A long season has come to a close. With three weeks of performances left, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Not that I did not enjoy the overwhelming majority of work, but it became clear that a recharging of the batteries was needed.
Earlier in the year I made a well-considered decision to give myself more time off. Although 70 years old is apparently young for a conductor, the rigors of travel, learning and relearning a great deal of music, and having other items on the agenda made it mandatory to give both mind and body some rest from the demanding schedule I have maintained. More about this a bit later.
After the Tosca performances in Detroit, there were some concerts to do. But these were quite different in genre and style from anything else I had performed during the course of the season. First up was a performance with the great jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. He has served as the DSO jazz chair for a couple seasons and has done a fantastic job in bringing audiences into The Max.
He is also a very accomplished composer, having received accolades for his opera, Champion, last year in St. Louis. In 2006, he collaborated with director Spike Lee on a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. Selecting 13 portions of the score, he then created A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) for jazz quintet and orchestra, which won a Grammy in 2008. For the final concert of the DSO jazz series, the orchestra joined the quintet for a live performance that was well attended and very well received by the audience.
A true gentleman and an outstanding musician, Blanchard was a pleasure to work with, as was his group. It is my hope that he will write an original work for us at some point in the future.
In 2010, the DSO began a tradition of saluting those who have made important contributions to not only the orchestra, but also the community. This year’s Heroes Gala honored the Davidson/Gerson family for its support of our touring and community engagement initiatives. The William Davidson Neighborhood Concert series, for example, has generated more than 3,000 new subscribers who attend concerts in seven different suburban locations. The event this year raised over $1.4 million.
The star of the concert was my old friend Randy Newman. His uncle, Alfred, was head of music at Twentieth Century Fox, where my dad was concertmaster. The Newmans and Slatkins were two of Hollywood’s most prominent musical families. Randy and I hung out at the sound stages, enjoyed picnics and developed a long-standing relationship.
We have the same sort of sarcastic sense of humor, although Randy is more public about it. One time, when there was a vacancy for commissioner of baseball, he and I were asked by NPR to do an interview. They knew of our love of the game, and one of the questions we were asked was, “If you were commissioner, what would be your first official act?”
I thought about it and answered that it was my belief that the trend for loud, pre-recorded music should be replaced by ensuring that every ballpark had a traditional organ, as used to be the case. It seemed like a humorous response.
But of course, Randy had a better one.
“My first act would be to move the commissioner’s office to the Bahamas!”
Our program began with Randy conducting three suites from some of his film scores. Then I joined to conduct about a dozen or so of his songs. He has lost none of his edge, but a couple of new tunes are truly romantic, without that twinge of sarcasm that characterizes so much of his work. We bantered and joked onstage, causing me to wonder who was having a better time, the audience or the two of us. I don’t think he has to worry about “having friends in anyone.”
The final two weeks of my season were spent in Lyon, with pieces that would seem to be contradictory but in reality, share a great deal in common. As we continue to record virtually every work with orchestra written by Maurice Ravel, it was on to three undisputed masterpieces.
In what seemed like a strange first half, the two piano concertos opened the concert. No overture or short piece was included, but it proved strikingly effective. On the other occasions when I have conducted these two works on the same program, virtually every pianist has chosen to do the G major prior to the one for left hand. The reason is simple. The effort to produce a big sound with one arm makes it almost impossible to achieve the delicacy and balance required for the other.
Our soloist was the young French pianist François Dumont. He possessed all the requisite skills for each piece. In particular, his clarity throughout reminded me of an older school of pianists from this country. And no, he did not cheat for the recording of the left hand concerto. There is a wonderful story about the pianist Alfred Cortot, who “arranged” this work for two hands. Ravel forbade it and wrote to conductors telling them not to engage Cortot for the piece. After the composer died, the pianist resumed playing it in his own version.
After the intermission it was on to that most incredible of ballet scores, Daphnis et Chloé. What can one say about this piece? A virtual textbook on how to write for orchestra, let alone manipulate just a few themes, the complete work makes one aware of all the musical connections and therefore provides much more substance to the music of the 2nd suite.
I have never seen the work performed in the ballet theater, so I have no idea how the offstage chorus really functions both physically and sonically. My decisions boiled down to moments when the choir sang while seated and moments when they needed to stand. The concerts were recorded live with a full day spent patching up things. Our engineers decided to leave the choral microphones turned off, and that seemed to work just fine. With great work from all concerned, and a special tip of the hat to flutist Jocelyn Aubrun, this may turn out to be one of my best recordings. And the concerts themselves were spectacular.
So far, just two albums of the series have been released on the Naxos label; however, I can tell you that the next five will be released over a period of a year and a half. L’enfant et les sortilèges comes out this October, L’heure espagnole in February, orchestrations by Ravel in April 2016, Daphnis et Chloé in June and Antar probably in December. There are still several other works already recorded and in the can, and what remains are some cantatas, songs and choral works. It is estimated that the whole project will total 11 discs, or by the time they are all issued, one really large download.
Cindy and I had the opportunity to go to the original Bocuse Institute, located in Ecully, about a 20-minute drive from Lyon. It was 25 years ago that the great chef started teaching his art in this beautiful surrounding.
Not only is it a school for budding chefs, but it is also a training ground for work in the hotel business. Everything was prepared by the students, and at the end, they gave a little performance. Nothing like watching dancers in toques.
The final week of conducting was devoted to the music of John Williams, particularly his collaborations with Steven Spielberg. As you may know, Lyon is the birthplace of cinema, and the ONL presents at least five weeks of performances with film. Some are old silents and others are more contemporary fare. All of them sell out three and four programs each and are very demanding for the orchestra.
I am not sure how this one originated, but it was nothing like a similar program that John presents himself. The ONL version featured clips from about seven of the films, but they did not contain spoken dialogue or sound effects. The editions of music were those already published as concert works, but the visual images did not always coincide exactly with what was occurring on the screen. For example, the “Raiders March” utilized clips from four different films in the series. A few of the pieces simply utilized still pictures rather than moving images.
It is always a joy to conduct this music. The sheer number of works that are instantly recognizable to so many people is astounding. There is something special about the Williams sound. It does harken back to an earlier time in film music history, but still has an originality so often lacking with most of today’s composers writing for the silver screen. Even with the slightly awkward balance of music to image in this presentation, the true star of the evening was John.
It all went very well, and the audience ate it up. Clearly this was a different crowd than we usually see, even for the cineconcert series. The ONL was more than up to the task and really understands this style of playing. They gave very few hints that they were a French orchestra, especially after the complete opposite had occurred in the previous week.
We played the final concert outside without the video clips and photos. The crowd’s enthusiasm confirmed what we all know to be true—John’s music stands perfectly well on its own.
Somehow, I forgot my listening recommendation last month, so this time around, you get two for the price of one.
George Shearing was an incredible pianist, blind from birth, who mastered so many different styles of keyboard playing. Always elegant, he ran the gamut from classical to jazz to Latin. Whether playing solo or with ensembles, he created a sound characterized by a velvet touch and mostly gentle chord progressions.
Not that he neglected the complex. One evening, at the Café Carlyle, George knew that I was in the audience. He said he was dedicating the next song to me and that I would probably be the only one in the room that would get it. He proceeded to give his take on the classic, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Somehow he found an ostinato note that worked well throughout the six-minute improv. George had fashioned his version after “Le Gibet” from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit!
We worked together on a couple of occasions. He would play either a Bach or Mozart concerto, followed by some of his arrangements, which appeared on the Capitol record label. There are numerous recordings available, but if I had to go one direction, it would be for the ones that feature him solo.
As was usually the case with Capitol artists, my parents were his concertmaster and first cellist. In those days, George’s album covers featured provocative women, and my father asked him, “Don’t you feel left out since you can’t see them?”
George’s reply was classic.
“They send me the covers in braille.”
Also on the Capitol label was a man who was not a musician but seemed to know just about everything regarding the popular music field of the time. Stan Freberg virtually invented the comedy single. His early parodies of rock and roll, Harry Belafonte and Lawrence Welk were spot on and quite biting satire. This culminated in a recording called “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” which skewered the industry for cash payments to radio stations.
For only 13 episodes, he had an amazing radio show featuring no less than Billy May as its musical director. An album tackling the history of the United States was a best seller and included a line that I use with a couple friends. There is a track where a flute player and drummer are marching back from a battle. The leader is straitlaced to a fault but the other two are hip jazzters, trying to put some swing into “Yankee Doodle.” At the end, as the small entourage marches away, one of them says to the other, “You’ve influenced me a lot, Bix.” It always cracks me up.
Perhaps some of Freberg’s material will not mean much to those of you who grew up after the ’70s or so, but there is a lot of great stuff in a box set called Tip of the Freberg, available on the Rhino label. It includes almost all the commercial recordings as well as some of his radio shows, videos and unreleased material.
As I mentioned at the outset, these concerts were the last ones for a while. In what seems extraordinary for me, I am taking the remainder of the summer off. This means that for about eight weeks my arms will not be in perpetual motion. About half of that time will be spent in Michigan, where I hope to complete a piece of music that is to be premiered by the DSO in December. There should also be some time to continue work on my next book, which is about half finished.
Cindy and I will do a bit of traveling, in particular, a 10-day cruise to Alaska. We will also visit her family as well as spend a few days with my son. The season is up and running again in Lyon at the end of August.
During this extended vacation, I will continue to write my monthly column, but more than likely, I will address issues within the music industry and probably be a bit more rambling than usual. Perhaps I will even preview a chapter of the new book.
See you next month,