And so it ends.
June saw my final concerts as music director of the National Symphony. These occupied most of the month and, as you can imagine, was a highly charged three weeks. But there was almost as much packed into the first week as well.
Since 1974, it has been my privilege to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a regular basis. We seem to enjoy each other’s company during those weeks and I was able to close out their subscription season this year. One of my functions during the early days was to compliment the team of Sir Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado and Erich Leinsdorf. Each of us led a number of concerts in a given season and insiders referred to us as “the Gang of Four.”
This time around, I brought the piece which opened the NSO season, Sacred Heart: Explosion by Jefferson Friedman. It coincided with an exhibit of works by outsider artist Henry Darger, whose work inspired Jefferson for this composition. I am not sure if the orchestra warmed to it at first, but each performance was greeted with a lengthy ovation from the audience. As the week progressed, several members of the CSO thanked me for bringing the work to them.
Pinchas Zukerman was the soloist, but playing viola, not violin. Works by Hindemith and Berlioz were featured. Pinky and I go back to our student days at Juilliard, where we could be found playing pool on 92nd and Broadway: I think he won every time. In any event, I love working with him. Some people think that his physical demeanor, as he is playing, makes him appear aloof from the music. But nothing could be further from the truth. He is one of the most thoughtful and natural musicians on the planet. And it is quite possible that there has never been a better violist.
During the week, I had to make two trips out of town. The first was to Milwaukee, where I visited the headquarters of Hal Leonard publishing. This is the company that will issue the 12 arrangements I made of Holiday Music for Piano and Strings, a project that began late last year as a way to have my son play with his school ensemble. Of all the amazing things I learned that day, first and foremost was that the state of music education in this country, although still not as strong as we might like, is better than I had imagined. My pieces will be offered to 25,000 music educators. If you also add the sacred music division, youth orchestras and piano teachers, there would appear to be lots of young performers out there.
On Saturday of that week, I traveled to Indianapolis and recorded the arrangements with professional musicians. These will be issued with the published music, so that teachers can not only see, but hear the works as well. My discovery here was that while I was conducting, it was as if someone else had actually written the pieces. I approached them just the same as I would any other composer’s works, fixing ensemble matters, dynamics, etc. But when it was over, I was very happy with the results. It is my hope that young pianists will now have the opportunity to share their music-making with other musicians and ensembles in their schools.
Now it was time to return to D.C. and finish up my tenure. The first week of performances was devoted to a concert presentation of Eugene Onegin, long a favorite opera for me. Since I don’t venture into the pit all that often, this was my first opportunity to conduct the work. Having a mostly experienced Russian cast helped immeasurably. They guided me through it and we all had a wonderful time. It is a piece that I believe I would enjoy doing in an opera house sometime.
I also got to throw out my second “first pitch” at a baseball game. On this occasion it was for the Washington Nationals. My aim was good, but perhaps a bit high. The team lost, so I am 0-2 in games where I started this season.
The second week was the final installment of the National Conducting Institute. There were nine participants this year, and each possessed a unique style and technique. My job is not to exercise authority over interpretation, but to get the conductors physically able to communicate their ideas. By the end of the week, a couple of them had been dramatically transformed. It has been my good fortune to be aided by Elizabeth Schulze, who has a keen eye and ear and catches all the things I miss.
My final week began with a dentist appointment. Nothing wrong, but I figured that everything could only get better from that point. We had two programs to put together: the regular subscription concert and the Gala Farewell. After the first rehearsal, the orchestra gave me a luncheon, where lots of speeches and gifts were presented. Some were serious but most were light-hearted, and that seemed appropriate.
I chose to end my tenure with Copland’s Third Symphony. It was the piece that appeared on my very first subscription concerts with the orchestra, when I was Music Director Designate. How far we all have come since that time! What seemed extremely difficult back then was now second nature. Perhaps I was able to make the orchestra better simply by expanding their repertoire. Not that we were ready to play the work publicly after just one rehearsal, but there was a general consensus that we already knew the piece well.
On Wednesday there was a lovely dinner party, given jointly by media journalists Sam Donaldson and John Cochran, along with their wives. About 20 people attended and it served as a special reminder of the good friends who have been with me all this time. I will miss them all, but expect to see them periodically during the occasional visits back to DC.
Our soloist for the concerts was cellist Sol Gabetta, making her U.S. debut. I first encountered her in Rotterdam a couple years ago. She is remarkable, with a kind of fierce intensity in her playing. Shostakovich No. 2 was the piece and this is a most difficult concerto to bring off. Sol garnered the highest praise from the orchestra members, while holding the audience rapt throughout. I was pleased that my final concerts introduced an exciting new artist to the public.
And each evening, when I came on stage at the start of the concert, there was a spontaneous ovation from the audience. It is hard to gauge whether or not you have made a difference, but at least during this week, it felt as if my time with the NSO had produced something of lasting value.
For the Farewell, I went a different route. Yo-Yo Ma joined us for Bloch’s Schelomo. This is a piece I truly love but had never done with him. This was the opportunity and he did not disappoint. (Does he ever?) Sol stayed over an extra day and both played a short concerto I originally wrote for my mother and brother. Almost 35 years have passed since it was played, and to have these two great artists perform it was the dream of any composer. No, it is not a lasting work, but turned out better than I remembered. And because I have spent a lot of time arranging, it was easy to make changes and help the piece out a bit.
At the end of the concert, the orchestra paid tribute with what is known as a “Tusch.”This is an improvised flourish on a single chord. I am not sure they had done it before, but it was most touching and I was quite moved. Lots of goodbyes, a few tears from some, and it was over.
Well, not quite.
A reception was held upstairs at the KC. Following that, a group of us went to a restaurant and celebrated in true style. Friends had come from all over the world, one arriving from Stockholm that same day. Good music, good food and wine, and good friends. Is there really a better life than being a musician?
See you next month,