Most of the time, I devote this space to simply recounting what has taken place over the previous month, at least as far as my musical life is concerned. Every so often I deviate from this if there are abrupt changes in the world that seem to shake all of us to the core, for better or worse. June was one of those months.
Please keep in mind that I do not take political sides or engage in one-sided discourse. These observations are just my own personal thoughts on matters that mean a great deal to me.
Before I left for the final weeks of the season with the ONL, Muhammad Ali passed away. I remember very well his exploits in and out of the ring. The sight of this incredible athlete inspired awe from virtually everyone in my age group. Although I was not particularly interested in boxing, I listened intently on the radio as he took championships both at home and abroad.
During my student years at Juilliard, I watched and followed attentively his name change and subsequent banishment from the sports world. It was the time of Vietnam, when many of my generation had no clue as to our future. The draft was in full sway, and the term “conscientious objector” took on a true reality for many of us. Ali sacrificed three years, served time in prison, and forced us to look at our own society in a different way.
His trembling limbs, in full view of a worldwide public as he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta, was more than just symbolic. It was a gesture designed to show how one overcomes adversity. Watching the moving memorial, and in particular the eulogies from Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel and Bill Clinton, I could not help but be brought to tears over someone who influenced my own way of thinking as the years passed by. I would be reminded of this again later in the month.
We headed off to Lyon to prepare for the orchestra’s tour to Japan. Upon arrival at our apartment, I turned on the computer only to discover the horrendous attack in Orlando. Pundit-watching can be addictive, but it must be tempered with fact rather than speculation. In the early going, at least from abroad, it seemed as if a rush to judgment were taking place. As we still do not know everything about this heinous act, it is clear that an individual was motivated by hate. It is very sad that this bitterness continues to fester and even grow in today’s society.
It is also a clear indication of why many in the States, as well as the world, are so angry. With both parties of Congress trying to do something about gun legislation, partisan politics once again reared its ugly head, and we were left in the same position we have always been. Aside from the tragedy that took place in the nightclub, the sad sight of our elected officials being unable or unwilling to forge a path for logical gun rights was once again in plain view for all to see.
At least there was some solace to be found in the music-making. But not before yet another reminder of the way the new world is changing our lives. For the past five seasons, we have been able to travel to Lyon without having to deal with a passport or security check once inside the European border. Euro 2016 had just begun in France, the biggest of that region’s soccer tournaments, and there were fears of terrorism, hooliganism, and other disruptive forces. So everyone crossing borders within Europe now had to present documents. There were also armed soldiers not only at the airport, but also all over the city.
Did this prevent violence? No!
That very evening in Marseille, there were fights between partisan Russian and English fans who had become very drunk and almost caused the expulsion of one of the teams. The next match in Lyon would be Northern Ireland vs. the Ukraine. This was the scene in the Place Bellecour, with the wearing of the green turned into the littering of the grass. And this was early in the afternoon, well before the match began.
It was much more pleasant at the Auditorium, as we had two days of rehearsals for the seven concerts we would play in Japan. Sadly, our CEO, Jean-Marc Bador, announced that he would depart from his position in a few months to assume a new role with the French Radio in Paris. His guidance has been wonderful, and we will all miss him very much.
Basically, there were three programs to put together, with much of the repertoire quite familiar to all of us. Lots of Ravel, some Brahms and Bruch, as well as a couple of encore pieces. We also prepared a John Williams film-music program. The orchestra was in fine spirits, and we anticipated a very enjoyable trip.
Cindy and I left for Japan a few days before the orchestra in order to deal with jet lag, but also to take in some of the sights and sounds of Hokkaido, the island in the north where Sapporo City is located. Those of you who have been following various Facebook and Twitter feeds will have seen a few of the experiences we had, but here are some that we have not posted before.
With just a day and a half to recover, the orchestra convened in Sapporo, and we had a full rehearsal for that evening’s performance. Ravel was represented in the entire concert, with Rapsodie espagnole, Valses nobles et sentimentales, and the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé. Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition concluded the printed program, and we played the version in which I discreetly changed a few spots to coincide with the original piano edition.
For the encores we stayed in a mostly French mode. The Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann was presented in its usual form. It was another matter entirely for the Can-Can. My father had arranged, conducted, and recorded an album back in 1960 called Fantastic Strings Play Fantastic Themes. There were twelve tracks, all of them reworkings of famous classical melodies presented in a more popular style. None of the sheet music or scores exist, as it was thought at the time that they would only be used for the recordings and never be played again.
Cindy has been going through these discs, not only extrapolating the original scoring by my dad, which was just strings, brass, and percussion, but also expanding this for the whole orchestra. And so this tour concludes with Twist the Can-Can, with all sorts of ’60s rock-and-roll riffs as well as fiendishly difficult violin parts. The orchestra whooped it up, and the audience loved it. Following this and almost every concert, there was an autograph session, during which up to 300 people came to have CDs and programs signed each night. My right hand was more tired from this than the actual performance.
More or less the same program occurred two nights later in Nara, an old city near Osaka. Following that, we played in the second largest metropolis in Japan. The performance in Osaka was one of two concerts devoted to the film music of John Williams. Some people wondered why an orchestra from Lyon would be saluting Hollywood, but there was ample cause for this. France’s second city is the birthplace of cinema, with the Lumière brothers inventing the new art form. When the industry took over in Hollywood, where I was born, the connection became clear. And of course, John is one of my dearest friends and perhaps the best known composer in the world.
We played most of his greatest hits, plus a few that were not so familiar. I had decided the night before to do something that I usually reserve for events in Detroit. During the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back, I had my co-host and translator, Sascha, go into the audience and select a young person to bring to the podium. Then I reached under the music stand, pulled out what looked like a flashlight, and waved it so it turned into a light saber. Next, I gave it to the very surprised youngster and had him conduct the remainder of the piece. All of this took place while the orchestra was playing, so they really were on their own, as I had not told them what was going to occur. The audience was delighted, and perhaps in twenty years or so, the ONL will have found its new music director.
Of course there was yet another sign of world turmoil during this part of the trip when Britain decided to part company with the EU. Once again, the talking heads were trying to figure out how to parse this. I am old enough to remember when there was no European Union. All those different currencies—how many million lire to the dollar? My concern was not so much about the economic fallout, but rather the potential for increased isolationism. Reconciling that with the ability of each of us to connect immediately these days to any part of the world seems to me to be an irreconcilable contradiction.
More serious, in my view, is that the possibility of increased insensitivity to others could occur. In a world that is already full of rage, coming together to embrace our similarities as well as our differences is the only way to establish any iota of peace. The day after the referendum, members of my orchestra were talking about the possibility of France following the UK’s lead. On the plus side, Les Bleus, the national soccer team, beat Ireland to advance to the quarter-finals of the Euro Cup.
Our next stop was Tokyo. We played in three different halls, each with very individual acoustic properties. In my almost 40 years of coming to Tokyo, I had never stepped foot in the old Bunka Kaikan. This facility was where classical music was heard until the appearance of Suntory Hall in the ’80s. There are those who still prefer this wonderful and warm sonority, and I count myself among them. What a pleasure to have true sound, designed without any electronic devices measuring various properties of the auditorium.
Joining us for three concerts was Renaud Capuçon. We have a great musical rapport. For these concerts he played the Bruch G minor Concerto. Some people thought that we had either done it before many times, or that we met before the rehearsal to go through it bar by bar. Neither was the case. Yes, we greeted each other in his dressing room, but all we did was exchange stories and decide that we would simply go onstage and make music.
As usual, his was an elegant and sweeping performance of this staple of the repertoire. For an encore, we performed the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs. When we came offstage, we were told that several members of the audience were actually moved to tears.
Crying of a different kind would be on view when we arrived at our hotel following the concert. News of the attacks in Istanbul (again) were pouring in. Considering that Cindy and I had visited the city in November, we could only shake our heads in disbelief that Turkey was victimized once again. This remarkable city and its warm population should not take the brunt of senseless violence. It will most likely take more than condemnation to restore any degree of normalcy to so many places on our planet.
The second of the John Williams concerts took place at NHK Hall, an auditorium of almost 3,000 seats, which was nearly full for this performance. It seemed everyone had a great time. Sascha, who enjoys great popularity as a radio personality, is half German and half Japanese, and his English is flawless. I was able to tell anecdotes about John as well as inform the crowd about my own feelings regarding music for movies. For the “Parade of the Ewoks,” our timpanist, Benoit Cambreling, donned a Yoda mask, much to the surprise of everyone onstage. He was supposed to retire after this tour with the ONL, but given that we open next season with Le sacre du printemps, he did not want to retire until he played this piece one last time.
The final Tokyo concert took place in Suntory Hall. It was 30 years ago that this gleaming performance space opened, and I was fortunate enough to be among the first to commemorate the occasion. It was the St. Louis Symphony’s first trip to Japan, and we were immediately taken with the superb acoustics. The ONL brought its distinctive sound here two years ago, and our return was greeted enthusiastically. A contingent from OnlyLyon was on hand to show support and to promote tourism in Lyon.
The final stop on the tour was a trip to Nagoya, an hour and a half ride west by bullet train. Following a brief sound check, Cindy and I hosted a farewell party for the orchestra. Tours have a way of creating new bonds with the musicians and staff. Certainly everyone did a great job, and there were no glitches along the way. After one final CD signing, it was time to head back to the States. A nine-week stay in Santa Fe, leading performances of Barber’s Vanessa, will occupy me for the remainder of the summer.
Usually I reserve this space for listening recommendations, but the events of June have taken me in a different direction. Instead of something to be heard, I want to call your attention to something to be seen. And in many ways, it wound up summarizing and elucidating much of what had been on my mind these past 30 days.
O.J.: Made in America is a documentary aired by ESPN, the first in what will be a series of profiles. What makes this one different from the myriad tales about “The Juice” is that it puts his life into the context of its time. Watching the first episode during the train ride from Osaka to Tokyo, my thoughts were of the vast difference between Muhammad Ali and Simpson. They both lived through the turbulent ’60s, each excelling in their respective sports. They were the best at what they did.
But this was the era of civil unrest, Vietnam, and assassinations of our leaders. Ali chose a path that led to an uncompromising purpose of identity and conviction of conscience. O.J. was in it for himself.
The boxer epitomized the struggles of his time, and the football player simply ignored them. Is it any wonder that O.J. became so taken with being a celebrity that he believed he could get away with anything? These two men showed us the polar opposites in how they dealt with principle. One chose the difficult path, and the other soaked up the adoration.
Whereas Ali was brash, outspoken, and funny, O.J. was seemingly modest, soft-spoken, and almost scripted. Both broke racial barriers early in their careers, but Ali kept fighting for equal rights, and Simpson just rolled with whatever came his way. Corporate greed and the desire for a black spokesperson who could reach into the white community were most likely the genesis of O.J.’s descent. While watching the program and knowing what the ending would be, I could see how some could feel sorry for Simpson. He allowed himself to be manipulated, and he and others did everything possible to inflate his image.
Bottom line: He was not “The Greatest.” That will always be Ali.
I cannot recommend this five-part, almost eight-hour-long series highly enough. For me, it was a tremendous way of putting all the other tragic events of June into a different box. There are no simple explanations for any actions that lead to positive or horrific ends. We all need time to digest what occurs almost on a daily basis. Only then can judgment be rendered. That is what this program reminded me of time and time again.
Let us hope that the remainder of the summer does not present as much tumult as this past month. And just maybe we can get through the conventions without incident. That is wishful thinking.
For me, it is off to opera land.
See you next month,