MARCH 2009

MARCH 2009
March 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

A great deal of February was spent in teaching mode. First up was a trip to Interlochen, which was not my idea at this time of year. Checking the weather became a fixation as the day of arrival neared. It is at least 10 degrees colder in that part of the world than in Detroit. None the less I arrived to chilly but not unbearable temperatures.

The Interlochen Arts Academy is one of the only schools devoted to the arts that has a national, and indeed, an international presence. I suppose most people know it from the summer program, but they go pretty much all year round. There were several reasons that compelled me to do this at this time.

When it was announced that I would be going to Detroit, the contrabassoonist of the National Symphony, Lew Lipnick, informed me that he was an Interlochen alumnus. For a couple years he had been asking me to do a concerto that was written for him by the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Since the NSO had already played two pieces by him previously, I did not feel it was time to add yet another. So Lew suggested we give the American premiere at his Alma Mater.

But it also seemed like a good idea to make a further Michigan connection. The DSO used to play at Interlochen on a regular basis, but a few things occurred that derailed this relationship. I realized that if I went and worked with the young people, it was possible to view things from a new perspective. They would get to know me, and vice-versa.

I was housed in a lovely cabin, which overlooked one of the many lakes. There were people ice-fishing, something that I thought only took place in the movies. And it was only a couple minutes drive to the hall. (You did not think I was going to walk in 15 degree weather?) The orchestra is comprised of high school age musicians, and we had a pretty tough program to master. The concerto is 35 minutes long and might as well be a Concerto for Orchestra with Contrabassoon obbligato. Very tricky but the young people managed it well.

Unfortunately, rehearsals began at 8:00 in the morning. This meant that we ended at a time when I am used to most rehearsals getting started. But we got through everything, Egmont and Tchaikovsky 5 included. It remains to be seen if the trip had any impact on a future relationship for the DSO and Interlochen.

Then it was back to Indiana. At this point, I have been a visiting faculty member there for a couple years. My role is to conduct a concert and do some teaching. Mercifully, rehearsals are at 4 in the afternoon, although this means the students have already had a long day. But it is certainly preferable to 8 in the morning, at least for me.

Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson were the soloists in Miklos Rosza’s Sinfonia Concertante, a wonderful piece that I had done in D.C. with my brother taking the solo cello role. If the name Bartók or Kodály were attached, I am sure the piece would be played more frequently. In any event, my two friends played gorgeously and it was a pleasure making music with them.

Sibelius 5 was on the program as well. This is a work that I used to do on a regular basis, but has somehow disappeared from my own repertoire. I was glad to bring it back and perhaps my approach is a bit old-fashioned, in the Ormandy sense. It is hard to tell what the students thought of the piece. Some were confused by the different styles that inhabit the three movements. Others loved it.

I do enjoy the teaching element. Over the years, having previously thought that one could not actually teach conducting, I have developed a few tricks that seem to help. But they must be tailored to the individual conductor. This is not a “one size fits all” profession. Each person has a different physical build and this must be taken into consideration. Also, I simply try to find ways for each conductor to get what they want, as opposed to giving interpretive advice.

But sometimes one of the students will raise an issue that is worth discussing. Which brings me to:


We were doing the opening of the last movement of Beethoven 9. In this piece, as well as many others, I make some changes to the printed score. Hopefully they are not noticeable, but rather help to clarify the textures and provide a 21st century perspective on older music. There are numerous examples over the centuries to back this practice up. The instruments have changed, the halls are different, orchestras are larger, etc. One of the students questioned my right to do this.

But that is not what bothered me this time. Having just come off four consecutive weeks where composers were present to hear their pieces played, I realized that every one of them made changes to their own works during the rehearsals, even those that had been written a number of years ago. Each rehearsal and performance opportunity raises different issues.

So why should we assume that what the masters left us is always correct? I am tired of hearing about changing what is on the page when it is possible that the composer might have miscalculated or a publisher was incorrect. Simple logic can tell you when a note is obviously wrong or a dynamic doesn’t work. It is nice to have decent editions of Mozart, Mahler, Berg, etc., but no matter how much editors try, there will always be questions, and it is up to the performers to solve them.

So stop bothering me with comments about changing things. I can always back them up and justify any of the amendments I make using common sense. The bottom line is that it is about the intent of the composer, not just what is on the page.

After Bloomington it was back to Detroit, mostly to announce our 09-10 season. We decided to do this in a somewhat different manner than most other orchestras. No press conference or webcast but instead, we played a free concert at the Somerset Collection, which is a large upscale mall. There were thousands of people around and the program was mostly lighter (and louder) fare. But we got our message across and it was a big success. You can see what we are up to by going to the DSO website.

During the week, Raphael Frubeck de Burgos was the guest conductor. I had the opportunity to attend one of the concerts with the DSO and they sounded fabulous. Ein Heldenleben was the main attraction and there was solid playing throughout each section of the orchestra. Sitting in the balcony was revealing. As with most halls, this is the best place to listen to music, with an extraordinary blend of orchestral sound as well as a well-defined clarity of textures. The two of us spent a lovely time together over dinner after the concert.

It is not possible to speak about the Strauss without an acknowledgment of the orchestra’s concertmaster, Emmanuelle Boisvert. She captured the essence of Frau Strauss perfectly, with a sense of humor and simply gorgeous sound. We are doing the Berg Concerto together in April and I am eagerly awaiting this collaboration.

Last up was my second trip to Nashville this season. Originally we had planned to do David Del Tredici’s Final Alice. This was to have been recorded as well. But the current economic climate has hit the Music City, so this project was shelved. Last season, in Washington, I had performed the work with Hila Plitmann and she was on the schedule in Nashville. With Alice now not attending the tea party, I still wanted Hila to appear with the orchestra. She proposed some Auvergne songs but I wondered if she knew Time Cycle by Lukas Foss. She did not, but learned it for the occasion, singing it from memory.

Of course, this was organized about three months ago and, sadly, Lukas died just a few weeks before this set of performances. So it became a memorial of sorts. I remember that I first heard this work when the recording appeared in 1961, I think. It made a strong impression then and is perhaps his finest work. The music is in a style which I usually don’t do, but somehow, it manages to convey the imagery of the poems and show off every aspect of the singer’s art. A fitting tribute, I think.

But it does bring me to:


In the program book, the Foss is described as “the composer’s most performed work.” I am not so sure that this is true, but even if not, it is certainly one of the important pieces from the 20th century. Over the course of a month, the library found over 200 mistakes in the orchestral parts. I discovered several in the score. (See complaint department I)

Publishers! Stop sending us such faulty editions. There is no excuse any more not to have decent parts to use. Correct them, print them, send them. If not, I am going to have the orchestras charge you for fixing errors, which you should have caught in the first place. If you want your composers played more frequently, let us be able to properly rehearse the music instead of correcting your mistakes.

See you next month,