Wrapping up seasons is an occasion to reflect on what has been done or accomplished over the past months. In this case, my first year as music director in Lyon had to be measured as a fine success. But before I led the last two weeks of concerts there, I had one wonderful week in my old stomping grounds.
The National Orchestral Institute has been around for 25 years. It is centered at the University of Maryland in College Park. In some ways it reminds me a little of the New World Symphony in Miami, where I conducted earlier this season. The orchestra is comprised primarily of college age musicians of the highest caliber. They gather for almost four weeks to make music with different conductors and mentors from the leading orchestras in this country.
Even though my week was the first for the instrumentalists, they seemed to come together as an ensemble very quickly. The program consisted of the Bach-Stokowski Passacaglia and Fugue in C-minor, Cindy’s Double Play and the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony. A heady challenge for any group.
First rehearsals with any group of musicians consist, at least for me, of a read-through of the works on the program. Not much is said. It is mostly a time for me to assess the level of the orchestra and how we communicate, and the reverse is true for the ensemble. The NOI got around most of the problems with relative ease. Most helpful all week was having musicians such as Robert Vernon from Cleveland, Elizabeth Rowe from Boston, Gail Williams from Chicago and so many others. They gave insight and practical information to each section and we developed a method that was never intrusive to the rehearsals.
By the time we got to the concert, some seven rehearsals later, everyone was fully prepared and we could just make music.
This was also a time to see old friends from the NSO years. The orchestra itself was off to Mexico and points south but every evening was taken with meals, good wine and excellent conversation. I hope to return to the NOI next season, but I have also vowed to take July and August off.
It was time to head back to Lyon, with my first trip on one of these super large planes. There are two floors and I wondered if anyone needed to take an elevator to go between them. This giant aircraft seems stable enough but it still puzzles me as to how something this heavy really can stay in the air, not withstanding the Bernoulli effect. It also made me pine for the old days of the 747, when you could walk up the circular staircase and go to the bar, where there was also a lounge pianist.
The final two weeks of the season contained large-scale pieces, designed for maximum effect with both audience and orchestra. Mahler’s First Symphony presents challenges for everyone and I was really pleased at how well my orchestra understood the style and sound needed. It was clear that my relationship with the orchestra was on solid ground. The audience received the performances rapturously.
Our soloist was the clarinetist David Krakhauer. He played the Klezmer Concerto by Wlad Marhulets, a young Polish composer who was recommended to me by John Corigliano. Actually, I was supposed to have conducted the World Premiere of this piece, but that was back in November, 2009, just a couple weeks after my heart attack. So my first performance had to wait three years. It is a delightful piece and there is no question that the composer is very talented. I believe he has relocated to LA and is contemplating a career in the motion picture industry.
David was amazing! In an encore piece, he demonstrated a remarkable technique incorporating circular breathing, where he would hold on to a high note as loud as possible for a good 30 seconds. He also joined five of the musicians of the orchestra for an hour of Klezmer chamber music. I was supposed to have played the piano part in Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes but there was simply no time to practice. My debut as pianist in Lyon will have to wait until next season when I will join Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Mother Goose Suite by Ravel.
The Marulets and Mahler worked well together, with the Klezmer influence heard in the latter’s third movement. Opening the concert was a piece with no real connection to the other works other than a fine use of the orchestral palate. Sirius, by Jean-Jacques diTucci, is a work I performed almost 10 years ago in Washington. We were doing a two-week French Festival and I was searching for something new. This score came across my desk and I immediately programmed it. The influence of Messiaen and Dutilleux is felt but the composer also has his own identifiable style. I believe we will commission him for a new work in Lyon.
Two ninth symphonies closed out the season, Shostakovich and Beethoven. The lightness and sarcasm of the Russian were a good balance against the weight and grandeur of the German. A chorus from Lisbon was brought in to sing and they were wonderful. Only 80 strong, their voices penetrated even the loudest passages in the Beethoven. Another reason to visit Portugal.
The ONL really dug into this program. They captured all the colors in the Shostakovich, with fabulous solos, in particular the bassoon in the fourth movement. The audience had clearly come for the Beethoven, but they seemed to appreciate the spirit and performance of the opener.
One advantage I have over a number of conductors is the ability to send my own set of parts for much of the standard repertoire. This eliminates a lot of time spent on bowings, phrasing and dynamics, as they are all indicated. Of course there are adjustments that must be made due to the hall or different needs of some musicians, but overall I can just focus on ensemble and music making. It paid off handsomely in this performance. Each of the three concerts saw the audience leaping to their feet, something quite rare in European concert halls.
I came off the stage realizing how fortunate I am in being music director of two outstanding orchestras. At this point, I could not be happier.
As I write this we are about three weeks away from the publication of Conducing Business. Plans are being made for book signings and book parties. The reality of actually holding a copy is starting to sink in. The few people who have read the final draft have told me they love it, but as the historian Michael Beschloss told me in Washington, all that matters is that I need to be satisfied with it. My son doesn’t like the cover photo.
Work on my second book, Conducting Standards, has begun. This will take about a year and a half to complete. More as it progresses.
Even though there are a few concerts in July and August, much of the time will be spent recuperating from the past 10 months. What a season it has been! I am not exhausted but instead, exhilarated. Still, I need a break. No fears however, I will continue this monthly column, but it might take a different direction for the next couple of entries. In the meantime, happy reading.
See you next month.