JOURNAL

JOURNAL

  • JUNE 2024

    May was a time for catching up and working on projects without conducting anything. With the score-study volumes in full swing, I need to stay ahead of the game with the research and writing. Volume Two is already at the publisher with an anticipated release date in October. My job now is to focus on the next book in the series, although its path to publication is not yet clear.

    In addition, I have written two new compositions that will be premiered next season. The first is a set of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas that I have transcribed for orchestral wind ensemble. The first performance will be in St. Louis in October on a program that also features a piece by Cindy as well as a new one by my son, Daniel.

    The second, Schubertiade, represents the first time I have ever been commissioned to write a piece. This is for the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra, and the first performance is in January. I will give you more details as we get closer.

    For these and many other reasons, I have decided to refrain from my musings on the calendar this month. Instead, I am including a chapter I have written for yet another book that may or may not appear in the future. It is a story worth reading, especially to learn about a different time and a different place. I have very rarely spoken about this, much less put it in print. Hope you enjoy this essay.

    A Cultural Revolution

    “I used to say that politics was the second-oldest profession. I have come to know that it bears a gross similarity to the first.”

    —Ronald Reagan

    In 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. In 1991 communism in Russia fell. In between, what seemed like just another State Department venture into the world of culture became a bridge between two worlds.

    During my childhood, there were several attempts at “cultural exchange.” Much of this was spurred by Van Cliburn’s astonishing win during the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958. The Russians had already beaten America into space with the Sputnik launches, and for many, the tall Texan’s victory represented a musical tit-for-tat. But it also signaled a slight thaw in relations between the two countries.

    In that same year, just one month after the Moscow triumph, a dance troupe, the Moiseyev, made a sensational debut in the States on the Ed Sullivan Show. With dazzling technique and mind-bending artistry, this group of Soviet folk dancers made front-page headlines and started what would eventually turn out to be glasnost. Roughly translated, the word means openness, and while that definition would not be taken literally, the Moiseyev Dance Company unlocked the door between the two rival nations.

    The following year, Leonard Bernstein took the New York Philharmonic to Russia. The programs contained a number of pieces by American composers, most being played in the Soviet Union for the first time. In addition, the orchestra presented works by Stravinsky and Shostakovich, with the latter composer in the audience for his Fifth Symphony. These concerts were covered by the worldwide press and, at least during the Khrushchev era, the ice appeared to be melting.

    Back and forth went ventures from West to East, some successful and some never getting off the ground. In 1988, administrators from the Oberlin Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory of Music banded together for a unique project in which Soviet and American students formed a combined orchestra with music, not politics, at the forefront.

    Organizers arranged a three-week tour of concerts in the United States followed by several in Russia. Most of the programs were led by Larry Rachleff or Leonid Nikolayev. For the big shows at the Kennedy Center and Avery Fisher Hall, they brought in slightly heavier hitters, with Zubin Mehta conducting in D.C. and Dmitri Kitayenko in New York.

    The venture was successful enough to warrant another attempt two years later. This time, the rehearsals took place in Moscow and the first part of the tour was overseas. I had been asked to conduct as many of the concerts as possible, but my schedule did not permit me to be part of the rehearsals and performances in Russia, where conducting duties fell to Maestro Nikolayev and Catherine Comet. Catherine and I had been students together at Juilliard, and I would later engage her as my assistant in St. Louis.

    A video crew followed the orchestra for the six-week tour and documented what occurred behind the scenes. Not knowing what took place during the rehearsals or the concerts in Russia, I joined the trip in Hamburg. Among the pieces that the orchestra had performed at each of the previous concerts was the “New World” Symphony. My job at the rehearsals was to find a way to get my ideas across without totally contradicting the previous interpretations.

    From the outset, it was apparent that the young Soviets were not, in many cases, merely students, despite the program rules stipulating that the participants should not be professionals. Cultural differences explained why Americans dominated the wind and percussion sections and Russians comprised the majority of the string section, but those violinists and cellists were clearly making careers as soloists and principal players in orchestras.

    By the time I joined the tour, the young musicians were already a bit tired, but we worked hard to achieve a cohesive language. The Russians and Americans seemed to warm to my approach at rehearsals, and the video is edited to show me in a most favorable light. It might be fun to view the raw footage and learn what else the students said.

    The complaints started before I arrived. Due to budget restrictions at the state-controlled presenting organization, Gosconcert, the Russian musicians had to travel by train while their American counterparts flew from city to city in Russia. To their credit, the Soviet players did not blame their American colleagues, but their griping signaled that they felt freer to speak their minds as the lines of communication in this insular society were starting to open.

    Even though the travel disparities disappeared once the orchestra left the Soviet Union, a new, more serious problem emerged in Germany. Our soloist for the tour was Joshua Bell, who was twenty-two years old at the time. However, many of the Russian string players felt that they should have been given the opportunity to appear in this capacity. Some grew so enraged that they considered walking out on the remainder of the trip. In fact, two of the cellists boycotted the performance that evening.

    Putting on my mediator hat, I helped to negotiate a peace settlement. On various stops along the tour, the Russians had been giving chamber concerts. I offered to expand these opportunities for them, contingent on their participation in all the remaining rehearsals and concerts. I also initiated the formation of a committee, consisting of musicians from both countries, that would monitor the rest of the trip and function as a de facto union. The players would also have someone to go to with complaints—that person was me. After this, we did not really experience many problems.

    We traveled to Amsterdam, which at this time was the bastion of liberalism. I cannot really imagine what the youngsters thought about the open prevalence of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. We performed in the fabled Concertgebouw and recorded the Dvořák for commercial release. Very few of the musicians had ever participated in a recording session before, and it took a little while for everyone to get used to remaining silent for a prolonged period after a section concluded.

    Then, we started on our long journey to Los Angeles. At this point, personal relationships had formed among the musicians, and it must have been exciting for the American kids to share Hollywood with their Russian friends. Indeed, we performed at the Bowl, adding a big piece by Joseph Schwantner to our repertoire.

    New Morning for the World: “Daybreak of Freedom” utilizes the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to stunning musical effect. It is sonically and technically challenging, especially for musicians unaccustomed to multiple meter changes. I chose the piece because its message is universal. While the Russians were given translations of the text in advance, after we learned the music, I asked one of the musicians to read the narration in Russian as we played the work. Context is everything, and King’s words took on new meaning in anticipation of monumental changes on the horizon.

    In Hollywood, our narrator was James Earl Jones. No complaints about the soloist here—everyone wanted his autograph. I thought about asking him to sign my scuba gear. It was timely and appropriate that one of our encores was “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back.

    Chicago’s Ravinia Festival was next on our schedule. Josh Bell rejoined the group for the Sibelius Concerto, and the Schwantner was now read by William Warfield, one of the finest baritones this country ever produced. By this time, the orchestra had been well molded into a precision ensemble with passion and fire.

    Our final stop was Washington, D.C. for a performance on the Capitol lawn. Although President Bush was not in the audience, many dignitaries from diplomatic and political circles attended. The sights and sounds of freedom had a profound impact on the young people experiencing D.C. for the first time. To this day, I still encounter some of these musicians playing in orchestras around the world. They remind me of this special time and the inspiring words of MLK: “We’re on the move.”

    Back to work in June.

    See you next month,

    Leonard