JOURNAL

JOURNAL

  • MAY 2022

    Highs and lows dominated the opening of the spring season. My old globe-trotting ways have returned, but numerous restrictions, protocols, and health checks made parts of the journey burdensome.

    I was in Europe at the end of March, having conducted a fine concert in Dublin. It was a luxury to be able to stay in the city and do a second week with the NSO of Ireland. This booking scheme used to be commonplace for me but is a rarity now. Single dates dominate my conducting schedule these days.

    Sometimes an idea that looks good on paper doesn’t quite pan out, but I found the second program in Dublin to be one of the better concepts I have devised. Highlighting the popular vernacular of a four-year timespan in the 1920s, we presented four works that were influenced by the emerging world of jazz, although only one of them was American.

    Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, the program opener, was one of the very first orchestral compositions to utilize the new harmonies and rhythms that were taking over the world of popular culture. The work contains endless delights, and the musicians threw themselves into the swagger and sadness that permeate this piece, with special kudos to the alto saxophonist.

    Next came Ravel’s G Major Concerto, perhaps less influenced by jazz but certainly peppered with allusions to the style. The soloist was Lise de la Salle, a young French pianist who got through the last movement even faster than the soloist I collaborated with a couple weeks earlier.

    After intermission, we performed the suite from Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera, scored only for winds, percussion, keyboard, banjo, bandoneon, and guitar. I had not performed this work in a long time, and it was a sheer delight to get reacquainted with the very special sound world of the cabaret.

    Finally, we presented An American in Paris. As I get older, some of the references I often make during rehearsals are lost on the younger musicians. I usually say that it must have the elegance of Fred Astaire, but this allusion now draws blank stares from about two-thirds of the orchestra. Even more obscure is when I ask the three saxes to play a glissando in the style of Billy May. Perhaps many of you reading this also have no idea who Billy May was. Look him up.

    Leaving Ireland and heading back to Spain, I was in for one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever had. When the Canary Islands come up in discussion, most people think about a tropical location where everyone just basks in the sun and goes for a dip in the ocean. It turns out that they have one of the best orchestras in Spain and play in a fantastic hall with a stage overlooking the sea.

    When I first began performing in Spain in the 1970s, I did not find artistic satisfaction there. However, having conducted four Spanish orchestras on this current trip, and not even including those in Madrid or Barcelona, I can say that Spain is having a remarkable cultural explosion.

    Since the savagery was ongoing in Ukraine and we had already scheduled Barber’s Adagio for Strings as the opening work, it made sense for me to say a few words about the meaning of this piece to American listeners today. The members of the orchestra were able to sustain the tension as we came to the dramatic moment when the sound stops and silence ensues. With the very natural acoustics of the hall, it made a terrific impact.

    We were joined by the legendary violinist Gidon Kremer. The two of us had not worked together in quite a long time, so it was lovely to spend some time with him, both reminiscing and looking forward. The musical vehicle was the Violin Concerto by Mieczysław Weinberg, a composer who has been rediscovered by several musicians. At around a half hour, this is a big work with many overtones of Shostakovich. I can’t say I am completely convinced about the piece, as it does ramble on in places. Still, it was interesting to get acquainted with this once-neglected composer.

    After intermission, we dove into the Franck Symphony in D Minor. When I was a student, I detested this piece—too long, too much Wagnerian chromaticism, and a cheap finale. About six years ago, I decided to revisit the piece and subsequently programmed it with the Orchestre National de Lyon. My opinion completely changed, and now I offer it as one of the works I would like to conduct when asked for repertoire preferences.

    The orchestra was superb in rehearsals and concert. In particular, the English horn was outstanding in the wonderful solo passage that starts out the second movement. We were once again aided by a fine acoustic, and this made the organlike passages sound very well-integrated with no one section dominating.

    And the food wasn’t bad either.

    Cindy and I returned home after this seven-week tour, but the turnaround time was very brief. We only had six days before heading off to Japan for a trip with a very complicated history. Until a few weeks ago, it was impossible to enter any of the three Asian countries I was supposed to conduct in without going into quarantine upon arrival. Taiwan still has this policy in place, and Singapore keeps changing their rules, so that left only Hiroshima to consider.

    Usually, I do not travel this far for a one-week engagement, but the concert I was to lead was in celebration of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Moreover, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was the big work on the program, and one does not get many opportunities to do this piece. So off we went.

    Travel time from St. Louis to our hotel was about 25 hours. All the flights were on time, but the Covid protocols at Haneda airport in Tokyo took more than two-and-a-half hours. We passed through at least 15 stations where documents had to be presented, and this was for each passenger arriving on our flight from Chicago, which was possibly one-quarter full. We were told that Japan is only allowing 10,000 visitors a week into the country.

    Interestingly, the Covid test upon arrival was not a nasal-swab test. Instead, we were asked to spit into a small test tube. This was not as easy as it sounds, but it did produce an amusing moment. After the long flight, producing saliva on demand was difficult, at least for me. Cindy and I burst out laughing when a four-note motif sounded on the PA system preceding some sort of announcement. And those notes were C-F-G-A. Sing it and you will see that this is the beginning of “How Dry I Am.” Unintentionally perfect.

    Another aspect was more like a game show than a serious attempt to curb the virus. After submitting the saliva, we had to wait for an hour before finding out the result. You are assigned a number and required to wait until it is called. Then you go to one of the stations where your paperwork is checked again. Eventually you arrive at yet another station whose attendant hands you a note revealing if you are positive or negative. I wanted a prize for passing the test, but there were still three more checkpoints to go through.

    Although I have travelled to Japan frequently over the years, the only time I had ever visited Hiroshima was on a tour, so I had never explored the city. After a 24-hour decompression for jetlag, Cindy and I went out and about. It is a fascinating place, considering what occurred there. Indeed, there are still reminders of the devastation that took place. But life moves on, and Hiroshima is now a thriving cultural hub.

    You never know what awaits you when the first rehearsal with an orchestra commences. We were in a separate room from the site of the concert, and I was a bit concerned that this might not be a great experience. But as soon as we launched into the opening of Mahler’s gargantuan Sixth Symphony, it was clear that everyone had done a lot of woodshedding. More importantly, the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra displayed an incredible amount of discipline and musicality, with strength in every section.

    Mahler’s so-called “Tragic” symphony is not the work I would have chosen for a celebratory occasion, but it was clear that this opening concert of the season was meant to show off the orchestra. When you face an ensemble that is really prepared, an exhilaration comes over you, and you want to be at your very best. All the rehearsals were a joy, and the concert went very well.

    It was most interesting to see the Covid protocols in place for the audience. They are masked, and there is no restriction on seating. However, they are not allowed to shout “bravo.” Any loud, vocal forms of appreciation are against the rules in an attempt to reduce aerosol transmission. As I looked out into the audience during my bows, several banners popped up, like you would see at a sporting event or the like. They were in Japanese, so I had to ask what they meant. The word “bravo” appears in huge characters, expressing what the public is not yet allowed to say. The shouting ban also explained why, the previous evening, while attending a baseball game, the loyal Hiroshima Carp fans did not seem quite as enthusiastic as I had anticipated.

    And for those of you who keep track of these things, there were four harps, two celestas, two hammer blows, and three percussionists playing crash cymbals triple-forte at the same moment. I think that Mahler understood the value of the visual component, as I am not sure it would make the same impact without seeing all that onstage.

    The trip back to the States started off well enough. We had to fly from Hiroshima to Tokyo and then transfer by car from Haneda Airport to Narita, the main international airport in Japan. Seeing a virtual ghost town at one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs was mind-boggling. None of the shops were open, and the ticket counters were eerily empty. Such is the toll Covid has taken on the travel industry.

    Nonetheless, our flight was full, and we landed almost an hour ahead of schedule in Dallas at around 4:00 p.m. local time. Unfortunately, our connecting flight to St. Louis was cancelled due to storms in the region. After a rather convoluted series of adventures with ticketing agents, we were able to get on the last flight out, scheduled at 9:45 p.m., as a couple seats had opened up. Then that flight got delayed until 11:30 p.m. and subsequently 12:30 a.m.

    At long last, we boarded. But …

    Our pilot was coming over from another gate and didn’t make it in time. More than likely he was not allowed to fly for so many consecutive hours. We waited on the aircraft until 1:00 in the morning, at which point it was announced that we would not take off until 6:30! Everyone deplaned, but there was not enough time to go anywhere, and all the shops and restaurants were closed. Getting from Hiroshima to St. Louis wound up taking about 36 hours. I could have learned Bruckner 5 if I had been so inclined.

    The month was capped off with an event that saw me as a spectator rather than a performer. For the past two years, my son has been involved with a film project that traces the history of the Detroit bankruptcy. Gradually, Then Suddenly had its first screening on the 27th. That morning, a lengthy article appeared in the Detroit Free Press focusing on the music and the story of how Daniel composed and conducted the score. This was on the front page, above the fold. In my ten years of work in Motown, I never hit that mark.

    The documentary was presented as the opening of the Freep Film Festival and was shown at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Daniel was showered with accolades, and it was a pleasure to just sit back and let him bask in the glory.

    I could end this already-lengthy screed here, but there were a couple of very sad moments in April that I need to address.

    ***

    Coming of Age
    By Leonard Slatkin

    “Getting older is no problem. You just have to live long enough.”
    —Groucho Marx

    It’s tough.

    We move through existence not knowing what lies ahead but for the most part optimistic about our futures. Then suddenly, a reality kicks in that surprises us, even though we have known about it almost all our lives.

    Maybe a loved one dies, or a friend moves away. Perhaps you believe you are all alone but cannot figure out why. Sooner or later, questions about our expiration date begin to pop into our consciousness.

    For some of us, it can occur earlier than anticipated. We see our parents as the barometer of our own existence. When they and other family members we have known all our lives are no longer there, those thoughts of mortality become amplified. My father died when he was only 47 years old. But for me, that was not the defining point of aging.

    Those of us who lived through the Vietnam War most likely knew someone who perished during that conflict. Or perhaps an automobile accident claimed the life of someone close to us. These experiences are but blips on our collective radar until the time comes when our peers begin to pass away. All of a sudden, we start to wonder how much time we have left.

    Although I have lost loved ones who were more or less in my age group, it was not until recently that I started asking the question, “Who is next?” followed by, “When will it be my turn?”

    Most of my long-term friendships have been with colleagues in the music profession, especially those who were students at the Juilliard School of Music in the 1960s. And what a list it is! Imagine sharing the hallways with the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Manny Ax, Jeff Siegel, James Levine, Jimmy Conlon, Gerard Schwarz, John Cerminaro, Michael Kamen, and so many others who went on to have glorious careers.

    Until very recently, most of us had managed to continue life as normal, functioning musicians. However, this has now changed with the death of pianist and teacher Joseph Kalichstein. If any of us seemed destined for something close to immortality, it was Yossi. Always full of life and possessing a keen sense of the world around him, he exemplified the spirit of those marvelous times during the school’s final years on Claremont Avenue.

    No one thought about cancer or any other life-threatening disease back then. We all knew that success would be ours if we kept on track, studied diligently, and grew steadily. A few weeks before he passed away, I spoke with Yossi, who was excited to be returning to the concert stage. Although he knew that he was not out of the woods, recent tests had shown enough improvement to get him back at the keyboard, doing what he loved. Ultimately, however, his cancer was too aggressive.

    Many of us who were classmates with Yossi got in touch with each other, offering our heartbroken condolences. At the end of what were relatively brief conversations, we wished each other the best, hoping to see our friends at some point soon. That is the only way we can think. At the same time, we are aware of various ailments that have befallen many of us.

    Less than a week later, while I was doing some studying in the evening, Cindy was in bed checking her email. I heard a scream and rushed into the room. She had been notified of the death of our very dear friend, Michael Neidorff. I have known him and his wife, Noemi, since my days as music director in St. Louis, and it is fair to say that a large part of our return to the city was due to the close bonds we shared.

    Michael was responsible for keeping the city and county healthy with his managed care business, Centene Corporation. He was a dear man—wise, witty, and like Yossi, a mensch. Michael had spent more than three months in the hospital, even setting up a kind of workspace for himself. After many victories, he finally had to surrender.

    Some of my friends have forms of cancer; others carry the baggage of heart disorders. When we see each other, the question “How are you?” carries a far different meaning than it did even ten years ago.  During the times I slip into this dark place, I find it crucial to remind myself of all there is left to do. Surprisingly, music is not the first item on the list. My relationships with others, both in and out of the profession, matter the most.

    Wife, son, and friends old and new are the glue that holds my life together now. It is unproductive to prognosticate about what might have been. Hold on to what you have and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of hard work, sharing those joys with the people close to you. It is what Yossi and Michael would have wanted us to do.

    See you next month,

    Leonard