First things first. Cindy came through the brain surgery like a champ. The removal of the benign tumor took a little over three hours. She was home 48 hours later and communicating with friends and family. We are grateful to the medical team and all those who lent their talent and words of support.
My role in those first couple of weeks was to simply take care of her. It was necessary for me to cancel an appearance in Naples, Italy, but everyone understood the circumstances. With the weather finally taking a turn toward spring, I could get outside and open up the barbeque season. There were no real dietary restrictions, but Cindy was not supposed to consume alcohol, meaning that I got one more glass of wine than usual.
After ten days, we got her out of the house. Believe it or not, and sadly, during my first six seasons in Detroit, I had not attended a performance by the Michigan Opera Theatre. Indeed, I had never stepped foot in the Detroit Opera House. So it was with great pleasure that the two of us went to see the opening night of Turandot.
The building is spectacular, seating a bit less than 3,000. On this night the auditorium was packed, and we were treated to a fine production and performance. Wayne Brown, the new CEO of the company, was a gracious host, and we began discussions about ways in which the DSO, MOT and I could collaborate.
There were a couple ball games, and those provided a much-needed outlet for the many days spent cooped up in our house. The Tigers are looking quite good in the early going.
Two weeks following the surgery, it was back to music making with the DSO. This was a much-anticipated program for the orchestra. Some called it a typical “Slatkin” kind of presentation. We began with Penderecki’s Jacob’s Awakening. This was one of the last scores in which the composer would use the techniques he had developed in the ’60s. Soundscapes were now added to harmony, melody and rhythm. Although only eight minutes long, it is particularly moving, especially with the eerie sound of twelve ocarinas played by the members of the woodwind section.
As regular readers of this column know, I was fortunate enough to be part of the celebration of Penderecki’s 80th birthday in Warsaw earlier this season. It is somewhat shocking to see that so few orchestras worldwide were in a celebratory mood. Most ignored this truly influential composer in an anniversary year. Our audience responded excitedly to the work.
Yefim Bronfman was the soloist in the Beethoven third concerto. We had not performed this composer together, despite much collaboration over the years. His manner with the music was perfect. Reigning in his ferocity, Fima gave a loving account of the piece, in particular selecting just the right pedaling in the slow movement so as not to make it a blur.
His encores brought back the virtuoso side with a simply astonishing rendition of the finale to Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. I remarked to a musician backstage that it was my opinion in the past that this movement could actually be orchestrated to great effect. However, after hearing this performance I realized that it did not have to be. Fima was an orchestra all by himself.
We honored seven musicians who are retiring at the end of this season. All together, they total 263 years of experience, with one violinist, Beatriz Budinszky Staples, a member of the orchestra for 50 years. Sometimes we forget that with all the young talent entering the musical workforce, it is those musicians with experience who pass along the traditions of their orchestra. Each of these remarkable people will be missed.
Rounding out the concert, and being recorded for Naxos, was the complete Appalachian Spring by Copland. This is more or less a fully orchestrated version of the original, which was for 13 instruments. It contains almost ten minutes of music that was excised when he made the suite.
Is there a more iconic work in the American musical canon? Perhaps not. It was made all the more moving with a story I told the audience. In 1987, a few musicians and scholars, including conductor Murry Sidlin and historian Vivian Perlis, went to visit the ailing composer at his home in Peekskill, New York. Alzheimer’s had already taken its toll on Copland and he was unable to speak.
At one point, however, he rose from his chair, went to the piano, and played the six notes—two chords—that are heard at the beginning and end of the work. Was he trying to say that he was still here? Or was it a statement of how he wished to be remembered?
Immediately following my short speech, we went directly into the piece. All of a sudden those “Simple Gifts” were not simple at all. The orchestra was superb, and I kept looking at those musicians who were departing. It was not difficult to draw inspiration from them for these performances.
The Colorado Symphony has potentially widened its audience base by partnering with a marijuana distributor. This will be the first collaboration with mind-altering drugs since grass became legal in the state. I suppose this could be called a joint venture.
What music should be performed? Will the audience come stoned? The orchestra?
Most surveys so far have taken the repertoire issue seriously. With my crack staff in Detroit, we have been wondering what pieces would be played if they were selected by already-high musicians. Most are musical plays on words but some are serious.
Here is what we have come up with so far:
Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy
Hindemith: Symphonic Methamorphosis
Elgar: Cockaigne Overture
Gliere: The Red Poppy
Higdon: Blue Cathedral
Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Deadheads
Copland: Old American Bongs
Berlioz: Pretty much anything
Adams: Guide to Strange Places
Corigliano: Three Hallucinations from “Altered States”
Debussy: Quaalude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Strauss: Don Peyote
Cage: 4’33” (orchestral version)
We are sure that you have others to add to the list. Please send suggestions to Andrew Litton.
Daniel celebrated his 20th birthday and came to visit us in Detroit. We went to a couple of ball games—one win, one loss—saw a few movies and popped into the Motown Museum. If you come to the area, this last one is a must, and the tour guides are fabulous. There is a lot of history in Barry Gordy’s smallish recording studio, and you get a good amount of information about an important growth industry.
It was back to Orchestra Hall for the final subscription concerts of the season, with no less a work than Mahler 3. At around 100 minutes, it still seems to qualify as the longest symphony in the more or less standard canon. Also one of the most expensive.
One of the benefits of performing this work at the end of the season is that several outstanding instrumentalists are available to fill in all those extra parts. We were very fortunate in obtaining some of the best, and the blend of sonority throughout the brass and woodwinds was simply amazing.
Rehearsals were among the most intense we have ever had, partially due to a few musicians who were in trial weeks with the orchestra. Not only did we have to focus on learning this exhausting piece, but we also had to pay very close attention to our potential new principals in some of the sections.
In case any Mahlerites are reading this, I stepped off the podium, but did not go offstage, after the first movement. The composer called for a lengthy pause before continuing, and this gave us the time to bring the chorus on and allow latecomers to be seated. The mezzo-soprano, Elizabeth Bishop, entered just before the fourth movement.
With incredible solos from Ken Thompkins, our principal trombone, and Hunter Eberly, trumpet, as well as an unbelievable horn section, everyone simply went above and beyond expectations, and it is no understatement to say that these concerts were the culmination of a truly remarkable year. There was a time when I thought this was the least successful of the nine completed symphonies by Mahler. Now I tend to harken back to his initial thoughts regarding the “program” of the work.
To me, it is a musical depiction of our world, from the beginning to the composer’s newly found spiritual awakening, for want of a better term. Even though the 1st movement professes to be about Pan’s awakening, I think it is really about the creation of the earth. After that it continues with vegetation, animal life, man, God and ultimately love, the last being a metaphor for what awaits us after death. What all this means musically is a clear delineation of the various moods of each section. The DSO captured all this and more, and I could not have wished for a better conclusion to our season.
During the latter stages of May, it was announced that I would be continuing my music directorship in Lyon. With two of the most wonderful orchestras, I am a very lucky man. And with 70 years lurking, all the elements of my professional and personal life are making me feel much younger than the calendar says.
One last item. Quite a while ago, I remember writing that I was going to make a monthly selection for each of you to consider as a listening experience, via recording. Failing to follow up on that, and as a start, I will now revisit this and hope that some of you will check out what was playing on my CD machine these past few weeks.
In 1994, Keith Jarrett and his trio played a three-night, six-set group of performances at the Blue Note in New York. All of it was recorded and can be heard on the ECM label. This is the pianist at the height of his collaborative powers. Anyone interested in jazz must own this set, as it reminds all of us of how the live experience differs from the studio recording. Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are the usual bass and drum players, and the feeling of ensemble is clear in every moment of this remarkable set of discs. Don’t miss it.
See you next month,