How life changes.
Normally, June is when orchestral seasons wind down, with subscription concerts ending sometime near the middle or end of the month. At least, that seems to be true when you are a music director. Now that I am a freelancer, the time for guest conducting has passed, and I get to focus on projects that do not require me to be on the podium.
There was one stint left for me to do. Having spent the last couple seasons helping out the Rhode Island Philharmonic after the loss of their music director, Bramwell Tovey, to cancer, I made another trip to Providence to conduct a fundraising concert featuring Renée Fleming performing a wide range of repertoire.
Concerts such as these are a balancing act of careful programming, as the audiences are basically coming to be entertained. For the orchestra’s part, their contributions without our soloist consisted of overtures by Verdi and Suppé, Rodgers’s “Carousel Waltz,” and a collaboration with the young string players of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School. About 60 violinists joined the orchestra for two movements of Vaughan Williams’s Concerto Grosso. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare for the stage crew, but they managed to get everyone on and off quickly enough so that the program flowed without too much delay.
As for the vocal selections, they certainly ran the gamut. The principal offering was Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Although a fifth was discovered a while ago, these songs are among the finest and most subtle of all the composer’s works. It is impossible not to be moved by “Im Abendrot,” with its references to the composer’s early tone poem Death and Transfiguration. Renée has been doing these songs throughout her storied career, and they have become signature works for her. The program also included two short arias by Leoncavallo and Cilea, as well as lighter fare ranging from The Sound of Music to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It was with the greatest pleasure that I could collaborate with Renée on this performance. The orchestra played magnificently.
I believe the event raised a record amount of money for the orchestra. Clearly, the audience was not only appreciative but generous as well.
I spent the rest of the month working on writing, in this case both words and music. Last season, when I was in Hiroshima, the administration asked Cindy if she would compose a piece commemorating the anniversary of Schubert’s death, which will occur in 2028. But for some reason, they wish to get the celebratory events started a few years earlier. Cindy declined but I perked up, with a couple ideas already running through my head.
And so it came to pass that after more than 65 years of writing music, I now have my very first commission. While I have plenty of time to finish the piece, this will be the most complex work I have ever written in terms of sonic elements, and my skills with the music notation software Finale are not quite as sophisticated as I need. My strategy is to put a lot of it down by hand, add in what I can via computer, and then have someone help me piece it all together. The premiere is scheduled for February 2025, and hopefully it will be good enough to warrant further performances.
June also saw the premiere of a ten-minute documentary by my son. He has been doing work for ESPN, and this particular feature was shown on the daily Sports Center program. Response to both the film and music was overwhelmingly positive, and he will be doing more work for the cable channel in the future.
Speaking of sports, I went to a few ballgames, soaking in the atmosphere that is always present at Busch Stadium. My visits produced two wins and one excruciating loss. This has been an up- and-down month for the Redbirds, but since they play in a weak division, there is still time to move up in the standings and qualify for a playoff spot. Cardinal Nation remains a strong force in baseball.
The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis held its annual festival featuring four presentations. Cindy and I went to three of them, enjoying outstanding productions of Tosca and Susannah. We also saw Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, which included a specially written prologue and epilogue that unfortunately did not help the somewhat weak libretto. Joplin’s music has been rearranged from the version put together by Gunther Schuller, and I am not sure why that needed to be altered.
Nonetheless, the company is doing well and provides an invaluable service to St. Louis audiences and those opera lovers who come from all over the world. To that end, it was wonderful to spend some time with its founder, Richard Gaddes, who, along with other civic leaders, created the company back in 1976, when I was still the associate conductor of the St. Louis Symphony. To see the organization continue to grow is music to my eyes.
If you have followed this monthly diary, you know that I have been referring to a couple of books that I am writing. One of them will be the first in a series, but I am not allowed to say much about it yet. I can tell you that it will appear in March.
I have also been working on two additional publications. I am not sure if they will see the light of day in book format. One of them is a series of reviews about classical music in films; I have posted a couple of them here before. I am still considering the best format for presenting these.
The other project is called Words without Songs, a reverse on the Mendelssohn piano pieces. My publisher feels that the concept is a little too close to the first two books that I wrote. What to do with this more-or-less completed manuscript?
Much of the work concerns my recordings dating back to the mid-1970s. As it happens, Naxos now owns the catalog of Vox Records, the company that started my recording career. They are remastering and reissuing several of those early efforts, and I have to say, they sound terrific. Naxos released the “audiophile edition” of Gershwin’s orchestral works last week.
In the manuscript for Words without Songs, I took on the role of self-critic, looking at the good, bad, and sometimes horrible discs that were released over the course of my career. Listening to the nearly 200 pieces of music involved was not an easy task. During the pandemic, I had the time to do it, and this overview of my output was one of the results.
When time and space allow, I will post excerpts for all of you who are loyal followers of my adventures, starting here with commentary on the initial recordings I made in St. Louis. These were the first to help put the orchestra on the international map.
I hope you enjoy reading them.
On the Record
“Every time I hear a recording I’ve made, I hear all kinds of things I could improve or things I should have done. There’s always so much more to be done in music. It’s so vast.”
Over the course of 50 years, I have been fortunate to commit many performances to disc, vinyl and otherwise, as well as various other platforms that have come along in the 21st century. I view my recordings as snapshots of how I felt about a piece of music at the time. Once the finished product hits the marketplace, I usually move on without ever referencing the recordings for subsequent performances or pondering their legacy. Occasionally, I might stumble upon one when listening to the radio or when someone points out a particular recording of mine. I remember one evening, while I was driving home, when a performance came on the radio that was just not good. I stayed in the car until the piece concluded to find out who was conducting and, naturally, it turned out to be me.
At this point in my life, I thought it might be interesting and informative to revisit those recorded archives to shed light on how I developed or regressed as a conductor and musician. While I found some of the recordings cringeworthy, I also discovered some forgotten items that brought back wonderful memories.
Back in 1974, St. Louis Symphony Music Director Walter Susskind allowed me to record, for Vox Records, a landmark set of three discs devoted to what was thought to be Gershwin’s complete orchestral works, not including the operas, shows, or orchestrations of his works.
We recorded nine piece in three days, encountering all kinds of obstacles. For starters, our pianist, Jeffrey Siegel, was suffering from kidney stones. We were scheduled to give two performances, both outdoors, ahead of the recording sessions. One of them was rained out. As a result, we had little time to prepare.
I was new to the recording process and had a lot to learn about time management. We spent about 25 minutes establishing the orchestral balance, eating valuable time off the clock. Luckily, our producer, Joanna Nickrenz, and our engineer, Marc Aubort, were the best in the business. They made sure that every mistake was corrected. My mother, who worked in film studio orchestras toward the end of Gershwin’s life, also assisted with the recording, offering insight into the swing tradition and contemporary thought.
We had six three-hour sessions in which to record the three LPs. This may seem sufficient, but one full hour of each session is for breaks, leaving only two hours for recording—not much time for a novice orchestra and conductor.
Surprisingly, we were the first orchestra to record this complete Gershwin cycle, which consists of the four works for piano and orchestra (Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue, Second Rhapsody, and the “I Got Rhythm” Variations), An American in Paris, Cuban Overture, the “Catfish Row” Suite from Porgy and Bess, as well as the Lullaby and Promenade. The album was very well-received and has never gone out of print.
Quadraphonic sound was all the rage back then, and we had to try to come up with something special for the seven people who had a sound system to accommodate the new technology. In the Cuban Overture, we placed the Latin percussion out in the audience. The space between them and the orchestra made it difficult to be as rhythmically secure as we wanted, but eventually we figured it out. I guess this is something that will be lost as the years pass.
I have since re-recorded Gershwin’s orchestral works, but there is still something wonderfully fresh about these early efforts that the later ones did not quite match. The balance of old-world style and charm never seemed overdone, and indeed, I still believe that one needs to have the image of Fred Astaire, and possibly Oscar Levant, firmly in mind when performing these works. Unfortunately, when I mention this to orchestras these days, most of the musicians have looks of confusion on their faces.
I am reminded of one story that is worth relating here. As I said, we did not have a lot of time to record these, and consequently the Promenade and Lullaby tracks were both first takes. But when we did Rhapsody in Blue, the principal clarinetist, George Silfies, said he thought he could do the famous opening better. We were all stunned, as his initial rendering was incredible, but it was important to keep George happy.
When we started up again, he flubbed the big glissando that opens the piece. It emerged as a stuttering mess, and George said right then and there, “The first take was just fine.” How I wish we had that blooper to replay.
See you next month,