It has been my habit to more or less inform readers of my comings and goings during a given month. This time I am going to start in the middle, dealing with a musical issue.
There are not many pieces from the standard canon that I have not conducted. Usually, after a first try, I either keep the work and try to program it again, or I drop it from my repertoire. At this point in my life, I have the good fortune to pick and choose what I want to do.
After more than 40 years I decided to take on Brahms’ “German Requiem.” It was not that I didn’t care for the piece, but that I simply did not understand it. Most complaints about the work stem primarily as textual. My difficulties had to do with the musical style, or should I say styles, that occur throughout the piece. When Brahms wrote the Requiem he had already embarked on new adventures harmonically. With his songs, chamber music and early orchestral work, he had developed an individual musical style that could only be called, “Brahmsian.”
The trouble I had with the Requiem was that I perceived a polyglot of other composers intruding on Brahms voice in this piece. Certainly there is no way to avoid Bach if writing vocal counterpoint. However, the fugue in the Handel Variations shows that Brahms was perfectly capable of setting different lines in an original way. Then there is the shadow of Schumann, Brahms’ close friend, who had died about 10 years earlier. But why was I constantly hearing Mendelssohn and Beethoven?
When I decided to give the Requiem another look, about three years ago, a new thought crossed my mind. We know that Schumann himself had contemplated something similar and Brahms took on the responsibility of following through. It was the “German” part that seemed to unlock the work for me. The indirect references I was confused by might actually have been meant as homage to the German tradition in music. The work opens and closes in a musical style that lets us know who wrote the piece. Along the way, other voices are heard, as if speaking to us from their places in the firmament. Now I had discovered a way to reconcile the musical dilemma that had prevented me from performing this work.
In the third week of an extended residency in Detroit, we presented the Requiem, along with John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. The pairing seemed apt and the performances excellent. I felt that it was now possible to keep the Brahms masterpiece in my active repertoire.
The first few days of February were spent in Seoul, Korea, finishing up the Asian part of my season. This was the first time I had conducted a Korean orchestra, having only toured the city with other ensembles. The Seoul Philharmonic is comprised primarily of young musicians, who must audition every year in order to stay in the orchestra. Our program was all Russian, with Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky being the main work.
It was very cold outside, with temperatures reaching a 55-year low. So I did not venture out, as between rehearsals and the performance, there wasn’t much time and I am from Los Angeles. Do not ask why I chose Detroit as my home!
All went well and I look forward to a return visit.
It was a very busy time back in Motor City. Since this was a four-week stint, it represented the longest single time I had ever spent with my orchestra. You would think that in my fourth season I would have done this at least once but circumstances prevented this from occurring. In my first year, I only had a few weeks available in my schedule. During the second, I had a heart attack and was out of commission for three months. And of course last season—well—there was no last season.
There is nothing better for the music director than an extended period with his or her orchestra. You usually get to some meaty repertoire and have the opportunity to work on long-range goals as well as the program in front of you. Each of the weeks presented numerous challenges for everyone.
During the first, we had the recording microphones up for the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances and Cindy’s Einstein’s Dream. The latter is for strings, percussion and pre-recorded sound and moves from Bachian elegy to Pendrecki-like clusters. This piece is quite different from the high-energy rhythmic propulsion of many other works by Cindy. It will make a fine contrast to the remaining works on the disc.
The dances are always a joy to conduct and, I suspect, to play. There is something for everyone. I am always reminded of Rachmaninov’s mastery of orchestral color. Perhaps this was a result of his limited conducting activities, but this particular work could almost serve as a textbook for how to write in the mid-20th century.
Our soloist was Julian Rachlin in the 1st Shostakovich Violin Concerto. We have worked together often and he is always a pleasure to collaborate with. The orchestra fell in love with him and I am certain he will return as soon as possible. Julian also gave us an entrance into a further global experience by hooking us up with a Russian web site, which along with our own, streamed the concert live. We know that at least 15,000 people viewed the performance.
In an odd coincidence, we would perform three programs in a row in which there were only two pieces, and each of the big works was about 65 minutes. First up was the Fifth Symphony by Mahler. Many people will point to this set of performances as a true test of recovery from the strike of last year. Even though we have a number of vacancies, and several of our musicians are on leave, this work was a strong message for everyone. The orchestra was simply magnificent, playing their collective and individual hearts out. There was drama aplenty and tender emotion when needed. It would not be unfair to say that this week was a major event that will stay in the memory for a long time.
The first part of the program should not be sneezed at either. Manny Ax joined us for a performance of the Mozart 22nd in E-Flat. There is not much that needs to be said of him or his sense of style and taste. One of the true gentlemen in our profession, it is always wonderful to see and work with him.
Additionally, the Mahler scholar Gilbert Kaplan gave a one-hour presentation on the composer’s life, with graphic and musical examples. This was an extraordinary glimpse into the world of Mahler and all those in attendance loved it. We will see if this builds into a series of portraits of the great composers.
Following the Adams/Brahms week, we headed into a favorite passion of mine, Final Alice, by David Del Tredici. Readers who have followed these entries will know my feelings about this work and the influence it has had on so many composers. Written in 1976, at a time when new works drove people out of the concert hall, David managed to capture the imagination of everyone with this work. Formerly a died- in- the- wool serialist, he embarked on a series of works that take Alice in Wonderland on a madcap musical adventure.
With two soprano saxophones, banjo, mandolin, accordion and Theremin, not to mention a huge set of orchestral forces, David creates a kind of Mahler on steroids world. The driving force is a soprano soloist, who is called upon to sing, narrate, and act pretty much non-stop for the 65 minute duration of the piece. All my performances of this work during the past few years have been with the remarkable Hila Plitman. She told me that it took her less than two weeks to memorize the piece.
As usual, performing this piece was a physical workout. Why can’t my cardiologist do the stress test when I conduct instead of putting me on a treadmill?
Along with Peter and the Wolf, this program of story telling was remarkable. Everyone met the virtuoso demands of the scores. David turns 75 in about a month. Happy Birthday.
A few lingering bits. The final edit of my book has been submitted to the publisher and is awaiting their blessing. As of this writing I am not sure if it is coming out in late May or possible coinciding with the new season in September. I hope that I will be allowed to share a chapter in these pages.
The Detroit Symphony announced that we would perform with local hero, Kid Rock, at a concert in May. Having done numerous performances with contemporary artists, I see nothing but good coming from this event. It will raise about a million dollars for the DSO. Kid Rock is an exceptional artist, truly caring about his native city.
All the Detroit Symphony concerts are streamed live now. Just check in at dso.org for the next offerings.
Most of March will be spent in Europe, with a return to the ONL and a tour of Germany with the Deutsches Symphony of Berlin. I am not sure what to pack.
See you next month,