. I asked him if he knew what the repertoire was, and he said it was an all-Gershwin program produced for television.
I knew I had done such a concert in Germany but did not realize that it took place in Hannover. What I did remember was an incident which, in retrospect, seems quite amusing. The dress rehearsal was literally that—we needed to play in full regalia so the cameras could get a better idea of what was taking place. This included a visit to the makeup department.
Since I tended to perspire a lot, I asked not to wear makeup, and the director reluctantly agreed for me to do it au naturel. But just as we were about to start, a voice came over the loudspeaker next to the podium: “Maestro Slatkin, would you please come to the makeup department?”
Once again, I dissented, but they were adamant. I wanted to know what the problem was and was told that perhaps it was not a good idea to discuss it in front of the orchestra and chorus. Feeling that there was nothing to hide, I insisted that they should just tell me.
“Your bald spot is glaring into the cameras, and we need to fix that.”
Considering that I had turned a bright shade of red, perhaps the additional powder might not have been necessary, but I complied, and we went forward with the program. Now, 42 years later, I was back, with an even larger Friar Tuck patch on my head, but this time there were no cameras. The orchestra was excellent, and we played a marvelous set of concerts.
Cindy’s Double Play gave the musicians a chance to show off their rhythmic skills. The percussion section was particularly adept with all the instrument changes. Then we played the Saint-Saëns First Cello Concerto with Harriet Krijgh, a young Dutch artist. She dispatched this chestnut with aplomb, and it was nice to get reacquainted with a piece my brother and I used to perform often.
After the break came the “New World” Symphony. If you have followed this blog, you know that I am writing a book that describes what goes into the study and conducting of ten masterworks. The Dvořák is among them, and because the research requires me to go through the scores completely, I have made a few discoveries. Not only did I incorporate them into the rehearsals, but I also amended the chapter about the piece.
The orchestra was superb; it was a pleasure and a delight to work with them. The audience rewarded us with a rare standing ovation on both evenings. This is not normal for the good folks of Hannover, and I was glad to see that no one was rushing to catch a bus or get to the parking lot.
Travel has become burdensome, not that it ever was all that easy. As I was on my way to give my first concert as principal guest conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria, I had a highly unusual experience on the airplane.
The flight options to Las Palmas were limited, and the itinerary that made the most sense for the schedule was with an unfamiliar “leisure” airline. Cindy and I flew to Zurich and made the connection with a company that shall go unnamed. There was confusion about our ticketing, where we were sitting, and whether our hand luggage could be stored in the overhead bins.
As for the overhead compartments, the answer was yes, they were large enough for our carry-ons. But the gate agent nevertheless insisted that we put these with the rest of the baggage. Since there are some items that really cannot be replaced, we tried, in vain, to get this decision reversed. No such luck. Fortunately, everything made it to its destination with no impact on the contents.
Typically, Cindy and I occupy two of the three seats in the row on an economy flight, and we can usually manage very well. However, due to a ticketing snafu, the airline seated us three rows apart. No one seemed willing to change seats, so we managed the separation anxiety for four-and-a-half hours.
I was on the aisle, and a couple in their thirties occupied the other two seats in my row. Upon takeoff, they began what can only be described as a heavy petting session. As much as I tried to pay attention to the movie I was watching on my iPad, it was impossible not to see what was going on out of the corner of my eye. Much fondling and groping was taking place. Hands and lips were very busy. After some vociferous moans and groans, things quieted down for a bit.
At this point, I was engaged in a solitaire game. The couple took an interest and stared intently at my every move. But they never told me that the red eight needed to go under the black nine in the fifth column. I suppose I should have been grateful for small favors.
We landed and, after I reunited with Cindy and described the in-flight entertainment, we headed off to our hotel. Who do you think the next two people checking in were? Right! At least their room was not next to ours.
It was never my idea to take another music director position after leaving Detroit. But that did not mean I would distance myself from other opportunities if they seemed like the right fit. Last season, I spent one week with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria, and it was a tremendous experience for me. The musicians were outstanding, and we forged an instant connection.
Their music director, Karel Mark Chichon, got in touch with me and asked if I would consider becoming their principal guest conductor. After a short period of thought, I agreed, and in my new role, I will conduct a couple weeks each season for the next three years. The island is one of the most interesting in the world due to its diverse geography. There are mountains, the sea, and deserts, and the temperatures are moderate year-round. The economy relies heavily on the tourist trade as well as maritime shipping.
The Auditorio Alfredo Kraus has one of the most spectacular interiors imaginable. Instead of the usual back panel wall, the stage sits in front of a huge, panoramic window overlooking the sea. During the day, you can spot surfers riding the waves. Even after the sun sets, it is still a magnificent image. And acoustically, the hall sounds terrific, as does the orchestra.
We started off with Cindy’s Circuits, a piece designed as a concert opener and one which shows off the percussion section of the orchestra. This was a good work to test the rhythmic acuity of the ensemble. After that, Olga Kern joined us for the Grieg Concerto. It doesn’t come up so often anymore, possibly because most performers of this piece tend to be in the pre-college division of a music school.
But when played by a seasoned pro like Olga, the work becomes equal to many of the great romantic piano works. Olga and I had never performed the piece together, but it felt as if we had done it the previous week. It was great to spend a few days with her and her fiancé, Igor. We will see each other again in Dublin next March.
Another of the ten pieces featured in my next book is the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. This is one of those works that really tests an orchestra in all ways. Because I have led it so many times in Lyon, the ONL performances have become my benchmark. But the Canarians did it proud, with subtle playing when needed and outright bombast when the music called for it. Absolutely mesmerizing playing from the solo English horn in the slow movement.
At the conclusion, the audience roared its approval, and two members of the orchestra came to the front of the stage to verbally welcome me. This was most touching and something I will never forget. Although this was my only appearance during this season, I cannot wait to get back for a couple weeks next year.
The last leg of this European jaunt was with my former orchestra in Lyon. At first, I was worried about flying on another budget airline, but this flight was nonstop and maybe one-third full—not good for the airline, but at least Cindy was next to me. We decided we would not replicate the performance by the two on the previous plane.
Returning to the orchestra that I led for six years is always a joy. During my music directorship, we covered a lot of ground in terms of repertoire. Much of it was French, for obvious reasons. These days, with just one and sometimes two weeks of performances, we concentrate primarily on one large-scale work. Last year it was the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony. This time around it was Josef Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony.
Although performed regularly in the Czech Republic, the work is still somewhat of a rarity in other major music capitals. Written in 1906, following the death of Suk’s teacher, Dvořák, this work was originally intended as a tribute to the master. About halfway through the composition of the symphony, Suk’s wife, who was also Dvořák’s daughter, died. The piece became a memorial to them both and stands as one of the towering achievements in early-twentieth-century composition.
As usual, the ONL gave their all, excelling at and reveling in the almost-Mahlerian sonorities created by Suk. The opening set the stage for what was to come, with sensitive as well as virtuosic playing throughout. Each successive movement was played with keen awareness of the composer’s intentions. When we arrived at the heavenly conclusion, the muted brass, along with the low strings, rounded off the work’s feelings of both tragedy and hope.
The soloist on the first part of the program was the now-thirty-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor. He gave a lustrous account of the Third Piano Concerto by Prokofiev. At first, I wasn’t convinced that the pairing of this work with the Suk was the best idea, but it turned out to be perfect. The outward concerto made the contrast with the symphony even greater. I had thought that a Mozart concerto would be the ideal opener, but this gave just a bit more heft to the proceedings.
While the mood in Europe could still be characterized as cautious due to the lingering effects of the pandemic, it was a relief to experience some semblance of a return to concert life. Next, I stop home for a short visit, followed by two weeks with the NHK Symphony in Tokyo.
See you next month,