May was an uneventful month, if you count getting a new job, conducting seven different orchestras, and dealing with volcanoes as uneventful.
Perhaps it is best to start at the top. For the past couple of years, I have been thinking about simplifying my professional life. It has been wonderful to be on the road but as I get older, this has become tiring. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved working with all the different orchestras, getting to know parts of the world I had never visited and experiencing a great deal of personal, cultural and social pleasure. But my sole position with a non-American Orchestra, in terms of a directorship, has been with the BBC Symphony. Now it seemed like a good time to complement my work in Detroit and Pittsburgh with either a European or Asian orchestra, which would then become my second base of operation.
Lyon lies about 2 hours south of Paris, by train. It is best known for its cuisine, the home of nouvelle. It also boasts one of the best orchestras in Europe and it has been my pleasure to conduct there several times in the past. For about the past two years there have been active discussions with me regarding the music directorship in that city. Normally this does not take so long to settle but there were various matters that had to be sorted out. The orchestra is run by the city, so any offer has to be extended by the mayor. During this time, the executive director had proposed me for the job, but then she exited and there was a gap between leaders.
There were also well documented issues between the current music director and the new executive director, which needed to be resolved before I could accept any position.
Lyon was my first stop on the 5 week European trip and Iceland was becoming a pain in the ash. Flights throughout the world were cancelled, delayed or diverted. On the day of my departure, everything seemed clear, but in order to make it in time, I had to fly overnight to Paris and catch a train to Lyon for rehearsals, which would start a couple hours later.
The NY/Paris flight was late by an hour. No one told me that the train station was about a 5-mile walk at deGaulle. Okay, maybe not that far, but clearly at the other end of the airport. I made it with one minute to spare. This journey was also late but I was met at the Gare and taken to my hotel. Normally, I would have had a brief nap but instead, there was a meeting with two officials from the city. There were still some remaining issues to resolve and this was the only time I could see those people.
The ONL (Orchestre National de Lyon) rehearses and performs in a large theater, seating about 2,200 people. It is one of the few orchestras that can be in residence in the city’s venue, as there are not so many other events taking place. A very tired Slatkin arrived and started rehearsing an all-Rachmaninov program, including the 3rd Symphony. It was clear that the orchestra was anxious to prove its mettle and perhaps we all tried just a bit too hard. But it was also clear that we were working well together and that it would be a wonderful performance of this demanding piece.
As the week progressed, things got even better. We had our first concert in Grenoble, with a full rehearsal the afternoon of the concert day. Our soloist was Olga Kern, playing the 3rd Concerto. She was astonishing! This set of performances was partially underwritten by the Rachmaninov foundation, which has sponsored several programs over the past couple of years. The composer’s grandson, who lives in Lucerne, was present. The performances in Lyon were even better. By this time the orchestra had the measure of the Symphony and played it with beauty and virtuosity. The public, with full houses each night, was vociferous in its response, stamping the floor and clapping rhythmically. This is always a surprise to me. How do they know to collectively start and in what tempo? It is sort of like the wave at a sports event.
After the final concert, there was a dinner with the mayor at a restaurant a few blocks away from the hall. He is a very cultured man, who taught Greek and Latin, but who also seems to be very popular with the public. Rumor has it that he is considering vying for national office. Among the ideas he has implemented in Lyon is a bike rental scheme. You pick it up at one point, and drop it off at one of several spots around the city. He also has energized the housing market and more and more people are moving to the city these days.
The dinner was spectacular. If the city has a motto, it is most probably, “So many restaurants, so little time.” There must be a law that prohibits less than first-rate cuisine in Lyon. Of course, this presents a new set of challenges for me, what with the need to eat in a more healthy way. But this is a challenge that I will enjoy.
There were two days off, and I spent them with friends, old and new. I was taken to lunch one of those days to a small town, Ambronay, about an hour away. There was an abbey next to the restaurant, which is a minor but interesting tourist attraction. While looking around, the pastor of the church came up to me, and said that he recognized me. I was a little surprised and then he said that before entering the clergy, he had run a record shop on the Champs Elysees in Paris. He was also of Russian-Jewish heritage before he got the calling. In fact, his family came from Belarus, the same part of the world where my father’s clan had originated. We live in more than a small world.
There would be further discussions in about a week, regarding the contract, but everything appeared to be on track.
The next stop was Frankfurt, with the Hessicher Rundfunk. This orchestra, which I have conducted several times, plays in the Alte Oper, but most of the rehearsals are at the radio studios. As mentioned previously, rehearsing and playing in different venues can be problematic. In this case, we only had one session in the hall, the day of the concert. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was the main work and it requires several acoustic checks. I have the off-stage oboe play from the balcony, utilize a second set of timpani for the thunder in the third movement, and place the bells on the opposite side, also off-stage.
The Sendesall, where we had rehearsed for the first two days, did not offer anything of this sort in order to try it out. In addition, the dress rehearsal is recorded so it can be inserted, if needed, for later broadcast. The orchestra had done a fine job at the previous rehearsals, so we could spend a bit of time getting the correct balances in the hall.
Our soloist was cellist Sol Gabetta. This time around it was the Saint-Saens First Cello Concerto. She had a marvelous way with this piece, quite free and with a lot of variety of dynamic. I continue to enjoy these collaborations with her. For starters, it was Smetana’s From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests, the 4th part of Ma Vlast. I usually do this piece in the context of the whole work. It works alone but I still prefer it as part of the cycle.
Now came the hard part. There were two performances in Frankfurt, the first being on a Thursday. Very early the next morning, 6:30 to be precise, I had to be at the airport in order to catch the early flight to Zurich. From there it would be an hour’s drive to Lucerne, where I had a 10:00 rehearsal for a program that would celebrate the 70th birthday of Sir James Galway. Considering that health issues put me out of commission for the party in Belfast this past December, I really felt the need to make this engagement.
Rehearsal ended at 1:00 pm, there was a quick lunch and then it was back to Zurich to catch a plane back to Frankfurt. Why? Because the second performance of that program was the same evening! This flight was 30 minutes late and I was a bit concerned that I might not make it in time. But it worked out and the live broadcast seemed to go even better than the opening night.
The next morning it was back to Lucerne for another rehearsal. And you wonder why I am considering scaling back by accepting the Lyon gig?
Jimmy and Jeanne have become very, very good friends over the years. I was fortunate, on this trip, to stay at their lovely house in Meggen, which is about 10 minutes away from Lucerne. We exchanged stories about our health issues, as Jimmy had broken both of his arms in a fall down the stairs in December.
The concert was quite good, in the much-lauded hall, KKL. Jimmy took up the whole second half, sharing the honors with Jeanne, in a Doppler Fantasy on Themes from Rigoletto. There were pieces by Mercadante, Mancini, Meredith Willson and one work, called Galway Fair, which was for flute ensemble with orchestra. And of course,“Danny Boy.” It was all great fun and I was very happy to lead Happy Birthday to the piper.
Next up, Berlin. Another flight delay, so the person who was supposed to meet me had left the airport. By the time I got to the hotel, it was almost 11 in the evening and I had two rehearsals the next day. The DSO, Deutches Symphonie Orchestra, not Detroit, rehearses in the Ferenc Fricksay Saal at the radio studios. He was one of the orchestra’s former music directors. The group itself has had several name changes, including RIAS and RSO. Our concert was at the Philharmonie, which is mostly populated by another orchestra in Berlin. This time we were lucky. The Berlin Phil was doing a choral program and rehearsing at night, so we were able to get into the hall for two rehearsals the day before our performance.
The program was somewhat unusual, but being that this is a Radio Orchestra, it is possible to do that. French-American was the theme. When I was a student with Jean Morel, he told us about a composer who was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, and whom Morel believed was just as talented. This man was Henri Rabaud and the piece that we learned at Juilliard was La Procession Nocturne. It is not a work that reflects the impressionist school but looks instead to the world of Wagner and Franck. I had not performed or heard it since the 60’s but somehow it came to mind when we were planning this program.
The orchestra loved it and the audience was taken as well. I will bring the piece out of mothballs more often. There were no concerns as to the reception with the other music. Ravel’s two-fisted piano concerto, played lovingly by Jonathan Biss, would serve to compliment the final work on the program. Barber’s Symphony (I respect the composer’s decision to withdraw next one) was given a rich reading by the orchestra and they seemed to relish the sonorities and melodies contained in the work. The structure also appealed to them, with a couple players commenting to me as to Barber’s inventive use of only two themes for the whole Symphony.
But it was Gershwin who stole the show. American in Paris was the obvious but best choice to conclude the concert. Just before the first rehearsal, a middle-aged gentleman came up to me and said, “I am just a poor German trumpet player and don’t understand what I am supposed to do.”
I told him to relax and let’s see how it sounds when we played through the piece. After it was over, I gave him some pointers, mostly about not exaggerating or adding too much. He wound up playing the two big solos splendidly.
The sax players also had some questions. I like to start this section off in a simple way and then in the 3rd bar add a lip glissando, which then arrives at the main note a bit flat. For me, this particular effect is associated with the great bandleader and arranger, Billy May. None of these players had ever heard of him, but they eventually got the idea. One nice thing about putting this work on at a main concert is that there is plenty of time to rehearse it.
With only one performance, I wanted to make sure everyone knew the pieces well, so we played them through three times over the course of the rehearsal period. At the concert, the orchestra really hit their stride and the audience response was wildly enthusiastic. After six curtain calls, the orchestra left the platform but the crowd was still applauding. The concertmaster said they wanted me to take a solo bow. This felt a little like those occasions when a baseball player hits a home run and then emerges from the dugout for a curtain call. But it was still a great feeling to know that the Gershwin score continues to have worldwide appeal.
The next stop was the city that has almost been my second home, London. There were a couple days off, and I visited friends, theater and shops. My son is heavily into DJ world, and this is the capital of “Drum and Bass,” a form of rhythmic electronica, to which various songs are mixed. Located off Soho is a store devoted to this vinyl necessity as well as other pulse pounding beats. The first time I went to BM Music, an unfortunate name, I was expecting a tattoo and piercing festival, but human beings, who look a lot like people I recognize, run the shop.
Of course, I am completely out of my element and when I said that I was looking for recent drum and bass releases, I was asked, “What kind?”
This prompted an exchange which ultimately led to my calling Daniel at school. After a couple minutes, the shopkeeper had 5 discs for me to schlep back to the States, along with a tee shirt. Other wanna-be DJ’s watched all this with a degree of amusement, but I had accomplished my goal.
The concert was the last I would do as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. We had rehearsals the day before at Cadogan Hall, which is sort of their home. As with most of this trip, the performance itself would be in a different venue, in this case Royal Festival Hall. I made my London debut with this orchestra and in this auditorium in 1974. The program was Prokofiev/Tchaikovsky, with violinist Chloe Hanslip playing the former’s 2nd Concerto. We also did the Sixth Tchaikovsky Symphony and this prompts this month’s:
Over the years there has been a constant argument about when an audience should applaud. Certainly at the end of a piece, unless they are bored or hate it, in which case boos are appropriate. But what to do in the case of Concerti, where after a virtuoso display, including cadenza in the first movement, there is a rush to positive judgment in the form of clapping?
I have no problem with this. In fact, it is part of tradition, going back to at least the classical age. No one is sure when this was considered bad form, much less who started discouraging the expression of satisfaction. It is certainly preferable to coughing.
The trouble lies with the symphonic canon, and since we were playing one of the most glaring examples of premature applause, Tchaik 6, the situation was bound to come up. Surprisingly, almost every concert I did on this trip had at least one moment of audience participation earlier than expected. In Lyon, it was after the first movement, not of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Concerto but the 3rd Symphony. Frankfurt heard a ripple after the 1st movement of the Fantastique.
At the end of the 3rd movement in the 6th, I held up my hands to try and keep the sound of silence the order of the evening. No luck. In fact there was quite an ovation. I thought we could leave the stage and only a few people would notice that we did not play the last movement. But still, the applause here does not bother me. It seems natural.
However, at the end of the symphony, there is the most sublime sound of lower strings, fading as if the last breath of the composer were being pulled from his chest. We had played a beautiful pianissimo and I did not bring my arms down or even give a cut-off for the orchestra. One gentleman in the seats to my left and behind the orchestra began to cheer and applaud. A few others joined in and then most people realized we were not quite finished and it stopped. But it was too late. The damage to the moment was done and I could only bring my arms down and try to compose myself.
It is a fine line between letting the audience express itself and stepping beyond the boundary. Some orchestras print guidelines in the program book. A few conductors glare at the patrons, possibly risking embarrassment to all. There is really not much that we can do, other than hope that people know a little bit as to what is expected of them.
Meanwhile, smoke was on the horizon, literally, as the unpronounceable volcano was spewing its grey venom again. This time it closed the two London airports the day of my concert. I was supposed to head off to Madrid the next morning, and like so many passengers, had to make contingency plans. Train seemed like the only alternative, and I would have to take the Eurostar to Paris, go to another station and then get a sleeper to the Spanish Capital. This would get me in around 9 in the morning, one and a half hours before the first rehearsal.
Fortunately, the weather and air controllers seemed to have misjudged the pattern of the previous day’s ash output. 50,000 travelers had been displaced, possibly unnecessarily, as it appeared there was no danger at all. My flight took off on time and I now had to speak my fourth language in as many weeks.
Madrid is, on one hand, a fantastic city, but on the other, somewhat frustrating. Upon arrival at my hotel, there were police galore waiting at the front door. At first, I wanted to believe that I had achieved a degree of importance here, but that clearly was not the case. It turned out that there was a meeting of European presidents and diplomats, hosted by Spain. Some of them must have been staying at my place. In addition, there would be the finals of the European Champions League Football (soccer to some of you) that would take place on Saturday. This caused hotel rates to triple for that one day and also would cause me to change hotels.
The ONE, not my new ONL, rehearses and plays in the same venue, the Auditorio Nacional. This is a newish concert hall and quite good. The orchestra has improved tremendously over the past years, I assume due to the leadership of their music director, Josep Pons. But they also follow an unusual rehearsal schedule. The first one is at 10:30 until 1 in the afternoon. The second one does not begin until three hours later, to conform to the traditional lunch/siesta break. This is not a bad idea unless one has had a bit too much Rioja with the meal, or the nap goes longer than expected.
The program here included the Symphonie Fantastique and the Rach/Pag Rhapsody with pianist Stephen Hough. Also scheduled was a new piece by composer Juan Ruiz, from the Canary Islands, who was introduced to me by Michel Camilo. His piece is called Nebula and is a 20-minute essay in sonority, with lots of glissandi and other sound effects produced by the orchestra. It is quite powerful and I think he has a fine gift for instrumental texture.
A texture of a different sort was on display in the orchestra. One of the female violinists has tattoos on her back and shoulders. This orchestra allows its members to wear sleeveless dresses and short sleeve blouses. Several years ago, I got into trouble for criticizing this attire, but now I have another argument to support full-length arm coverings. If this was an orchestra in the States, I really wonder what kind of reaction we would have from the audience. It is certainly possible to consider this in the same way as jewelry, but I suspect the distraction would be off-putting for many.
There was a Detroit presence during the week. Ford is one of the sponsors of the soccer final. I happen to drive one, and love the car. So having this reminder after being on the road for quite a while, made me look forward to the trip home in a week. Michigan still produces an extraordinary product, and Detroit is one of the few cities where you see more American autos on the road than imports. People take pride in what is manufactured locally.
After the now mandatory flight delays, I arrived back in Lyon for an announcement of the new position and a press conference. This was held in the City Hall, a lovely 17th Century structure. After introductory words from the Mayor’s adjunct, I spoke. There were then questions, which seemed to focus more on the past than the future.
“Was I aware of the conflicts between the current music director and the executive director?”
“Who has the final authority in artistic decisions?”
“Me. It is in my contract.”
“How much is your salary?”
But most of the journalists and media seemed satisfied. When we concluded, it was off to the Auditorium, where I would see the members of the orchestra and staff. I was greeted with a truly moving round of applause and cheers. A couple of interviews and then a train to get to Paris, where threats of a general strike the next day was the big news.
One other question that was asked struck a familiar chord, as it comes up when I am interviewed about Detroit. “Why Lyon?” My answer is “Why not?” This is an outstanding orchestra with a fine sense of tradition. There seem to be some who wonder what is going on in my head regarding my career path. At this point in my life, I do not think that way. My goals are simple: work with orchestras I enjoy, make good music and enjoy life. There is nothing left to prove to others. I am going where I think I can do the most good.
One last train ride to Paris, mercifully on time, and I would begin the final part of this European musical odyssey.
Indeed, the strike was on everyone’s minds, and there were fears that the rehearsal might be cancelled. Apparently this is one of those very French work disruptions. People can choose to stay home, picket or go to work. Like so many European countries, there are growing signs of a fragile economy. Government workers in particular are being asked for large wage and benefit concessions. The orchestras are basically supported by taxes, and the Philharmonique would be rehearsing at the Maison du Radio, which is entirely subsidized.
I booked a taxi the night before, but it was not really necessary. Not much in the way of disgruntled workers out and about. For the fifth time in as many weeks, the orchestra would be found at a space other than the concert hall. The French Radio has two large spaces, one of which doubles as an auditorium. They also house another full symphony orchestra as well as a chorus.
About five years ago, Kurt Masur was rehearsing in one studio while I was in the other. One program had Schumann, Schubert, Spohr and Brahms and the other contained music by Bernstein, Ives and Gershwin. Guess which conductor led which concert? Not quite what you would expect. It was great fun to watch Kurt tell the Orchestre National to “sving.”
A Russian program was on tap, with the rarely played Antar by Rimsky-Korsakov on the program. I had always wanted to do this piece but, along with several others, had never found the right place to put it. With Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto, there was an opportunity. There are three different versions of this piece. I had studied the second one, and of course, the orchestra parts for the third. Somehow, no one got the message that I had sent months before. Most of the differences are orchestration-oriented with a few passages that are altered. I got the score upon arrival and managed to learn it quickly … such a lovely piece. I hope I remember to program it in the future.
See you next month,