With the musical season winding down and summer almost upon us, my last conducting dates took place on behalf of others. Let me explain.
In mid-April, I received a call from the Rhode Island Philharmonic asking if I were available to stand in for Bramwell Tovey to conduct the final concerts of their subscription series. I had filled in for him on two occasions last season, conducting concerts with smaller forces. This time, I had the opportunity to work with the full orchestra. Bramwell’s program included the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and works by Brahms and Barber to begin. As a guest, one does not often get the chance to do this symphony, as it is usually reserved for the music director.
Probably eight out of ten remarks a conductor makes to an orchestra in rehearsal are to the string section, and most of those center around bowings and phrasings. Over the years, I have collected master sets of the principal string parts in my library, and these days, thanks to scanning technology, all we need to do is send one PDF copy of each part to whatever orchestra I am conducting for reference by the librarians.
For these concerts, I had forwarded the bowings for Barber’s Adagio for Strings as well as the Beethoven symphony, and everything was organized for that first rehearsal. I cannot begin to tell you how much time this saves in rehearsal. Instead of waiting around while the musicians put indications into their parts, I can focus on the music itself right away.
The chorus was well prepared and sang in the opening work, the fourth movement of the Brahms Requiem. Earlier this season, when I was in Dublin, one of the violinists in the orchestra gave me a ribbon with the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag. I have worn it at every concert since the war broke out. It served as a reminder of the meaning we place on the Barber, and I referenced this in my remarks before playing the work.
The first performance took place at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday. The orchestra’s “rush-hour” programs consist of just an hour of music, so the Beethoven was the standalone piece that evening. The next night we presented all the music. Audiences are just starting to come back, and in Providence, masks are still required. This applies to the chorus as well. It makes it a bit difficult for matters such as volume and enunciation, but somehow, it all managed to work out.
The Rhode Island engagement was one of those almost-last-minute replacements. In contrast, two weeks later I was subbing for a conductor who passed away last summer, and the date had been in my calendar since September. Michael Morgan was the music director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, having held the position for thirty years. During my time as head of the St. Louis Symphony, he was one of my assistant conductors. I felt a bond with Michael and wished to honor him.
The program was up for grabs, and I suggested the oratorio A Child of Our Time by Sir Michael Tippett. With its pacifist leanings and use of American spirituals rather than Bachian chorales, it seemed like the perfect piece to play on this occasion.
There was relevant subtext as well. The American premiere took place 25 years after the work was written. My teacher, Walter Susskind, led this performance at the Aspen Festival when I was a student there. He gave me one of his scores with his name on the cover, and I planned to use it in Oakland. And his son, Peter, who lives and conducts in the Bay Area, would also be in attendance for this performance, bringing the tally to two men who attended the U.S. premiere.
But there was trouble looming.
I had heard that the number of chorus members had dwindled from 115 down to about 50. This is a big, difficult work, but since the auditorium where the orchestra performs is huge, everything is discreetly amplified. Maybe it could work with fewer voices. By the time I arrived at the chorus-piano rehearsal, they were down to 40 singers, with section leaders now missing in action. Such is the unpredictability of the virus.
It was clear we simply could not do the Tippett, nor any other work with chorus. But we did have the four soloists in town. I thought that maybe it would be a good idea to have each sing an aria, but then it would mean that the orchestra would not have a large-scale work to play in what was my debut with them.
Actually, I did have a role with the Oakland Symphony many years ago. Another of their previous music directors, the immensely gifted Calvin Simmons, died tragically in a canoeing accident in 1982. I was hired as the artistic director to organize their season, but that was it—I never conducted the orchestra.
Back to our problem. We decided that there just was not a place for our vocalists on this program, as getting music for what they might have sung would not be easy. But thanks to our good friend the PDF, I could have one copy of each string part for Elgar’s Enigma Variations sent right away. We were able to keep the Anglo-American theme for the program, which began with Cindy’s Circuits and went on to include the Barber Adagio (again) and the beautiful Second Symphony by Alan Hovhaness. I do not know why this work is not played more frequently.
As I mentioned, the auditorium is immense, seating around 3,000 people. Even if 2,000 showed up, it would still look a bit sparse. But the audience was attentive and enthusiastic. The orchestra seemed to be having a great time with this program, and I felt that Michael’s memory had been well-served.
We did not know of the events that would take place just four days after our performance. Another school, another massacre. Probably another Barber Adagio.
Yet we all know what the outcome will be: fiery speeches, divisive rhetoric, and no meaningful action. What does it take to simply start a process that makes people understand that our Constitution is not an infallible document? If it were, why did we need, to date, 33 amendments? I do not want to hear anything more about our forefathers’ intentions. We live, and in these cases die, during our time, not theirs.
Perhaps this cartoon from the New Yorker sums it up best.
View this post on Instagram
As we enter the summer season, I will be conducting very little. This is by design. There is much to do, with several projects in the works.
See you next month,