JULY 2024

JULY 2024
July 1, 2024 leonard slatkin

Three very different weeks ensued during June, representing the traditional, the unconventional, and the educational. All were satisfying and made for a fine start to a not-too-busy summer conducting schedule.

After a month away from the podium, it was time to pick up the baton and strike up the bands, first in Bilbao, Spain. I was not exactly looking forward to this trip, as a scheduling error resulted in only a single conducting engagement in Europe as opposed to the usual two, three, or sometimes eight weeks overseas.

It is not so easy to get to some cities from St. Louis. In this case, the journey required three planes and two stops—in Boston and Madrid—but we reached our destination smoothly without any hiccups.

Having been to Bilbao two times previously, I knew that the orchestra would be easy to work with, and for this visit, the repertoire was standard fare. The only unusual item was the opening piece, Barber’s masterful Overture to The School for Scandal. This first orchestral work was written while the composer was still a student at the Curtis Institute. I remember hearing it often in the ’50s and ’60s, but it seems to have disappeared from the orchestral scene, as have so many classic American scores.

The Bilbao Symphony gave a fine, gleeful performance. The work is challenging and full of traps for the musicians, but all went well, and I think they enjoyed getting to know this marvelous piece. Next up was the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos, featuring the fast-rising Jussen brothers as soloists. Mozart wrote it for performances with his sister, so keeping it a family affair made sense.

After intermission, we played Brahms’s First Symphony. This is one of the pieces included in the second volume of my score-study series coming out in October. Interestingly, the intense study involved in creating the book prompted me to rethink my approach to this work.

Reexamining the standard canon is a fantastic exercise. It is like being a student all over again, but this time with about sixty years of conducting experience. The seasoned veterans in the orchestra seemed to enjoy my newfound observations and said they appreciated finding refreshing ways to perform the familiar masterpiece.

Bilbao itself is a wonderfully modern city but retains traditions of the past. Unsurprisingly, the food is outstanding, with several first-class seafood establishments as well as other restaurants representing cuisines from all over the world. In Basque country, it is always worthwhile to feast on the tapas and pinchos that dot the gastronomical landscape.

After just five days, it was already time to head back to the States for what I believed would be a quite memorable and moving experience. It turned out to be that and more.

Over the years, I have come to embrace my Los Angeles roots, specifically those associated with Hollywood. In the past, the latter was a dirty word from the perspective of the classical-music establishment, and some continue to think that the motion picture industry cannot produce great art. My take is that the development of cinema and its soundtracks helped form a vital part of the American cultural scene.

With that in mind, I accepted an invitation to do an intriguing project with the record and concert producer Robert Townson. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Peak, one of the most outstanding and unique visual artists of his time. You may not know his name, but you have likely seen his iconic movie posters, Time magazine covers, and representations of major sporting events.

The first half of the concert contained music from the films for which Peak created the memorable posters, ranging from West Side Story to Star Trek and Superman. To honor Peak, the second half presented ten new pieces inspired by his paintings, written by composers currently active in Hollywood. The orchestra included some of the top studio musicians in the LA area.

All the new music was recorded for commercial release later this year. The recording sessions and concert rehearsals took place on the Alfred Newman Scoring Stage at Fox Studios. As a child, I spent countless days watching the magic of music and film come together in that very room where Newman conducted and my father served as concertmaster. You cannot begin to imagine the range of emotions that flowed through me as I walked into the hallowed building.

Fittingly, one of the new pieces was composed by Maria Newman, Alfred’s youngest daughter. In an attempt to represent two generations of musicians in the studio, she and I did our best to replicate the poses in a photo I have of my father and Mr. Newman as they were recording the violin solos for the film How Green Was My Valley.

photographer unknown


© Cindy McTee

With my son Daniel also in attendance, yet another generational link was formed.

Programs comprising several short pieces are significantly more difficult to lead than those containing a fifty-minute symphony. The conductor and orchestra must constantly shift from one style to the next, and remembering the tempi is particularly challenging. Nevertheless, everything came together for the concert two days later at Disney Hall, and all went without a glitch. We encountered one of the most enthusiastic audience imaginable, but the biggest surprise would come after the last notes were sounded.

All of the composers came to the stage at the end, along with Robert, members of the Peak family, and representatives of the Abu Dhabi Festival. On the screen that was used to show Peak’s posters and other artworks, a video played featuring past recipients of the lifetime achievement award. The past honorees included Krzysztof Penderecki, Yo-Yo Ma, and John Williams, among other artists whose pedigree and contributions are unmatched. I began to wonder who would take home the 2024 award, only to be stunned when my name and photo appeared. This moment in time felt suspended, and it was all I could do to regain my composure. But I didn’t let it go to my head and soon began thinking about my priorities for the following week as both a conductor and educator.

Colorado has become the summer music festival capital of the United States. It seems as if almost every town presents one these days. Breckenridge hosts the National Repertory Orchestra, a longstanding organization that provides opportunities for young musicians to hone their skills at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet.

The principal difference between this festival and others is that the ensemble comprises only students and does not include professionals. Nonetheless, with devoted staff and conductors, the eight-week conclave offers a deep dive into the music that these musicians will encounter as they enter the orchestral world.

I had been here once before when Carl Topilow was the music director. Now the program is in the hands of Michael Stern, and the overall level of musicianship continues to amaze. With six rehearsals as well as sectionals, the students are thoroughly prepared to perform this repertoire.

Our program featured four diverse works, each challenging in its own way. Smetana’s Vltava—I prefer the Czech name for The Moldau—opened the concert, establishing the overall theme of nature for the season. One of my desert-island pieces, Kodály’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (The Peacock) followed. I had not conducted it for many years, and it was a treat to revisit. The young musicians brought a real sense of the Hungarian style to their performance.

After intermission came Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, with one of the outstanding young musicians, Solveig Geenen, serving as the delicate bird. She was poised and subtle, giving an intimate beauty to this unique work. To close out the concert, we played one of my party pieces, the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. Everyone relished the challenge, and the audience responded to the whole evening enthusiastically.

During the week, I led six rehearsals, oversaw three sectionals, gave a conducting master class, hosted a screening of the film La Maestra, and attended several social and fundraising events. The National Repertory Orchestra is such a fine institution, demonstrating a real sense of community and purpose. I hope my contribution helped the musicians advance on a path forward in the orchestral profession.

Still, it was good to get home and to return to sea-level altitudes. I have a lot to catch up on in the few weeks off before my next assignment, and my Big Green Egg awaits.

See you next month,