JULY 2011

JULY 2011
July 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

What a strange month June turned out to be. It looked pretty simple on paper. One week of concerts in Detroit and a trip to Rotterdam, preparing for a tour of South America.

But normal does not seem to apply these days.

To start with, I began French lessons in preparation for the new job in Lyon. When I was in high school, French was actually my foreign language and I have usually managed to get by when travelling to Paris and other destinations in France. Cindy was also on board for this education experience.

There is an Alliance Française in Detroit and it seemed like the best place to do some sort of intensive study. I figured that about 4 hours a day would be good. Our first task was to take a short written exam. This was embarrassing. I could not get past the third page.

Cindy and I were put in the beginners level, with just one hour of class each day. This proved to be more than enough and aside from regular score study, was the first time I had homework in about 49 years.

That timeline almost coincided with an event later in the week. I went back to Los Angeles for a day to speak at an alumni reunion of several different classes from my high school. It took place at a hotel near LAX. There were about 150 people in attendance, with one representative from the class of ’28. Six people who were in school with me showed up, looking none the worse for wear. It was great fun and during the introduction, some audio clips of me playing piano at that time were presented. Also, a little excerpt of a stage show I arranged for my last year in school. I don’t think I will be sharing this with all of you.

What I will let you listen to is a continuation of some performances, which have never been commercially issued. In 1947, Korngold wrote his final score for the Warner Brothers film, Deception. A few months ago, I posted the concert version he composed of the Cello Concerto featured in the film. This was with my mother as soloist.

This month, there are two excerpts, one used in the movie and the other not. First we have the cadenza and ending of the Haydn D Major Cello Concerto. The final part of the solo was written by Korngold and he is also conducting. You can hear him counting off the beats at the beginning.

 The other recording is of a short piece never used and titled “Romance-Impromptu.” This time Korngold is at the piano and the count off is done by my mother. It is a beautiful little work that makes a lovely encore.

This first week of June was also one of serious health concern. Cindy was diagnosed with breast cancer, albeit in the earliest of stages. We are fortunate to know persons in the medical profession who assisted in making arrangements for the care and treatment she will get over the next month and beyond. The personal notes from friends were most kind and supportive. Cindy has been extraordinary and strong through all this. She writes about it on her own web site, CindyMcTee.com.

It was back to concerts during the second week of the month, but these were part of the community initiatives that were started last season. All the events were free and some were a bit unusual. It must be remembered that suburban Detroit is huge, with some subdivisions more than 30 minutes away. Reaching these audiences is a challenge, as some members of the public simply do not want to travel downtown.

We performed at a facility to the East, one downtown and a couple that were a bit further away. MOCAD, a space for contemporary art, saw us playing a work by the artist who created a piece of music for the current exhibition. The final event was in the hall. This was for our regular subscribers and was basically a preview of some of the works that will be played next season. I did my best Phil Donahue impression and walked amongst the orchestra, interviewing some of them along the way.

A sad note hit in the middle of the week. My longtime friend and timpanist with the Saint Louis Symphony passed away. Rick Holmes was 69 and we had been students together both at Juilliard and Aspen. We came to the mid-west just one year apart and even lived across the street from one another. A memorial service took place and I flew to Missouri in order to participate. Memories and reminiscences were plentiful and joyous. The corner of the hall where he played for forty-one years will always shine with his spirit.

The final two weeks of June found me with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. It was not quite two years ago when I was last with this orchestra and that was a trip I can never forget. After all, this was the city where my heart decided to attack me.

This trip was planned before that fateful day, including the repertoire we would take on a tour to South America. In one of those odd coincidences, we would be playing the very same piece that I was conducting at the scene of the coronary crime: the 2nd Symphony by Rachmaninov.

You can imagine the trepidation I felt as I left my hotel for the first rehearsal. It is a short walk to the Doelen, the same one I took on November 1, 2009. Back then, about halfway to the stage door, I felt out of breath and had to stop, not knowing that this was the first sign of trouble. Arriving at the dressing room I could only remember my anxiety, pulse pounding and the pain in my chest that was almost unbearable.

There was the same couch where I collapsed after the performance. I visualized the medical team who assisted and got to me just five minutes following the concert. The same group of wonderful administrators from the orchestra greeted me and we joked about that day. At the time, there was nothing funny about the situation.

There were only two days of preparatory rehearsals for two different programs. Much like summer concerts in the States, one has to rely on judgment, making decisions as to what to work on and what to leave alone. Trust becomes imperative in these instances. There is a bond that comes with working together on a regular basis. This was a bit different as the majority of the works were ones we had not done together. In the end all of us felt that we knew all the pieces well and there should be no problems on the tour.

The problems that did occur had more to do with logistics and governmental regulations rather than music. Getting visas for the three countries we would visit turned out to be a real nightmare. There are no consulates in Detroit, so my passport and papers needed to get to Chicago, where they would be processed and stamped. Moving them from one location to another proved difficult and in the end, my assistant, Alice, had to drive to the Windy City and pick everything up. This was on the day before I had to travel. Talk about cutting it close.

There was still one visa to be issued and on the day off in Rotterdam, just before we headed Southwest, I had to be driven to The Hague and get the authorization for Argentina. This took a couple hours and pretty much ruined the day.

Finally we were off. There was a two-hour flight to Madrid, followed by a twelve-hour in-air experience to Lima, Peru. The odd thing, at least to me, was that even though it was a long way from home, there would be little time difference from Detroit. Jet lag would be vertical rather than horizontal.

Stepping on South American soil for the first time in my life, I was struck by how cloudy it was. Winter was beginning in this part of the hemisphere. Apparently it will be about 70 degrees and the sun will go into hibernation for the entire trip. However, rain here seems to be more like a mist rather than an actual storm. As seems the case in so many Latin countries, there is a strong upper class and a huge lower class population, with not so much in between. Traffic is a nightmare and the automobiles are either new European imports or very old Fords and Chevys.

We had a day to recover from the long trip and a brother and sister I met on the plane trip took me on a little tour. The museum we visited specialized in gold artifacts from the Incan period. This must have been an extraordinary culture at that time. Most of the pieces are in other museums throughout the world and if this sampling is any indication, abundant wealth was certainly not uncommon. Lunch was at a delightful restaurant in the Miraflores district by the sea. I sampled piscos sour, a drink that is the Peruvian version of a mojito and can truly sneak up on you.

There was a lot to learn about cuisine. Did you know that the country boasts almost 3,000 different varieties of potatoes? A kernel of cooked corn is at least twice the size of its American counterpart. And there are some very strange looking but incredibly delicious fruits. It is always a shame that we never have much time to sample all the delights of a given city or country on these tours. Walter Susskind, one of my teachers, used to say, “Being a musician would be an even better life if we did not have rehearsals and concerts.”

Our performance the next day was not in the regular Teatro Municipal, but rather in a hall placed inside a military compound. It seems that we were not about to bounce the 4-week run of West Side Story that was being presented. The “Pentagon,” as it is called, is not a very good auditorium, at least on stage. The sound is quite dry and the musicians had difficulty hearing each other. The sound was discretely amplified and I was told that it had a much more pleasant effect in the audience.

Most of the concerts on this tour will have Haydn’s 100th, the Barber Second Essay and Rachmaninov 2. There was a bit of a problem at the start of the concert when the overhead lights went out. Since the orchestra could not see the music, there was nothing we could do but wait it out. A half-hour later, we began.

Everyone really seemed to enjoy the performance. The orchestra fought the good fight with the hall. Afterwards we did an impromptu videotaping. This requires a bit of an explanation.

Over the past week, it was announced that the Dutch government was going to implement a 25% reduction in funding for the arts in Holland. Several smaller organizations will not survive this and the larger ones will face drastic cutbacks. Around the world we all know that there is an economic crisis, but this drastic action seems to be well above the global norm, at least for a whole country.

To help bring attention to this plight, several orchestras are recording a one-minute extract from a Dutch film score, Soldier from Orange. These can be seen on Facebook and other Internet outlets.

I took some time to speak to the camera about the situation and then again at the dinner following the concert. This marked the first time I have entered the political fray outside of the States. But the cause is just and the idea of Holland losing some of its most treasured artistic enterprises is truly appalling. Perhaps this effort will not amount to much but at least many of us can say we tried.

The next morning we all got up early to catch the bus that would make the trek to the airport, only to find out that our charter plane had not arrived. One orchestra member worried that the carrier was called “Air Piranha.” What was supposed to be a long but relatively easy travel day turned into a twelve-hour delay, with our landing time well past six in the morning. To top it all off, the car that picked me up decided to have its own coronary arrest and stopped dead in the middle of the street during rush hour. The driver and I got out, pushed the corpse to a side street and walked the remaining two blocks to the hotel.

Not a great way to be greeted in Brazil.

There is musical controversy here in Rio. It seems that the conductor of the orchestra decided that in order to build a “world class” ensemble, the entire membership would have to re-audition. Almost half refused and were fired. This move sent the blogosphere hopping and a fairly substantial campaign was launched to try and stop this. It didn’t work. New auditions have been taking place and, if the numbers are to be believed, around 250 applicants offered their services. It will be interesting to see how things are when the new season launches in September.

Our concert was in the same auditorium that the Brazilian orchestra plays, the Teatro Municipal. It is a multi-function hall with plenty of space for large operatic productions. I sometimes think that these kinds of venues do not really work for concerts but this place was an exception. Very beautiful and spacious with a warm, vibrant sound. The orchestra clearly enjoyed being here. At the sound check, I was presented with a ceramic pair of miniature wooden shoes and told that I was now an honorary member of Rotterdam society.

The next day was more of the same. We arrived at the Rio Airport, waited forever to check in only to be told we had at least a two-hour delay. This meant that by the time we arrived in Sao Paulo, we would only have two hours to get to our hotel and then to the Auditorium for a sound check. I thought about cancelling the half-hour rehearsal but this was the only time we would play Tchaikovsky 4 on the tour and we needed a bit of time to refresh our rehearsal memories from last week.

I was struck by how different Sao Paulo is from Rio. This is a much more cosmopolitan city with a population of 22 million people. There appears to be more wealth here but crime continues to be a major problem. And as is the case in each city we have toured in South America, traffic is horrendous.

The hall is in an old train station. Although situated in a very poor section of town, it has become a focal point for the performing arts here. Seating about 1,500 people it has a nice warm acoustic with plenty of room for dynamic contrast. It was clear that the orchestra enjoyed playing there and the audience was most kind. Both concerts were enthusiastically received.

The remainder of the tour took us to Buenos Aires. We could only hope that this one flight would be on time and without incident.

See you next month,