About halfway through May, I started thinking about some of the composers I would be conducting just in a four-week span. The list is something like this:
This reminded me of how fortunate I am to be in the music profession. Rehearsing and performing compositions of this caliber week in and out is something that none of us must ever take for granted. It remains a privilege as well as a responsibility to take care of these masters and all the others that we musicians present.
I started in Pittsburgh. This was the third and final week of my third year as Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra. One of my great passions is Final Alice, by David Del Tredici. In 1976, I attended the world premiere of this piece in Chicago and subsequently performed it several times both in the States and in London. It sat dormant for quite a while until I heard about the soprano Hila Plitmann. She is the current go-to singer for contemporary concert music.
We performed the piece in Washington during my last season as music director. After a bit of arm-twisting, I got the PSO to agree to this sprawling, esoteric monodrama. It requires a huge orchestra, including two soprano saxophones, banjo, mandolin, accordion and Theremin. The orchestra threw themselves into the project and seemed to really enjoy the tremendous challenge. Hila was spectacular and with the exception of a faulty microphone connection at the first performance, the experience was just as thrilling now as 35 years ago.
To begin the program, we decided on a new narration for Peter and the Wolf. The basic story would remain intact but there would be references to local sports and politics, giving the work a little more contemporary and humorous feel. Most of it worked fine, but next season, when I do this pairing in Detroit, I will work more closely with the person constructing the text.
Most of you know how much I can’t stand travel these days. Maybe I am just too old, but moving around from city to city, week after week, is simply inconvenient and uncomfortable. I will be happy to start in Lyon, where the minimum stay will be two weeks at a time. So, hopefully, for the last time I embarked on a one-week European jaunt.
This current set of concerts was in Barcelona, with the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona. I love the city and people, making the adage that, “Being a musician would be an even better life if it was not for the rehearsals and concerts,” seem even truer. But the orchestra is very good and we had a wonderful time with the music.
I had not performed La Creation du Monde in many years and it was refreshing to get back to this fabulous score. For several years in Aspen, I had gotten to know Milhaud. He was a crotchety sort but a fine teacher. Sad to think how little his music is played today. There are some real masterpieces, including the one I played. The members of the orchestra were truly in love with the piece and there were particularly fine contributions from their principal percussionist and alto sax player.
In a pairing I had never considered before, we put An American in Paris after the Milhaud. Chronologically it made sense, as Creation was written five years before the Gershwin. But it is clear that jazz had crept into the French music scene and the New Yorker clearly had a major impact on Parisians. Stylistically, this was a bit trickier for the Spaniards, but eventually they understood the difference between the elegance of Fred Astaire as opposed to the brashness of Cab Calloway. There were smiles all around.
Of course the only possible piece to conclude the program was the Dvořák “New World Symphony.” I must have conducted this piece with at least 50 orchestras and certainly 200 times. It never gets stale. There is always something to discover and each orchestra brings its own perspective to the postcard from the States. Lovely English horn solo and the horn section acquitted itself with distinction.
My visit coincided with two sporting events. It seems that there is always a major soccer championship going on when I come to Spain. This time, the team from Barcelona won and the celebration continued well into the wee small hours, right in front of my hotel! It was also the first weekend of bullfighting. A musician told me that there was the possibility that the sport would be eliminated in the next year or two. I guess the bulls were complaining about the shortage of matadors.
It was back to Detroit and the conclusion of the abbreviated season. I was curious as to what had occurred during the four weeks while I was away. Apparently ticket sales were not good for the first two weeks and then started soaring. By the time we got to my performances, we were able to put, “Sold Out” signs up. Perhaps it was the combination of an all-Beethoven program, or the $20 price tag for all tickets, but there was certainly a palpable energy in the audience. Enough time had passed that one did not have to feel that this was simply another welcome back event. Clearly the audience was there to soak up the music. And the number of young people in attendance was astounding.
The music ranged from the period just at the turn of the 19th century, when Beethoven was going through tremendous personal and social upheaval. The centerpiece was the “Eroica,” and this brought out the very best in the DSO. Is it possible to underestimate the importance of this work? There is a feeling of exhaustion when the last note is sounded, but it is a feeling of a journey well worth taken.
Our concertmaster, Emmanuelle Boisvert, played the two Romances, which were sandwiched in between three overtures: Prometheus, Coriolan and Leonore 3. The sheer diversity of writing styles reminded me that Beethoven is never predictable.
This week was also the beginning of our new experiment in community outreach. Ever since I arrived in Detroit, it has been my opinion that we simply do not reach many of our target audience. Most do not live near Orchestra Hall and they do not want to travel 30 minutes to hear a concert. The members of the orchestra realized this during the strike and produced their own performances in venues ranging from schools to synagogues.
Following up on their lead, we began doing the same thing. The first event was in a temple located in the suburb of Southfield. Attendance was not great but there was not much time to promote this concert. It is anticipated that we will do several series in select locations next season, with plenty of notice to build a strong audience base. Acoustics at Shaarey Zedek were not ideal, but with a little tweaking, we should be able to solve the problems in the future. The second concert was at an auditorium usually reserved for chamber music concerts, the Seligman Performing Arts Center. It is in Beverly Hills, which is to the Northwest of the city. Acoustics are a little dry but it worked well for Beethoven.
A new performing arts venue opened in suburban West Bloomfield. Designated as the Berman Center for the Performing Arts, this auditorium seats around 400 and will most likely be wonderful for theater presentations. For the opening, I conducted the young musicians of the Civic Ensembles, the youth arm of the DSO. They did a tremendous job in a highly varied repertoire. The second half of the program was given over to Broadway great, Patti Lupone. After hearing her enunciate so clearly in each and every song, I have decided that she should be called, “The Queen of Consonants.”
During the middle of the week, we were informed of the departure of our concertmaster. Those of you who read this column on a regular basis know of my admiration of this violinist’s talents. It was clear from her remarks in a prepared press statement that she harbored long-term ills over management and board and Emma was looking for a different career opportunity. I can only wish her well in her new job in Dallas. As for the DSO, it is an opportunity to reshape the ensemble, something that almost every music director enjoys doing. I have hired some of the best in the business in both St. Louis and Washington, and have no doubt that we will find the ideal match for the orchestra in Detroit.
We devoted the final week of mainstream concerts to Tchaikovsky. Two of the great tragedies were performed on the first half of the concert, the ubiquitous Romeo and Juliet and the incredible Francesca da Rimini. The latter is one of my personal favorites, despite its use in the old Flash Gordon serials. It is a model of structure and imagination, coupled with a truly sophisticated use of large orchestral forces.
To close we had the pleasure of Olga Kern, playing the 1st Piano Concerto. I knew that she would bring a sense of style and individuality to this chestnut and she did not disappoint. We had never performed this work together but even with only a couple minutes discussion, we were on the same wavelength throughout. I am fortunate to be working with her a couple more times this summer. With full houses, we brought our abbreviated season to a triumphant conclusion.
This month’s special audio treat is something none of you have ever heard before. During WWII, my father was stationed in Santa Ana, California with something called the Army-Air Force Tactical Command Orchestra. This ensemble provided radio entertainment for both the troops abroad and those families at home.
One program was called, “Dear Mom” and was meant to convey sentiments to people whose sons and daughters were serving at the front. My dad was both conductor and violinist for many of these broadcasts. Here are two tunes that were aired in the early 40’s, taken from transcription discs. My father is the violin soloist and it is still hard to hear him referred to as “Sergeant Felix Slatkin.” True rarities.
See you next month,