JOURNAL

JOURNAL

  • JULY 2019

    “I actually think that the job of chief conductor is becoming obsolete. The famous names from the past, Willem Mengelberg and Eduard van Beinum, spent a lot of time in Amsterdam. These days chefs constantly travel from one orchestra to another.”

    Those words come from the soon-to-retire Bernard Haitink. Boy, does he have it right. After a full season of simply being a guest conductor, I believe that the musical landscape has changed significantly, and one of those alterations has to do with the perceived necessity of having a music director. I will get to this topic a bit later in this piece, but first, there was one week of work left before the summer break.

    Returning to Detroit is always a pleasure. But now I can simply stand back, enjoy what was accomplished in ten years, and just make music. And what tremendous music it was. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra has been a calling card for many conductors and orchestras. I had not performed it in several years, and revisiting the work was an energizing experience. Not too much has changed in my approach to the piece, but perhaps, as has been the case with most standard large works, I am more appreciative of its architecture.

    Making a cogent whole out of the last movement, in particular, which can sometimes seem a bit piecemeal, required a thorough look at the materials that connect the different sections. So transitions need to be smooth and not abrupt. Ritards now flow more easily into the next portion rather than going either above or below the previous tempo. Even the unusual passage before the final statement of the brass chorale needs to be clarified texturally, meaning that perhaps the fast metronome mark does not always work.

    The orchestra played with both finesse and abandon, showing off the individual as well as collective versatility of the DSO. All three performances were gratifying, and I could not have been prouder, even if I was no longer the music director. Having hired almost half of the orchestra during my ten years, I could see how far everyone had come as a cohesive musical unit.

    Our soloist was Makoto Ozone. Two years ago, he played the Rhapsody in Blue on the DSO’s trip to Japan. We struck up a wonderful friendship and decided that for his Detroit debut, we would do another rhapsody, this one by Rachmaninov. For those of you who might not have heard of him, Makoto comes to us through the jazz world and is easily the most recognized of Asian artists in this field. About 12 years ago, he became interested in classical music, starting off with Mozart. His incredible gifts allow him to learn music quickly, and he can gravitate easily between the different musical worlds.

    Rach/Pag, as we call it, is a completely written-out work and one of the most perfect in the repertoire. With the Gershwin, there is a history of soloists improvising during the cadenzas. Not so with the Rachmaninov. But Makoto found places to add his own take, and nothing he did seemed inappropriate. His innate ability to understand harmonic changes made for truly interesting and lovely touches. By the time we got to the third and final performance, he was certainly having fun with the material. For me, the highlight was not the famous 18th variation but rather the one that preceded it.

    Without altering one note, Makoto managed to find really unusual voicings and notes to bring out that usually go by other pianists. At the slow tempo he chose, this made sense, and I found myself completely moved by this moment in the piece. When we got to the final three bars, neither one of us completely sure how long of a delay would occur before the last few notes, there was a smile on both our faces, followed by laughter when the work came to a conclusion.

    But there was more to come. Each night, both in Japan and in Detroit, there was an encore. Usually this was one of Makoto’s own compositions, allowing him to show off in a different fashion. And on the last night of both the tour and the set of concerts in Motown, we decided that we would do a riff on the Second Prelude by Gershwin. This was not rehearsed, and we sort of went over the rules just before hopping onstage.

    I would start with a more-or-less straight version of the first 16 bars of the original. Then Makoto would slide over to the left and improve on what I had just done, wrong notes included. Then we went into a four-hand back and forth, each of us playing off one another. In the Detroit version, we both started playing the Paganini tune, as the harmonic structure of the Gershwin made it work really well. I had a ball, and I think Makoto did too. The orchestra was kind of shocked, and the audience enjoyed the musical banter as well.

    The program opened with a new piece by Juliet Palmer. Oil & Water is a musical take on the environmental crisis that continues to grow every day. Utilizing taped chants of protesters from the Great Lakes as they seek to overturn policies that are poisoning our waters, the orchestra comments with various phrases meant to imitate the words. The use of music as a means to point out problems in society is not new. And we are seeing it more and more in opera these days. Nice to have an orchestral piece that attempts to do the same thing.

    And so my regular season of conducting came to an end. Now it was home to St. Louis. But the first week off really wasn’t all that much of a break. I was tired from all the hard work over the last several months and wished I had more catch-up time. There were dinners to attend, social functions, interviews via Skype, as well as recording sessions to lay down five episodes of my radio show, The Slatkin ShuffleI assume all of you are tuning in on a regular basis.

    This was also the week when Cindy and I attended a couple of the presentations offered by Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Since 1976, the company has been in residence at the Loretto-Hilton Center, the auditorium of Webster University. I have conducted two productions with them, Ariadne auf Naxos and The Barber of Seville. These are all done in a kind of theater-in-the-round setting, and the dry acoustics make for some interesting balance issues. But everyone loves the place, and OTSL has acquired a reputation for being one of the most innovative companies in the country.

    We saw Rigoletto the first night and then the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. All operas are presented in English, with surtitles projected on two sides of the stage. The singing, in general, is excellent, and the performances are a showcase for the best of new American talent. The St. Louis Symphony is in the small and unforgiving pit. They sounded great on both nights.

    The Verdi was a mostly traditional production, with only a few unusual touches. No longer was the title character a hunchback, but he had a facial disfiguration and carried around a ventriloquist’s dummy. My background in movies made me think of Anthony Hopkins’s role in the film Magic, and part of me hoped that at the end, the jester would blame the puppet for his daughter’s death.

    I probably should not use this space to argue against a policy that has been a hallmark of the institution, but I would be remiss if I did not tell you that for an opera like Rigoletto, it just does not make sense to have it sung in English anymore. I know the diction coaches at OTSL, and they are beyond reproach, so there is no reason to suspect that the vocalists were not drilled well in projecting the text. But in truth, there are simply too many moments when the audience cannot possibly understand what the cast is singing about, regardless of the language. Having to look side to side takes away attention from the stage, certainly not something intentional but apparently the only way the company has to get the words on a screen.

    Maybe the singers feel differently, but if I were up there belting it out, I would feel just a little bit slighted that the audience could not understand the words coming out of my mouth. But the real problem is that for certain operas, the language is as important to the musical phrasing as the notes on the page. It is what the composers intended. Of course, history tells us that these stage works were presented in the language of the country where they were performed when the pieces appeared. However, times have changed. In the States, we rarely see dubbed motion pictures anymore, although this is still prevalent in Europe. The technology has made this practice almost obscure, at least in America.

    Operas originally in English are also surtitled. Why? It defies whatever sense of logic I have left in me. Yes, I did find myself glancing to the screens when I did not understand what the cast was singing about, especially in ensemble numbers. However, sometimes the words came and went so quickly that there was not enough time to digest the whole phrase anyway.

    It is a quaint and charming custom to present the operas in English, but back when I led my two productions, the surtitle technology did not yet exist. Still, no one seemed to have a problem understanding what was going on. And what about the singers who are hoping to launch major careers? The privilege of singing in St. Louis seems to be a strong motivating factor for them to come, but they all have to learn the work in English, something they probably will never do again. If the goal is to jumpstart their potential in major houses, they should simply be able to sing as they will in the future.

    Okay, there are exceptions. Figaro and other wordy pieces probably come across better when audiences have a true understanding of the text. But try this for a solution: Instead of putting everything up there in those little boxes, line by line, why not just summarize the intent of a given aria or ensemble number rather than take our attention away from the stage and the singers? Certainly no one really needs to be reading “Caro nome.” Just a simple digest of what she is saying will suffice.

    Okay, enough of that. On to the premiere. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is based on New York Times columnist and social commentator Charles Blow’s childhood, and the libretto takes us from age seven to twenty in the young man’s life as detailed in Blow’s memoir of the same title. Mr. Blow was in the audience for this performance. The cast was huge by OTSL standards, and everyone acquitted themselves in glory, especially Davóne Tines and Julia Bullock. With an outstanding production directed by James Robinson, the opera made a tremendous impact. Although it takes a while to get off the ground, by the time the second act arrives, the musical tension catches up with the storyline. By the conclusion, everyone in the audience was engrossed in the emotion of the evening.

    Kudos all around, from new General Director Andrew Jorgensen to Chairperson of the Board Noémi Neidorff. They are keeping the company strong and relevant. I hope to have the opportunity to return to this marvelous organization soon.

    As it happened, the day of the premiere was also a day of celebration for the city. Three nights earlier, the St. Louis Blues hockey team had won the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 52-year history. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to welcome their champions home. For a few days, everyone in the city came out to cheer and gather together.

    The following week was intense but in a different way. Earlier this year, I was approached by Robert Freeman, former head of the Eastman School, who expressed interest in authoring a tome about me. After a period of discussion, we both decided that the focus should move more toward the various strengths and weaknesses we see in today’s musical landscape. Bob came to St. Louis and spent more than a week with me to strategize how we would work jointly on this.

    We spent four or five hours each day going over many, many topics for discussion. It was quite clear early on that we had several things in common, which we both felt would facilitate putting our thoughts on paper. We decided on a format, which will be quite different from most books that attempt to address problems in the music world. I can’t go into the details yet, but if it all pans out the way we hope, I can guarantee a provocative work with some very stimulating ideas and controversial views.

    ***

    Returning to Maestro Haitink’s statement at the start of this blog, I believe he has made a very important point. But I also think that our times are so different than those of the other conductors he mentions, that it is not just a question of the chief conductor’s residence that has changed. Beginning more or less in the 1960s, many of the world’s great orchestras had contracts in which they were paid 52 weeks a year. It was not so long ago that a music director might spend 16 to 20 weeks with his (always his back then) orchestra, which amounted to more than half the season.

    Enter the summer festivals in the States. I remember when the Cleveland Orchestra opened its Blossom Music Center. A few months prior to that, Walter Susskind had taken me to a Carnegie Hall performance with George Szell and his band. I had never met the legendary maestro, but since Susskind had worked with him in Prague, he told me that we would go backstage and he would introduce me to Szell after the concert.

    When we arrived at the dressing room, rather than a warm greeting between two musical colleagues, Szell looked at Susskind and brusquely said, “You can no longer have any of my musicians in Aspen. They are staying in Cleveland for my new festival.” That was it. He closed the door, and that was my only encounter with him.

    A few major orchestras—Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, among others—already had summer venues. But for most orchestras, this was a new development. St. Louis would also start one in Edwardsville, Illinois. Now the seasons were expanding and the number of weeks the musicians were employed was increasing. By the time contracts got to 52 weeks, it was clearly impossible for the music directors to do everything. And so began the era of conductors having two or more orchestras to direct each season. The ensembles did not want to see the same conductor all year, and neither did the audience.

    In my opinion, this was when we first started to see a slight loss in the individuality of the orchestral personality. There was a time when a large group of instrumentalists was identified by its collective sound, no matter what the repertoire. With the music director absent for a great deal of the season, more similarity crept in, both sonically and also in terms of repertoire. This brought both good and unfortunate results.

    Today, the majority of music directors have tenures between ten and 15 years. This usually translates into three or four cycles of the major symphonic standard repertoire. And because the orchestras involved usually have members who span continents, no one conductor can have two different musical identities, one for each orchestra he or she leads. In other words, each of us should bring individuality to the table and shape the ensemble with singularity.

    Add to that the influx of musicians coming from different schools of musical training, plus the orchestras themselves having more say in their constituency, and it is very easy to see what Maestro Haitink is speaking about. Many members of orchestras take the summer off from their regular jobs—without pay—either to participate with other established ensembles or to play with orchestras created just for specific festivals. Very rarely do you see the full complement of the contracted orchestral workforce actually performing during July or August. There are good reasons for some musicians to do this, but at the same time, there is a slight bit of misrepresentation when an orchestra is listed as being present, but in truth, there are several part-time musicians playing.

    It is not my intention to pass judgement on this matter. There is nothing I can do about it, and certainly the main point is to make music, no matter who is performing. The same should probably be said about the increasing number of guest conductors that major orchestras encounter throughout the year. With the music director leading less than half of the season’s programs, there must be guests in the house. Still, Maestro Haitink may be onto something when he hints at the end of the music director as we have known it. Maybe the same might apply to the orchestra itself. Things change and evolve.

    ***

    On June 19, the St. Louis Symphony held an event onstage in honor of my 50-year association with the organization. Some old friends stopped in, and I was reunited with my two dream-team members from the time when I led the orchestra. David Hyslop and Joan Briccetti were my cohorts back then, and the three of us were unstoppable for almost ten years. I don’t remember the last time we were together as a group.

    with Joan Briccetti and David Hyslop

    My sincere thanks to all those who made this a memorable evening, starting with Marie-Hélène Bernard, now in her third year as executive director. I had the opportunity to thank her and others with some remarks, including the hope that the new team with her at the head, Erik Finley as vice president and general manager, and Stéphane Denève at the musical helm, would carry on the troika’s vision from so many years ago.

    ***

    Meanwhile, on the baseball front, we experienced a weekend like no other with the return of living-legend Albert Pujols, who last appeared at Busch Stadium eight years ago. Back then, he was the heart, soul and embodiment of the Cardinals. That massive and elegant swing, his prowess on defense, and his contributions to the community made him as beloved as they come.

    But the front office just could not afford the hefty price tag to keep him in town. Albert departed for Los Angeles, probably for the better at the time. Since the Angels are in the American League, there are only a few opportunities each season to see them compete against their National League counterparts. Finally, the time arrived for the winged ones to visit the bird nest.

    I scored two tickets for the first game, each of the three having sold out weeks in advance. When the halos came onto the field, there was Pujols, and cheering him on were 45,000 fans from Cardinal Nation, standing and saluting their former hero. He came to the plate in the second inning, prompting a more-than-two-minute ovation. It was not until his former teammate, catcher Yadier Molina, took off his mask from behind home plate and proceeded to hug his good friend that we finally had that first confrontation between pitcher and Goliath.

    On the first pitch, Albert crushed the ball about 380 feet, where it plopped into the center fielder’s glove. Were we all hoping for one of those moonshots we witnessed time and time again so many years ago? Absolutely! There was no one on base, and it was early in the game. Another ovation followed, and the drama was replayed two more times during the contest. There was so much adrenaline that Pujols, not noted for his speed on the base paths, darted to first base on an infield grounder in just under five seconds, one of the fastest times he ever recorded during his career.

    The redbirds won the game, and the next day, as I watched on TV, they built up a comfortable 4-0 lead. Up came Albert, again with no one on base. This time he launched one into the left-field bleachers for a solo shot. Everyone at the stadium roared in approval, demanding that he come out of the dugout for a curtain call. Imagine, even if you do not follow sports, the fans of the opposing team yelling their lungs out in a show of support for a rival. But this is St. Louis, and it was a wonderful reminder of how good it is to be back here.

    One last musical treat for the month was a presentation at Powell Hall of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I worked with the banjo wizard a few times, but I had never heard the pathbreaking group live. Amazing is the only word that describes them. After 30 years, they have not lost the inventiveness and edge that brought them to the world stage. With ultra-tight ensemble in rhythmically tricky pieces, as well as incredible solos from all, this was a night to remember.

    The remainder of the month was mostly spent catching up on correspondence, doing research for an article I am writing about Frank Sinatra and the Slatkin family, and getting ready for a three-week trip. Although I have one performance coming up in July, the event of most significance will be Daniel’s marriage to his wonderful fiancée, Bridget Laifman. I have spent most of my life avoiding weddings other than my own. There are no concerns on my part, other than what emotions might overtake me in the few days prior to and on the day of the nuptials. So you can look forward to an Entertainment Tonight edition of the Slatkin blog.

    See you next month,

    Leonard

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