JOURNAL

JOURNAL

  • MAY 2019

    This April was a month like no other, similar to a rollercoaster ride of emotion, conflict and elation.

    On Easter Sunday, Cindy’s mother passed away. At age 89, Jackie was a bundle of energy. Over the past few years, that vitality began to dwindle. Although she remained strong in mind, her body was giving way to infirmities. Ultimately, she decided to forgo her medications, preferring to let nature do its thing and spare her from the inability to be a physically functioning presence in her home.

    I loved her. She taught me a great deal about life in small-town America. Having lived in Eatonville, Washington, virtually all her life, Jackie knew everyone and everything. Whether cavorting with her two dachshunds or interacting with family members, she seemed in control of all around her. Her capacity to adore her two children was always on display. Although she was a musician for a while, Jackie began to enter the world of classical music through Cindy.

    When she could tune in to the Detroit Symphony webcasts, she had the opportunity to hear works by her daughter and see how much her offspring was adored by the orchestra and audience. As it turned out, two days following the funeral service there was the annual McTee Music Festival in the small town. Could there be a better way to honor Jackie’s memory? I don’t think so.

    Following my five-week Asian experience, I was pleased to return to the Pittsburgh Symphony for a week of rehearsals and concerts. The program was relatively easy, with music by Elgar, Rachmaninov and me on the docket. With one of my party pieces, the Enigma Variations, I had the chance to really dig into the meaning of the work. The orchestra shaded each individual portrait with great nuance and subtlety. Particular kudos to Principal Clarinetist Michael Rusinek for his absolutely delicious handling of Mary Lygon’s sea voyage.

    The soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, reminded me that we had performed the Fourth Piano Concerto by Rachmaninov together many years ago at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the first time either of us had done the work. This piece doesn’t come up too often, and that is a shame. Perhaps it is not the melodic feast of the second or third concerto, and not even as virtuosic as the first, but there is a degree of sophistication in this work that surpasses its predecessors. As usual, Garrick was the model of elegance, and the orchestra got into the piece in a way that made it more of a concertante work rather than a traditional concerto.

    Kinah came as the opener. I am starting to believe that my tribute to my parents is quite suitable, and not because of the story behind the work. It helps to know something about my family, but as with other works, including the Enigma, you really do not have to know anything about the musical references in the piece. I will continue to program Kinah and am very honored that other conductors have taken it up as well.

    As usual, I took some time to work with the members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Youth Orchestra. This serves as a reminder of how many talented students there are these days. We can only hope that there will be enough slots in the job market for them. We also had a sort of conducting competition, with three of the kids leading the “March of the Toreadors” from Carmen. I think my job is still secure, but all three students had qualities that might serve them well should they choose to pick up a baton again.

    There was also a very interesting event one evening, framed around the creative intersection of art, music and spoken word. The symphony-sponsored series is a partnership with the organization City of Asylum at a venue called Alphabet City. This particular event dealt with various ways in which artists dedicated their works to friends and family. The program included a Prokofiev cello sonata, an original video installation, two poetry readings, and a discussion about the Enigma Variations and Kinah. The actual place where this was presented reminded me of something out of the Sixties, with a very laid-back vibe. I thought all that was missing was a folk singer, and perhaps a jazz trio backing the poets. Instead of applause, everyone should have just been snapping their fingers. At least that was how it was when I was hanging out at such places in West Hollywood way back when.

    My flight to New York was delayed due to bad weather, but at least it was not cancelled. I had worked very hard in putting together a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Manhattan School of Music. By the time I arrived for rehearsals, most everything had been well prepared. The orchestra needed to adjust from one style of music to another, something they were not used to. Whether playing jazz, opera, Broadway shows or symphonic works, the young musicians did a great job of getting their collective musical chops into this. Of course, when they finally got to Carnegie Hall for the dress rehearsal they were excited, as for most this was their first time on the fabled stage.

    With soloists including Susan Graham, Olga Kern, Glenn Dicterow and Terence Blanchard, and with students playing alongside their teachers, the concert included some truly moving moments. “Moving” was the appropriate word in another sense. Sometimes, in fact most times, galas like this seem to go on forever. Between speeches and stage setup changes, there is usually a lot of dead time. I tried to make the show flow without any interruptions, and the combined stage crews of Carnegie and the school made sure that we were never without either music or introductions taking place while the stage was being reset. As a result, the concert only lasted about two hours and fifteen minutes.

    Alec Baldwin was the genial host, shedding his political hat for his cultural chapeau. I had the chance to meet his lovely wife and engage in some hopefully productive talk with them regarding future projects. The dinner that followed the program was a good chance to network, as it looks like I am considering some options for myself. I anticipate some very exciting projects ahead, including one that I will mention later in this piece.

    ***

    After the seven-week trip, it was time to go home to St. Louis. After a few days off, and sadly with the news of Cindy’s mother’s passing, I would spend the next two weeks with the orchestra where it all started 50 years ago. Walking onto the Powell Hall stage, I could vividly remember that first time, when an anxious young conductor led his first concert with a professional orchestra.

    How things have changed. I am older than almost anyone in the orchestra and certainly have more experience. I am viewed as an elder statesman rather than an upstart. Some of the musicians I hired are still around, so there remains an air of familiarity. Once in a while I wonder what the younger members of the orchestra think of my conducting and rehearsal style. In the end it did not matter, as the SLSO produced outstanding performances during my two-week stint.

    Bernstein always played an active role in my programming, and we were the only orchestra to regularly record his music while the composer was still alive. But one work we never did was his Third Symphony, “Kaddish.” Originally, I had not planned to do the piece, but the chorus director, Amy Kaiser, asked me, and I readily agreed. The symphony had not been performed by the orchestra since 1965, and there were certainly many logistics to manage. In addition to full chorus, the piece calls for a children’s chorus, speaker, singer and very large orchestra.

    Charlotte Blake Alston recited the text in a most moving way. Sasha Cooke was her usual outstanding self, the vocal groups were spot on throughout, and the orchestra played brilliantly. Audience response was vociferous. As was the consensus after my 2017 performances with the New York Philharmonic, we seemed to make a strong case for a neglected work.

    Olga Kern was on hand for Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. St. Louis was the first orchestra to record all the orchestral works by this composer, so that 50-year association connected my past to the present. Playing on a new instrument recently purchased by the orchestra, Olga could exert maximum volume as well as her beautiful singing tone. The audience asked for, and received, two encores.

    During my final year in Detroit, I had commissioned some short pieces by students of composers whom I had promoted during their formative years. Steven Stucky had recommended Loren Loiacono, and I brought back her work Smothered by Sky to open this program. With its clangorous sound of cowbells to start, the piece seemed even more effective this time around. Hers continues to be an interesting voice, and hopefully others will pick up on her music.

    I had the pleasure of watching the two professional sports teams in action. First up were my beloved Cardinals. They have been on a roll recently and as of this writing stand atop their division. They won the game I attended but seem to do well even if I am not there. The Blues hockey team made it into the second round of the Stanley Cup. I went to the first game of the series against the Dallas Stars. Although a bit tentative, they stuck it out for a win.

    Prior to the second week of concerts, I hosted a benefit for RAF—no, not the Royal Air Force, but Radio Arts Foundation, the classical music station in St. Louis. Founded by Noémi Neidorff, patron extraordinaire and head of the board at Opera Theatre St. Louis, Classic 107.3 is an outlet for local artists to get their message out to the community. The concert was held at the Sheldon, the same hall where my father made his debut as a violinist 90 years ago. He was all of 13 years old.

    Olga and her son, Vladik, alternated solo turns with brilliant displays of technique in works by Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov. After that, the two pianists returned, along with members of the SLSO, for a performance of Carnival of the Animals. As in Detroit last season, I was on hand to do some ridiculous schtick, including throwing stuffed animals into the audience. We were graced to have Marlo Thomas as the narrator, although I had altered the Ogden Nash verses to include some alternate poems and jokes. Marlo entered into the spirit of it all, and we had a ball.

    I told her that when her father, Danny Thomas, had his hit TV show Make Room for Daddy, there was an orchestra on set. They played during the songs Danny sang but also entertained the studio audience with selected numbers during the taping. Sitting as concertmaster and first cellist were my mother and father, respectively. I do not believe I met Marlo in those days, but we had a great time chatting at the post-concert dinner. All in all, a terrific night for music and for the radio station.

    And here is the news:

    On Saturdays at 10 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. CDT, I will be hosting a radio show that partially emulates the one I did when I arrived in St. Louis 50 years ago. At that time, I had a four-hour program on underground radio called The Slatkin Project. Back then, I was host, producer and engineer, spinning discs before the world started scratching them.

    It was a kaleidoscope of sound, with no barriers in terms of style. Rock, classical, folk, blues, jazz—you name it and I played it. The show ran for three years, at which point my schedule became more crowded and I was often out of town guest conducting. But upon my return to St. Louis last June, I wondered if there was some way to have a 21st-century take on the older program.

    Then I remembered what I sometimes do on a long airplane flight. There are almost 10,000 tracks on my iPad, and for fun, I just hit the shuffle tab and see what comes up. Sometimes the results are quite entertaining, and sometimes I wonder what the internet gods are trying to do. But it occurred to me that this might be exactly how to present something different for the listening audience.

    The Slatkin Shuffle will consist of my simply hitting the random-play button and seeing what comes next. Just as the audience has no idea what is next in the rotation, I don’t either. Since I still travel extensively, we prerecord the shows, but I still have no control over the selections. After three or four tracks, I back announce what we have heard, explaining why the songs are on my playlist, and if I don’t know why they are there, looking up something about the music or artist. It is a lot of fun, and I hope it does well. You can listen on 107.3 FM or 96.3 HD, or online here. We are working on making the shows available on demand, but for now, I am afraid you have to follow the timeline that we have scheduled.

    Meanwhile, I led a second week of concerts with the SLSO, once again featuring elements of music that we did together during my tenure as music director. Concertmaster David Halen asked me to program the First Symphony of Samuel Barber. Of course, it is always wonderful to do this work, as it is one of my very favorites to conduct. Bringing it back to the orchestra with which I first conducted, recorded, and toured the piece filled my heart with so many memories. Of course, it is not the same orchestra as before, but the sound they produced reminded the old timers of how we played back in the day.

    Since I was a soundstage brat, I always promoted concert works by composers usually associated with film or television. For this 50th anniversary, the orchestra commissioned Jeff Beal of House of Cards fame to write something for me. He came up with the idea of a song cycle based on letters by his great-grandmother. The incredibly moving texts are set with a simplicity that echoes the time of the pioneers. Her struggle to raise six children on her own following the passing of her husband is heartbreaking and inspiring. Hila Plitmann was the soloist, bringing her dramatic and soulful voice to these most poetic of songs.

    Among the many complete projects we did in the recording studio were the six Tchaikovsky symphonies. And it was the last that we performed on this occasion. Only after the first rehearsal did I realize that there was a kind of tragic theme that ran through all the pieces on the program, but it wound up making a satisfying whole. A lot has changed over the 23 years since I performed my final concert with this orchestra as its music director. But the ensemble remains as potent and congenial as ever. I look forward to my continued role as conductor laureate and to a fine relationship with Stéphane Denève, the new music director.

    Now there are just five weeks of conducting left during the season. Most of the summer will be spent on vacation and attending my son’s wedding. But do not fret, faithful readers. I will still write the usual monthly reports, more than likely on a variety of topics. In the meantime, you can look forward to my first entry from Ireland, where I will conduct the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra for the first time.

    See you next month,

    Leonard

    LEONARD SLATKIN

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