Winding down a season usually means that the overall pace slackens a bit. Not this time.
The first week of May was relatively calm, with only one set of concerts in Detroit at Orchestra Hall. My brother joined us for a performance of the Korngold Cello Concerto, written for our mother more than 60 years ago! Fred and I have always enjoyed doing this piece together and everyone was caught up not only with the story behind the story, but the performance as well. It was also a rare opportunity for the two of us to catch up. Usually this is limited to a quick bite to eat when I am in New York.
The Korngold was written for the film Deception and another piece on the program, Tristan and Isolde Fantasy, was composed for the 1946 drama Humoresque. The unusual scoring for violin and piano solo with orchestra was what composer Franz Waxman came up with for the moment when Joan Crawford walks into the ocean and kills herself. On this occasion it was played by our acting concertmaster Kim Kennedy and pianist Cameron Smith. No one was harmed in the presentation of this piece.
Kim has done a fantastic job this season, filling in for what was then our vacant chair, but during this week, we found a violinist who will become the first new concertmaster of the DSO in 23 years. Her name is Yoonshin Song and she hails from Korea, although she has spent almost 10 years in the States. Her current position is with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra but it was clear from virtually every aspect of the audition process, that she possessed exactly the skill set that we were all looking for. The decision was unanimous and we are all eager to have her join us in September.
Also on the program was Pictures from an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration but with a difference. I have tinkered with various versions but a few years ago decided that most of what Ravel did was perfectly fine. However, he omitted a whole Promenade and altered both dynamics and notes from the Mussorgsky piano version. My idea was to bring the Ravel in line with the original, except the ending, and at the moment, I think it works quite well.
Next up was an incredible week of work, with three different programs in three different venues. Our subscriptions took place at the Max, and featured the world premiere of Kraken, by Du Yun. She had won the Elaine Lebenbom competition for female composers a couple years ago but the strike postponed the performance. Ms. Yun is a bundle of energy and the piece a flurry of orchestral activity. Lots of unusual sound effects emanating from the orchestra, including a long kazoo solo, played excellently by our second oboist, Shelly Heron. The audience seemed to appreciate everyone’s hard work and rewarded the performance with enthusiastic applause.
A Haydn Symphony opened the concert. It was No. 67, a piece I do often. In the Minuet, the Trio section is played by two solo violins, with one instrument tuned down a whole step, imitating a kind of bagpipe drone. I do not conduct this, but when the passage ends, I step off the podium and pay the two musicians a dollar each. It is my practice not to tell the orchestra beforehand and it is all they can do to keep playing while this little shtick continues.
Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony concluded the concert. One of our double bass players also is an accomplished keyboard artist. Craig Rifel dispatched the solo part with a wonderful understanding of the colors required for this piece. I just wish that someday, we could reinstate the original pipe organ that was in the hall a long time ago. Everyone hopes this can occur but the cost is prohibitive right now. That is unless any of you reading this can figure out a way to come up with a spare two million dollars.
We continued our Neighborhood Series with a concert at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. The space holds about a thousand people and serves a large part of the community who do not feel comfortable coming downtown. Next season, we will test a shuttle service from the Temple to Orchestra Hall and hopefully this combination of suburb and city can work well. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was up and the rehearsal gave us barely enough time to read through the piece. But this is one of those works that stands up well to a spontaneous performance and on this occasion it went quite well.
Opening the concert was a Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto, but not the one we played earlier in the season. As with that previous performance, the soloist was our own Jeff Zook and I think he really had fun with this piece.
The third program that week was the Kid Rock show. If you have not read about it, just go to the previous entry on this blog.
Things returned to more or less normal in the last subscription concert of the season. The program was quite colorful, showing off many aspects of the orchestra. Ravel’s La Valse opened and this piece would be referred to in the next work on the program, Cindy’s Symphony No. 1. We were recording this piece, joining it to three other works previously committed for posterity. I gave the premiere of this 10 years ago in Washington and it holds up very well indeed. The slow movement is moving and the rest shows off Cindy’s mastery of orchestral writing.
We also recorded the John Williams Cello Concerto. This is part of our ongoing series of works for solo instrument and orchestra written by John. One would be hard pressed to name the composer, as his musical language is quite different than in any of his film scores. This piece was played by our principal cellist, Robert deMaine, who was simply extraordinary. His sound, his secure technique and his outstanding musicianship brought the concerto to life and this will be a welcome addition to the Naxos catalog.
Rounding off the concert was Respighi’s Pines of Rome, one of the most colorful works in the repertoire. I believe that everyone in the orchestra enjoys playing this piece, and not just because it is short. The work is perfect for ending not only a concert but also a season.
In between two performances, I flew to Washington, DC and attended a memorial service for my good friend, Frank Pearl. He and his wife Geryl were among the first to welcome my family to the area 16 years ago and they had also become the financial guardians of my son. Frank succumbed to 4th stage lung cancer, even though he had given up smoking quite a long time ago. He was a mere 68 years old. The people who came to pay tribute, including Vernon Jordan, Michael Beschloss, Michel Camilo and Manny Ax, evidenced his stature in the community. I will miss Frank very much.
It was time to head back to Europe for a couple weeks. First stop was Geneva, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. This was an ensemble that almost everyone of my generation knew primarily from recordings with Earnest Ansermet. He founded the orchestra in 1918 and was its music director for 49 years, possibly a record. There is a wonderful photo of him with the group taken in 1932. In it, you can see that there are five female musicians, a rarity for the time.
I have worked with this orchestra off and on over the years and there is no question that they have improved substantially. This time around the program included the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, the Second Essay of Barber and the Gershwin Piano Concerto, with Jean Yves Thibaudet. He and I will be performing together many times over the next few seasons and it is always a pleasure to collaborate with him. All went very well and I had a wonderful time with the orchestra.
I also had the opportunity to visit the watch factory of Vacherin Constantine. What a grueling process to make just one timepiece! In one example, there were three men working on a single watch and it would take almost three months to complete. No, they did not give me one of their products, but instead, I got a very nice pen.
Easily the most important part of May was a quick trip to North Andover, and the Brooks School. It was here that my son Daniel has spent the past four years in high school. Anyone’s graduation is special, but watching your offspring bound on the stage and accept the diploma is truly moving. His graduation present is a trip to Asia with two of his friends. Have fun Daniel. You deserve it.
The month closed out with a return to Lyon, but with very tight connections in order for me to be able to watch commencement. I had all of 45 minutes to get from the airplane in Paris to the train station located in De Gaulle airport. Having no checked baggage made all the difference in the world. I arrived a bit after nine in the morning and the rehearsal began an hour after that.
A very nice program was on tap with Garrick Ohlsson playing the Brahms D-minor. We have been performing together for a long time now and no matter what piece we play, there is rarely any need for intense meetings before the first rehearsal. Garrick listens, adjusts and enjoys the interplay aspects of music making. A very satisfying collaboration, as usual.
I brought back an old friend, Steven Stucky’s Dreamwaltzes, a piece I commissioned back in 1988. It has all the impressionist haze of La Valse, but delves into the world of Brahms and Richard Strauss. This colorful work deserves a place in the repertoire and I am pleased to see many other conductors taking it up.
Mozart’s 39th was the symphony. This was one of my first attempts at combining some of the historical aspects of performance, utilizing more non-vibrato than usual for me. My initial thought was that it works if the passages are somewhat static but in singing orchestral lines I simply cannot bring myself to do it. And my tempo in the quick movements is perhaps not as fast as some, but I do move the slow movement along. We shall see how this develops. The jury is out at the moment.
On the book front, everything is now in place for the publication date of July 24th. The editing is complete, a few good friends have contributed blurbs for the back jacket, and all the people who have to be acknowledged have been accommodated. I have been told that an excerpt can be put up at the beginning of July, so you will be the first to read a preview of what is starting to look like a trilogy.
Things should quiet down a bit over the next couple months. This is intentional, as I have decided that, for the most part, conducting in the summer is simply not what I want to do right now. It is time to catch my breath and enjoy all those places I have been to but have never had time to see. In addition, there are still several destinations where I have never stepped foot. Charles Dutoit told me that his passion has been visiting every country that exists. I am not that obsessed but now that I have a flat in Lyon, it seems like a good starting point.
See you next month,