MARCH 2011

MARCH 2011
March 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

If March is supposed to come in like a lion, I wonder what animal people will make of this past February?

Most of you will undoubtedly know that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has suspended the remainder of its strike-ridden season. More than half of the concerts had already been taken down and it really was only a matter of time before we were either back to work or down for the year. Much has been written, discussed and argued about. It is still not my place to comment –that will come later.

I would only say that I am extremely sad for everyone concerned. Our loyal public deserved better. The musicians, board and management all have good cases to make for their respective positions. At this point it is anyone’s guess as to how it will all be resolved.

On the fourth of the month, I was sitting on a train, travelling to Chicago. A massive snowstorm had blanketed the city and all flights were cancelled so this was the only way to get there. The reason for the trip was that I had been asked to be a judge for the first Sir Georg Solti Conducting Competition, which was to begin the next day. About half way through the journey my phone rang. It was the Artistic Planner of the CSO, Martha Gilmer. I assumed that she was simply checking on my whereabouts.

But instead of asking if we were on time, she wondered if I could conduct the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that night. The music director, Riccardo Muti, had fainted during the rehearsal that morning and was in the hospital. My first concern was for the Maestro. At that point, no one knew what had caused this and there was quite a lot of worry. He had cancelled his appearances earlier in the season and this was to be a triumphant return.

The Symphony was a piece I have done often, in fact just a few weeks earlier in Leipzig. I was off to Los Angeles the following week for concerts so I had my tuxedo with me. The problem was rehearsal time, or lack of it. None, to be precise.

I arrived at Union Station around 4:30 and was taken to the hotel. Two hours later I was at Symphony Center, meeting with the orchestra’s librarian. Since I had no idea how Maestro Muti had rehearsed the piece earlier in the week, it seemed that the best idea was for me to distribute a list of places I knew could be troublesome or confusing. Writing about where I would sub-divide, take some time, alter the tempo, that sort of thing. A few members of the orchestra stopped by the dressing room to ask me about certain passages.

The first half of the program had been altered, with Mitsuko Uchida playing and conducting the same Mozart Piano Concerto she had performed the week before. I was sorry not to do the originally scheduled Schumann Concerto with her but understood that this might be a bit tricky without rehearsal. As for the opening work, a Cherubini Overture, I am well past learning pieces at the last minute. And the score was not available in the dining car.

To say that this was a seat of your pants performance of the Shostakovich would be an understatement. Knowing this orchestra well helped, not to mention having jumped in with them two weeks earlier. That time we had proper rehearsal. Everyone seemed surprised that I did the Symphony without the score. Frankly, I don’t usually think about this. However this time, being able to have eye contact throughout the entire work with the orchestra made it all much easier. The first movement was dramatic, the Scherzo sarcastic, the slow movement moving and the Finale gripping. The audience exploded in an ovation that touched me deeply.

The next day we had a repeat performance in the afternoon and the first round of the competition immediately after. This was devoted to the ten semi-finalists playing piano and coaching singers in arias by Mozart, Beethoven and Verdi. I had never been involved in this type of judgement before and since we were not able to get M. Muti’s advice, all of us simply watched and listened. The idea was to replicate not only the current music director’s early experience but that of Sir Georg. These were men of the pit and an intriguing idea to add this to the actual conducting phase of the competition.

On Sunday, the conductors each had 25 minutes with the Civic Orchestra, the training arm of the CSO. The young people were astonishing, going with each conductor at every twist and turn. It was fairly clear which conductors had the gifts to go through to the finals. It had been decided that this round would have to be postponed until M. Muti was able to attend, since that person would be working closely with him.

When we finished, I was taken to the hospital to visit the Maestro. I had met him only once many years earlier in Philadelphia. I mentioned that in 1974 I substituted for him and made my debut with the New York Philharmonic. We spent an hour together and seemed to hit it off. His sense of humor was amazing considering what had occurred. We spoke of music, politics and exchanged a couple of off-color jokes. Muti would go in for jaw surgery the next day and it turned out to be problem free. We were all grateful.

There was one final concert on the Tuesday and this proved to be a truly spectacular performance. It is never easy to know why it happens but perhaps in this case it was that all of us knew what to expect and we could simply make music without any hesitation.

The next day I left the sub-zero confines of Chicago and flew to the palm trees of LA. The concerts at Disney Hall were with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. His new work, Swing Symphony, was receiving its West Coast premiere. I have known Wynton since he played fourth trumpet for me while I was music director in New Orleans. He is such a consummate musician that there is never any question of adapting to the styles he requests. The respect of every member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was evident throughout the hour long work.

We also played works by Shostakovich and Gershwin, giving a jazz infusion to the whole program. Most of the audience got their first taste of Hawaiian guitar, one of the instruments used in the Russian’s Jazz Suite No. 1. I was grateful it is not used in An American in Paris.

At that point, I was hopeful that a resolution to the contract would be reached. We were to have given the American premiere of Michel Camilo’s Second Piano Concerto. He is also the DSO Jazz Chair so it would have been a family affair.

Alas, it was not to be.

A month that had begun with a last minute save ended with the lights being turned off. Hope and exuberance changed to despair and disappointment.

Let’s hope that the lions are kinder to us.

See you next month,