MARCH 2010

MARCH 2010
March 1, 2010 leonard slatkin

February may be the shortest month of the year, but perhaps because of the missing few days, it also feels like the busiest. I barely had time to think, much less take it easy.

The Detroit Symphony had been nominated for a Grammy with the album we made featuring Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussein. We lost to Yo-Yo Ma and Friends. This was not unexpected. But as usual, there were commentaries in the press regarding the lack of meaning for these awards. Yes, the process is laborious, and it is hard to justify some of the categories in which some recordings are placed. Personally, I mourn the elimination of the “Best Polka Album of the Year.” But ask anyone who has been up for one of these and you will find that they all feel honored to have been selected.

The classical awards are always doled out at the pre-show, done in the afternoon before the televised broadcast. We are lumped in with jazz, rap, gospel and spoken word, among others. It was viewable on the Internet and had no production values whatsoever. I have presented these awards a couple of times, mostly because the Academy thinks that all of us in the classical field are the only ones who can pronounce all of the nominee’s names. This year they left it to the “VOG”, voice of God, a nameless entity who is in a back room intoning the role call of Russian, German and Scandinavian monikers.

But the true highlight was hearing some of the acceptance speeches. If I ever win again, remind me never to thank both God and my agent in the same breath.

The same week also saw the release of a new recording on the Naxos label. This is my first purely symphonic collaboration with the DSO and it is of the Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony. The piece was one I recorded 35 years ago in St. Louis. It was also the work I was conducting when I had the heart attack in Rotterdam. And it would also be on the following week’s Florida tour. The tempi I take these days are generally faster than the earlier version. I also do not pull the phrases about, choosing to go for a longer line. The orchestra sounds terrific and we will continue the cycle with the First Symphony and Isle of the Dead slated for release in about a year.

I had the opportunity to venture into my own backyard when I conducted a high school band from Troy, Michigan. They had been working on Les Preludes by Liszt, in what I assumed was a shortened version made for winds and percussion. It turned out that they played a complete transcription of the 15-minute piece. In addition, their music director took them through a really difficult piece, with many multiple meter changes. The youngsters handled it all in amazing fashion. And to top it off, the performance space was a true auditorium with state of the art electronics. I began to think more about the DSO reaching these neighborhoods and coming out to play.

That week’s Detroit program featured cellist Sol Gabetta. Two years prior, I included her on my final concerts in D.C. and these performances marked Sol’s American debut. For this set of concerts, she learned the Barber Cello Concerto. It is a difficult piece to sell to the audience, perhaps because the last movement is not as strong as the first two. But Sol was amazing! She invested every note with energy and passion. Each night, both in Detroit and on tour, she was given an ovation and played an encore, Vasks’ “Dolcissimo,” in which the cellist is called upon to sing and play at the same time. Audiences were always as quiet as could be.

Brahms 2 and Mennin’s Concertato “Moby Dick” rounded out the program. We would do this Symphony only once on the Florida tour, but in Detroit, after four consecutive weeks together, it was very clear that the orchestra and I had really gotten to know each other very well. We are starting to read each other’s minds and anticipating what comes next. It is not about the notes, just making music.

In the middle of all this, we played a concert at the Somerset Collection, basically a high-end mall only a couple minutes from where I live. Last year we did the same, using it as a pretext for presenting our next season’s offerings. This time around, we found that there were too many gaps and missing pieces in the schedule. We needed a few more days to give the information to the public. So this was now simply a free concert to a very large crowd. But it was also a way to reach out to the community. Acoustics were not easy, but everyone managed to be heard. I enjoyed conducting the Trepak from The Nutcracker while observing people going up and down the escalators. Never let it be said that any concert is less important. Right after the program, people came up wanting more information about the DSO. One woman offered the orchestra $200 for my baton. These days, anything helps.

And so, with trunks packed and instruments secured in their cases, we headed down south. This was the orchestra’s first tour since 2001. Some on our board questioned the wisdom of such an outing in this perilous economic climate. But we had raised all the money to cover the trip, and wound up making over $100,000 for the week. We are steadily chipping away at the deficit. Now we just need 3 million dollars to get to the end of this season.

Perhaps the single most important matter that took place that week was the announcement of a two-year extension of my original three-year contract with the DSO, which secures me in Detroit at least through 2012-13. As was made public, I have taken a voluntary pay cut to assist with the DSO’s on-going restructuring to handle a $3.8 million deficit. I shared this news with the DSO players on Thursday night in Naples, Fla., and reiterated to them, as I was quoted, “It’s just what I have to do to protect the orchestra. It’s to show the orchestra, the board and our donors that at this particular time I’m trying to be responsible, but at the same time keeping the artistic integrity at the highest possible level.” And I emphasized that I am committed to leading a minimum of 16 weeks of concerts, including subscription weeks, community concerts and other activities. Again I reiterate that which has been reported – it’s been amazing to be on the podium of the DSO and I am having the time of my life.

Florida residents apologized for the 60-degree temperatures. What could we say? That represented a major heat wave for us at home. When the orchestra arrived in Palm Beach on Monday, they were treated to a wonderful dinner given by Marjorie Fisher, who had underwritten the majority of the tour. Everyone wanted to thank her and she subsequently wrote a lovely note to the orchestra. It is hoped that we can find a way to go to the Sunshine State every year. Cleveland does it, why can’t we? And they are in as much financial crisis as we are.

A golf outing was arranged for Wednesday morning. About 12 orchestra players showed up, plus a few board members, many who stayed around for four of the concerts. I had not played since the coronary and was without my own clubs. That sounded like an excuse, and it was. I would use it often. My first shot off the tee looked promising, as the other two players in my group shanked theirs. I believed I could beat them. That changed on the second shot, when I went into a sand trap. This would happen often that day, leading me to believe the groundskeepers were moving the bunkers around just as I was about to hit. Good thing I did not keep score. When asked about my handicap, I respond, “Playing Golf.” But it was a fun four hours on a cool but pleasant day.

Having performed in Vero Beach the night before, I felt that we would do even better in West Palm. Perhaps because the previous evening when I walked on stage, after bowing to the audience, I looked up and there was an enormous Tiffany rendition of Jesus, staring right down on the podium. There was a temptation to ask him to conduct but I have a feeling that the three composers we played might not be up there with him. The church guided us and we did just fine.

It is not so well known that there are only limited numbers of times when an orchestra can rehearse at the intended venue on tour. With six concerts in six days, that was already six services. We could only have two more or have to pay huge rates to honor the contract. I chose to do these spot checks in Palm Beach and Sarasota.

One thing I have always believed is that a great orchestra takes the sound it makes at home and brings it to another hall. Others will tell you that an orchestra comes into the hall and makes adjustments. That may be true but I strive for an orchestra to play as naturally as possible. If a hall is dry, use more vibrato. I might take some tempi a bit faster. If it is overly reverberant, play short notes really short. I was not sure if the orchestra had heard of this before, but they figured it out and there really was only one hall that was problematic.

Palm Beach, Naples, Sarasota and Miami all have fine performing venues. Each is a little too large and reverberant to my taste. But they were easy to adapt to, unlike the venues in Vero Beach and Longwood, a suburb of Orlando. The latter was very much a Sunday morning service church, where preachers are right at home. It seats at least 3500 parishioners and we had about 2500 in attendance. This was another wide staged venue and the orchestra was spread further out, making it difficult for the players to hear each other. This venue has a true state of art audio system. Longwood will eventually be able to place an electronic canopy over the performing groups so that they can hear each other in that tunnel of sound.

Naples, on the other hand was lovely. It’s a multi-discipline venue that adds a back and side screens as well as side panel for orchestra and chamber performances. This hall was the one best suited to the way the DSO plays. No one really had time to sight-see on this trip, as it was simply too much travel. So I had to content myself with driving from one place to the other and just having a look out the windshield. One long drive took me through Alligator Alley. It was a crisp Florida day and the ‘gators were out in force. I kept dividing them into wallets, belts and handbags.

That evening, at the intermission of the concert in Naples, we gathered the entire orchestra into a lounge area and they were told about the extension of my contract. I was truly moved by their response. Nothing will give me more pleasure than working hard to insure a solid musical and financial future for the orchestra.

As I mentioned, many of our patrons came along with us for this tour. This brings us to this month’s “What’s so great about Detroit?” thought.

Many people from up north decide to either move down to Florida or at least have a winter home there. These snowbirds from Michigan became our most loyal supporters on the trip. Not only did they cover our expenses, they also hosted myriad receptions, took orchestra members out and made themselves available when and if we needed. All of them care passionately about the orchestra and this made us play at an even higher level night after night. We could not have done the tour without their support and all of us hope that we will return to Florida and other major touring venues soon.

But this tour has also prompted this month’s “Complaint Department.”

Room service is a way of life for the itinerant musician. You finish a concert at 10 or later, just after most of the good restaurants have closed. So it is either the Waffle House, Applebee’s or In Room Dining (perhaps the idea of service has disappeared). I don’t mind the somewhat exorbitant prices as long as the food is decent. But this time I was struck by something that must be one of the most wasteful things around.

It is those little condiment jars. Yes, the ketchup, mustard and mayo containers that are routinely put on the meal cart. Of course they also show up in some restaurants, but that is another matter. What bothered me was that if you put just a little on the sandwich, or bread, you still have a lot left over. It can’t be put into another container or the health department would be on the hotel in a second. So the glass as well as its contents is thrown away. After all, no one wants someone else’s used food.

Why not simply give us those little packets, which are maybe a serving size? Or, if bigger is better, smaller squeeze bottles that can be refilled? I will bet most of you will think about this next time the waiter shows up with your breakfast.

Playing Sarasota and Miami back-to-back felt strange. Both of these cities should have full time professional symphony orchestras. But Miami does not and Sarasota always seems to be having troubles keeping theirs afloat. Miami does have the New World Symphony, MTT’S baby. And it is a wonderful child. Highly skilled young people just about ready to enter the professional work force, but still in need of guidance. This is a remarkable program and Michael has done a great job putting it all together. I have been asked to conduct them and will more than likely go, as I simply love working with student musicians.

The tour wound down and a very tired but happy group of musicians headed back to the tundra. I then traveled to Pittsburgh. It was not so easy when I realized that I had lunch in 70-degree weather only four hours earlier.

For my final week with the PSO this season, we had another American music program. Richard Danielpour is the “Composer-of-the-Year” and I did two of his pieces this season. This one was called Pastime and uses texts of poetry centered around three Negro League ball players. The text demands some use of jazz in the scoring and Richard has obliged, drawing a natural feeling from the orchestra, Gregg Baker was the stentorian baritone.

I brought Mason Bates in to perform his Liquid Interface, a piece I commissioned three years ago. It combines the traditional orchestra with a computer mix that provides electronic sounds to complement the orchestral effects. There is a hypnotic quality to the score and I am pretty sure that his career will move along very well. Mason has already been appointed as a contemporary fellow with the Chicago Symphony.

This orchestra does not play a lot of new music, so these pieces were most welcome by the members of the group. I hope that the city realizes what a gem they have in the orchestra, Pittsburgh is crawling out from under the economic burden and there are people actually moving back from the suburbs to live in the downtown area.

February is also the month when most orchestras announce their upcoming seasons. I have always had trouble with this. Essentially you are asking people to buy tickets to programs that will not be played until June of the following year. The announcement has more to do with securing existing subscribers early so that a few budget projections can be made. There are even people who buy the season blind, without knowing the content of a single concert. So this announcement is driven almost totally by economics.

I had decided to tie in my contract extension to the season renewal, in the hope that it would ease the news that the DSO was cutting back the number of subscription concert we present. Our season will go down to 21 weeks next year, three less than the current one. But many of the individual programs will be played more often, making the total number of presentations almost the same. We will do a Beethoven cycle, playing all 9 of the Symphonies over the course of 3 weeks. There will be 18 works by living composers. And some of old standbys are around too. In fact, it is those standard canon pieces that make up the majority of what every orchestra is presenting.

During this time, as with the Grammys, jounalists are analyzing these announcements, trying to decide who is innovative and who is traditional. I find this a bit silly. No matter which orchestra is presenting their season, the majority of works played are inside the top 100. The critics point out the premieres, the brochures point out the familiar. No orchestra is straying from the mostly tried and true. Oh, there are special “Festivals,” which might seem different, but the main focus in the subscription packages is always with the works that are time-tested.

As a side note, I looked around to see what other orchestras would be doing next year and found very little Stravinsky, other than the usual balletic suspects. What happened to, arguably, the most important composer of the 20th century? We were supposed to hear him at least as much as Beethoven.

Each community has its own musical needs. The music director and marketing staff must find a balance. I try to achieve that during the course of the entire season, rather than segregate one kind of music from another in single programs. The Pittsburgh program mentioned above is a good example. Two well-known pieces, one of which usually guarantees strong sales, along with Bates and Danielpour, but all tied together by the same theme, the use of modern vernacular. One patron said that he came for An American in Paris but fell in love with Liquid Interface.

We are hearing a lot about “reinventing” the orchestra these days. But is showing video while playing a masterpiece really a good idea? Having audiences with text devices to comment on the music as it is playing? Pre-concert lectures and talks during the performance can be helpful. Social get-togethers centered around a theme of a program might be nice. But we are an abstract art, meant to be listened to with no distraction. An audience’s job is not easy. Maybe that is one reason we see fewer bodies in the seats. The concept of using ones imagination has dwindled over the last couple decades. Perhaps we should start reminding people how we can see with our ears.

Michael Kaiser has written about how arts institutions should be more innovative at this time, rather than cut back. He is probably right, but I think that this might be better accomplished when we have made a come-back to a slightly more stable economy and our donor base returns. It will take a lot of work on everyone’s part, but I am confident, and believe that diligence and art of the highest standard will pay off.

And that is truly the reason I am remaining in Detroit. In fact, I have a week off and will spend the time in my place, cooking, reading, catching up on movies, and filling up as many sand traps as possible.

See you next month,