JULY 2010

JULY 2010
July 1, 2010 leonard slatkin

After last month’s blog version of War and Peace, I thought it would be a nice respite for all of us to have a shorter and less scattered web posting. And since I will be on the road, literally, it will be a bit tougher to write towards the end of the June.

As it turns out, getting home was just what I needed. Europe was wonderful, but after almost six weeks on the road, I was very tired and it felt good to be amongst my own pots and pans for 21 days. It was not so good getting on the scale. Although I did not overeat, I ingested more fat than necessary, so now it’s time to get back to the program. Thus, no more sauces, desserts, or red meat.

My first week back was also the final week of subscription concerts. There were four works on the agenda, one of them a premiere by Cindy McTee, who happens to be my girlfriend. She had won a competition in Detroit, several months before we got together. The new work is called Double Play and the title has a dual meaning: one, simply because it consists of two pieces which can be played individually or together. The second has to do with my passion for the sport of baseball. As it happened, the premiere was the night after Armando Gallaraga had pitched an apparent perfect game for the Detroit Tigers. A poor call at first base by the umpire took that distinction away, but the memory lingered when I mentioned this to the audience.

Fortunately, there was no such ruling regarding Cindy’s piece. The orchestra played it with conviction and the audience received each performance with cheers. We recorded the work for inclusion on a disc of her music, which we will finish next season. I will also perform it several times in the coming year with other orchestras.

Pianist Peng Peng Gong played the Liszt E-Flat Concerto, a piece we had recorded together in Nashville. His growth as a musician is quite remarkable. At 17, he is just now entering Juilliard. Every young musician needs time to grow and enjoy being a teenager. It is a tough life but with proper guidance it is still possible to emerge somewhat normal. One can only hope that his maturity as a person matches that as a musician.

Mozart and Stravinsky filled out the remainder of the concert, with “Haffner” and Firebird Suite on the docket. Lovely playing all around and with mostly full houses all week, we ended the season on a very high note. Except for the tuba and double basses, of course.

The week also saw a couple news items that were worth a look. First of all, we seem to have a couple new heavyweights in the Ring galaxy. Literally. The production of Wagner’s epic at the Met next season will tax the stage to such a degree that it must be reinforced. More than 45 tons of steel will be used, and it is not clear how much this will cost.

Meanwhile, across the country, Los Angeles has a new production of the cycle, which is proving successful but costly. The fiscal weight here is the problem, and apparently the houses were not all sold out. Artistic decisions always require sacrifice, and this is usually of an economic nature. Even if we fill the auditorium, the costs are simply too great to insure a balanced budget. At some point, and perhaps we have arrived there, it is bound to come crashing down into the Rhine. We are all hoping that the maidens will constantly reappear and keep the artistic gold shining, but it is getting heavier and heavier.

There were also some posts about the continuing role of orchestras in their own communities. Terry Teachout argued against the current tide, expressing questions as to the validity of the regional ensemble. He wondered if hearing a so-so performance of a Beethoven Symphony was what the 21st Century needs. Citing the IPod generation, Teachout goes on to argue that theater and museums are different. Really? We can see almost any artist and his or her work via Internet. Why would locally produced drama be better than the Royal Shakespeare Company? Regional art of every discipline shows community involvement and a sense of local pride. I feel that many people who live or work in large metropolitan areas simply are out of touch with the ethics of the smaller cities and towns. Some commentators felt that the major institutions need to be more involved in local efforts. Years ago, Ernest Fleishmann, who passed away this month, said that there would be a “super-orchestra” serving the wishes of just about every facet of musical existence.

When I was a young lad, the Los Angeles Philharmonic would traipse out to various schools and play youth concerts. It seemed more efficient to do this as opposed to busing the kids into dilapidated Philharmonic Auditorium. In those days, the conductor did not speak to the audience. Instead, the supervisor of music for the public schools would introduce the music to the audience. It was a very early example of outreach, not particularly well done, but a start, at least to my young eyes and ears.

During my first year as assistant conductor in St. Louis, I conducted 83 Young People’s Concerts. Some were in Powell Hall and others, including an 8:30 am start time, were in the schools. We would play for about 50 minutes, take a break and then play another program after a quick audience turn-around. Still, this was the closest we got to actually reaching into the community. Things improved later, when we developed partnerships with various churches and other local institutions.

My second week in Detroit was devoted to what is called “DSO in Your Neighborhood.” It is an initiative I started last season, with the orchestra going out and playing to audiences who usually do not make it downtown. In some cases it is to a somewhat affluent crowd, as in Beverly Hills or Franklin. Alternately, we also play in parts of Detroit that have been hard hit by the economic downturn.

There were eight concerts in four days. Some of the venues were not large enough to support the full compliment of the DSO, so we had about 60 members in one orchestra and a group of strings for the other, thereby enabling us to perform two concerts at the same time. Conducting chores were divided between me and Kazem Abdullah, who had just won a Solti Foundation grant. For both orchestras the programs were lighter and contained mostly short works. Each audience enthusiastically received the concerts, with many vowing to visit Orchestra Hall in the future.

It is not possible to underestimate the value of these ventures. This is not about getting audiences downtown, but rather letting them know about us. The general public, regardless of whether or not a particular individual goes to the games, knows the local sports teams. You do not have to drive a Ford to know what one is like. I guess this is a matter of awareness. Why not treat the orchestra as a product? The more people know about it, the better chance you have of selling it to others. This is not meant to sound like a commercial venture, just an investment. Despite the still gloomy fiscal playing field, patrons and donors want to get on a winning team.

With that in mind, we played the final concert on the Saturday evening following the community events. This was devoted to celebrating the past Chairman of the Orchestra, Jim Nicholson. Like the previous concerts during the week, it had mostly shorter and lighter pieces. During the previous four days, I had made a point of inviting members of the audience to this Gala. Several took me up on it. The mixture of black ties and jeans was wonderful. The crowd loved the program, which included one of my father’s arrangements, an ingenious concoction called Carmen’s Hoedown. (Note to self —find more of Dad’s charts).

So my first full season as Music Director of the DSO came to and end. The two-month hiatus following the heart attack was now in my rear-view mirror. We had grown remarkably over this time. Audiences were supporting us and slowly but surely, contributions were beginning to come back into the fold. There are still enormous challenges that face us, but with increased community partnerships and a responsive orchestra, the long term looks good. But only if everyone makes the tough decisions now.

So how do I fit into this picture? When I left St. Louis for Washington, many people told me that this was a downward move, even though the D.C. orchestra had a higher profile. My own reason for moving was to take an orchestra that had a lot of attention focused on it, but not much success as an artistic institution. We were able to do some things that put us on an upward track, but not enough to be a “player” in the vernacular sense. Still, and to this day, it is one of the “Top Ten” orchestras. This is one yard stick by which orchestras like to measure each other,

Last month, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker that, at least for one night, the Minnesota Orchestra was the best in the country. He did not mention salary, or the fact that the concert they played in New York did not have a full house. The Saint Louis Symphony, during my tenure, was given 2nd place by Time Magazine. This past year, Philadelphia did not make the top 20 in the world, according to Gramophone Magazine. This “consumer reports” mentality is something I might write about in the future, but for now, it is just salaries vs. artistic quality.

Although there were many who felt that moving from D.C. to Detroit was a downward turn for me, the bottom line is that I was going to a great orchestra, albeit one with huge financial burdens. The hall we play in is easily one of the best in the country, perhaps in the world. The salary base for the orchestra is in the “top ten” category, but that never even occurred to me when I accepted the position. And it would not make a difference if it were lower. The goal is to put the best product on the market. That is what happens in Detroit and Lyon night after night, rehearsal after rehearsal. We both try to maintain fiscal stability but it is tougher in Michigan. The long range is good. We just need to get ourselves out of a hole that has been dug for years upon years.

The final week at home was relatively calm. There were meetings that mostly had to do with planning for the 11-12 season. Yes, we must be that far ahead to get the artists and program concepts in place. It is hoped that this is all wrapped up by November.

I had the pleasure of conducting Barber’s Capricorn Concerto at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. This is run by my friend Jimmy Tocco, who played that composer’s piano concerto with me last October. The Festival attracts some fine artists but rarely ventures into a conducted work. Barber’s homage to the home he shared with Menotti is a delightful, Stravinskian style work for flute, trumpet, oboe and strings. I sort of remember it as the theme music for a radio show in the 60’s, perhaps in New York. If anyone can think of it, pass a note along to me at the DSO. This is driving me nuts.

Perhaps my finest accomplishment during the time at home was to make a pretty good gazpacho and paella. It took two tries but I think I have it down now. Unfortunately, the final version was made just a day before starting the long summer trip. Does rice freeze well?

World Cup Fever did not overtake me, but I had some time to watch a couple matches. And I thought Gallaraga got robbed? I suppose this goes in the


I understand the human aspect of sports. Everyone makes mistakes. But when that error affects history and the eventual outcome of a game, perhaps it is time to reconsider the way we judge critical plays. Replay would not have harmed Armando’s gem for the Tigers. But the goal in the 85th minute was a Tournament changer. At least Terry Joyce admitted he was wrong. FIFA, the football organization, seems not to require its officials to explain their decisions.

In music, I make it a rule for myself to always have a reason for doing something a certain way. To allow a referee to get away with a call and not justify it is inexcusable. FIFA FIXIT.

Now it is into the Ford Taurus Sho and just in time for the summer solstice. I drive to Breckenridge, Colorado, Santa Fe, Aspen, Los Angeles and then a leisurely two-week trip to return home. No planes for three months! By the end of next month, I will have premiered an opera by Lewis Spratlan. Do not expect a blow-by-blow diary. But I will probably let you in on the difference between doing a new production as opposed to one that already is in repertoire.

See you next month,