JUNE 2009

JUNE 2009
June 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

On the road once more. This time for six weeks. Groan!

Now that I actually have a physical place of residence, it seems more difficult to be away. All those boxes that need to get unpacked, getting used to a new kitchen, and those pesky tools that I need to stay away from.

This has been a season in which I have visited several orchestras that have not been on my radar much, due to other obligations. The final one this year was Houston. The last time I was there was 19 years ago, and that was to fill in for Christoph Eschenbach.

Like so many other ensembles, the Houston Symphony plays very, very well but does not get thought of with the same regard of the select few. Usually when I guest conduct, I suggest program ideas, but this time there was a request. Having premiered Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina in Washington three years earlier, there was interest for me to bring the work for its Texas premiere. But a slight glitch arose at the last moment.

The baritone soloist cancelled less than a week before the first rehearsal. The piece is quite substantial for the two soloists, and we were all grateful that Thomas Meglioranza stepped in and learned it quickly. He and soprano Heidi Grant Murphy delivered terrific performances. Roberto was in Houston as well. What a lovely person and fine composer.

We also performed the 8th Symphony of Beethoven. Excellent playing from all forces, but the hall is a problem. It is not so easy for the sections to hear each other. The cavernous space also seems too large for my taste.

There was a free night between the first two performances, and I had a choice of events to attend. Andre Previn’s new opera, Brief Encounter, was having its premiere. At the University, Murry Sidlin was leading The Defiant Requiem. And the reunion tour of Spinal Tap was in town as well. I opted for the middle choice. Murry has been presenting this for a few years now, but I had not experienced it before.

In 1943, a prisoner at the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, one Raphael Schaechter, put together a chorus and, using only one vocal score, taught other inmates the Verdi Requiem. The group gave several performances and one can only imagine what the final “Libera me” must have meant. Murry’s performance combines spoken and written accounts from other survivors as well as an original take on the piece itself, including several passages accompanied by an out of tune piano. This was a truly moving and highly emotional event and I encourage anyone to see it if you are near a place where it is being performed.

Now it was on to Milan, to start my final trip to Europe this season. The Verdi Orchestra is not to be confused with the orchestra of La Scala. The former is one of only three professional symphonies in all of Italy. They play in quite a nice hall, located on Largo Mahler. And no, they do not just play Verdi. My program featured an American first half. The Candide Overture, Corigliano’s Elegy and the 1st Symphony of Barber. I love taking this last piece to orchestras who have never played it. At first, probably because of the difficulty of the work, the orchestras do not know what to make of it. But by the end of the run, there is uniform gratification at having mastered it, but more importantly, the true joy of discovering a masterpiece. Several members of the orchestra went out and bought my recording of the work.

We had one day off between performances, and there was another orchestra in town, this one called the Toscanini orchestra. Unlike the Verdi, it is not a full-time ensemble. They cull some of the best players from Italy, meet in Parma, and play several concerts each season. For this performance, the conductor was Tan Dun. Obviously the featured works were his, with Sharon Isbin playing a guitar concerto, featuring a lot of foot stomping by the conductor and orchestra. The concluding piece was called, Earth and Fire, again with many unusual effects, including one moment when the orchestra stands up and starts shouting and waving their instruments.

Despite some of the unusual orchestral gestures, I was reminded that there really is no such thing as new music. Good pieces tend to take materials that have existed and rework them into an original and personal whole. I do not remember the last time I thought, “I have never heard anything like that before.”

My final performance was on a Sunday. When I arrived at the hall, a rehearsal was coming to an end. I listened to a bit of Brahms 4th, with just the strings, and went back to the dressing room, where I met Aldo Ceccato. For five years he was the music director in Detroit. We talked for about an hour, with his animation belying his 75 years. Now I have spoken with all the living music directors of my orchestra. All have wonderful stories of their times in Motor City.

After the Sunday afternoon concert, it was off to London, as I had two rehearsals the next day. This was in preparation for a five-day tour in Germany. We convened at Henry Wood Hall and in the span of five hours put together Mahler 5, Brahms 2 and Appalachian Spring.

A tour with an English orchestra is unlike anything you can imagine. On a Tuesday morning, the orchestra had a flight at 8 in the morning, arriving in Stuttgart at noon. This meant that many of the players had to get up at 5 am in order to get to Heathrow airport on time. After checking in at their hotel, there was a three-hour rehearsal, to continue with the Mahler and add the Liszt Piano Concerto No 1. Then came the concert. All this in one day! This is the norm for the RPO. They need to do it in order to create income and keep expenditures at a minimum. When I ask the players how they manage, the response is simply that they are used to it.

The soloist in the Liszt was Kirill Gerstein, who played the work very beautifully, and with a great sense of drama.

The following day it was off to Friederichshafen, about two hours away, with another full rehearsal. After the program, I was driven to Ulm. But there was no concert in that charming city. It was just an overnight stop to get closer to the third city, Kempton. I had never heard of this place and they don’t really have a concert hall. It is a converted sports arena and mostly presents pop and rock shows. We had another rehearsal, as the Mahler was back on the program and needed more than just a touch up.

Next was Wuppertal and we were joined by duo pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque for the Mozart Double. This was the most elegant of the halls on the trip, looking like a twin of Vienna’s Musikverein. A bit overly reverberant at the rehearsal, it turned out just about right with an audience in place.

We ended in the north, at Hanover. I have played in this hall many times. It is also the home of Konzertdirection Schmidt, who had been my agents for more than 35 years. I had recently decided to simplify my life and let my New York management handle everything. In this day and age, at least for me, it is not so necessary to have people all over the world taking care of the various dates. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for those who have overseen my musical comings and goings. At dinner after the concert, I thanked the Schmidt agency for everything they have done and hope that they understood that this change was not intended as a slight toward the company.

The trip was exhausting, with no day seeing less than two hours of travel, and some days up to five. Cars, trains, and planes are all well and good, but it was nice to get back to London, where I would spend the entire next week. But, amazingly, there were five free days, and this allowed me to get to work on a few projects.

First, I had to finish the second set of Holiday Arrangements for Piano and Strings, of which I still had six to write. The muse struck and they all got done in three days. Then, much to my surprise, the writing bug hit at the start of this trip and I finally began to write a book. More about that as it progresses.

But, with some time, I indulged in what I love to do in London: go to the theater. First up was a play called War Horse. It is based upon a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and tells the story of the role of the horse during World War I. This is accomplished on the stage with an incredible set of full-sized puppets, each requiring three persons to operate. At one point there were six of these on stage, recreating the battle experience. It would be nice to say that I loved this, but found that the wizardry of the production overtook the story line. It is certainly worth seeing, but some will find the ending a bit out of keeping with the horror faced by these brave animals.

The second play was Collaboration, a companion piece to Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood. This new play explores the relationship between Richard Strauss and Stephan Zweig, the German writer. After the death of the composer’s longtime librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss decides that Zweig is just the person for a new partnership. The problem is that the writer is Jewish and this is all happening as the Nazis are coming into power.

Although the conversations are clearly speculative, the story itself is based in fact, including the exclusion of Zweig’s name on the only opera the two would do together, Die schweigsame Frau. This play is running concurrently with the one about Furtwangler and I would think that seeing both in the same day could be quite satisfying.

Walking around London is always interesting, but this time it brought me to:


I love the double decker busses. When the weather is nice this is always worth the ride. But when it comes to advertising on the vehicle, the British far outdo their American counterparts. But this time, it is not the transport system that got to me.

A new product is plastered on one out of every three busses you see. It is called Pepsi Raw. Let’s see. You have your basic Pepsi, diet Pepsi, caffeine-free Pepsi, diet caffeine-free Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Pepsi One and those are only the unflavored ones (I will restrain myself from the obvious snide remark here).

Pepsi, make up your mind! That goes for you, too, Coke, especially since Tab is still on the market.

The third play I attended was at the National Theatre on the Southbank. If there was ever an argument for subsidized arts, this is it. They are able to produce theater at reasonable prices for the audience, and put on works that no other West End venue would tackle.

On this occasion, it was a J. B. Priestly work called Time and the Conways. Although the work itself has some flaws, the production tells us much about how theater can be involving on so many levels. Priestly was experimenting with time, the first act is set in 1918, the second about 20 years later, and the third returns to the moment when the first act ended. This allows the audience to see how the lives of the characters were transformed without giving anything away early on. Great performances and a full house.

That was a matinee and in the evening I attended a concert by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, not conducted by Neville Marriner. On this occasion, Julian Rachlin led the orchestra from the concertmaster chair. The program included an orchestration of the “Arpeggione” Sonata by Schubert. Rachlin played the work on viola and the string writing fit very well, although I thought that it could have used a couple of oboes and horns, just for the sake of tonal variety.

At last I got back to conducting. The RPO and I had just one rehearsal for our Festival Hall concert. Pictures at an Exhibition was the major work, which we had run through in Germany but not performed. And then Katia and Marielle returned, but in a two-piano version of Rhapsody in Blue. It was great fun. For an encore, Katia and I played a Polka by Stravinsky. This was my South Bank debut as a pianist, albeit I only had four notes to play.

In what was one of the toughest days I had endured, I left London at 10 in the morning, stopped in the Detroit airport for an hour and a half, flew to Nashville and had two hours’ break before rehearsing the chorus. This was my last official week as Music Advisor to the Nashville Symphony. For the past three years, we have had quite a ride: Opening the new hall, recording and getting a couple Grammys, hosting the League of American Orchestras, dedicating the new organ. But most of all, I think this orchestra could boast that virtually every subscription concert contained at least one piece by an American composer.

We performed works of McTee, Corigliano, Mathes, Tower, Foss, Bacon, Mackay, Gould, Barber, whose nephew lives there, and so many more. I had a great time with this lovely group of musicians and was delighted to help them out. And every trip always included a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame. This may be one of the best museums anyone can visit and it is worth a trip here just to see Elvis’ Solid Gold Cadillac and the outfits designed by one Nudie Williams. Plus, there are informative exhibits that bring this special kind of music to the place it belongs, as part of our history and culture.

It is also the place where Mark Adamo delivered one of the funniest lines I had ever heard someone say off the cuff. We passed by the Emmy Lou Harris plaque, and I said that she has been going at this for over 50 years now, to which Mark replied, “Yes, she is the Mirella Freni of country music.” The staff of the museum had to pick me up off the floor.

See you next month,