One of the pleasures of having two orchestras is the ability to spend lengthy periods with each, honing the sound and discovering the repertoire together. Such was the case in February, when I returned to Lyon for a three-week stint.
The weather in the States played around with the flight schedule but in actuality, one man’s delay is another’s advancement. Cindy and I were able to change the itinerary so that we wound up in Lyon an hour earlier than intended. This was all for the better, as there were three very full weeks ahead.
In working on a chapter for a forthcoming book, I decided to tackle a question that few musicians like to hear: “What is your favorite piece of music?” Of course there is no real answer to this query. The best I can do at this point in my career is to say, “I get to conduct all the pieces that are my favorites.” But in the case of the new book, I have decided to tackle the question from a slightly different point of view: “What are the ten pieces that you have enjoyed conducting the most?”
That is quite different from the listening experience, although I certainly enjoy just sitting back and letting someone else do all the work. The physical, mental and emotional satisfaction when leading a work is really a separate matter. It would not be fair, and my publisher would not like it, if I gave away all ten, but I will tell you that one of them occurred during these three weeks.
First up was Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony,” Romeo and Juliette. It is not a work that is performed often, as the technical demands and resources are great. For many conductors the work is a bit cumbersome, as it is not really a symphony, opera, oratorio or any other form that had existed up until that time. But as encapsulated by the composer and his librettist, the recasting of the story is one of the most remarkable musical adventures ever put onto paper.
It is also an enormous challenge. Just taking the non-vocal movements and creating the multi-sonic world envisioned by Berlioz takes a lot of preparation, both before and during rehearsals. The rhythmic structure of the Queen Mab Scherzo, the tempo relationships in Romeo Alone, the trombone recitative in the Tumult, and the architecture of the love music represent the composer at the height of his compositional powers.
The first twenty minutes feature a chamber choir, which we placed, as Berlioz desired, in front of the orchestra. The chorus master, Bernard Tétu, led it. My job was to follow by listening, as I cannot be turning 180 degrees all the time. The alto soloist was placed in front of this chorus with the harp nearby. It worked very well. Sometimes the composer is right.
All went superbly. We recorded the proceedings for Naxos, and I am certain this will be a disc we will be very proud of.
Next up was a Russian program with violinist Vadim Repin. His choice for this concert was the 2nd concerto by Prokofiev, a work I have loved since childhood. The two Prokofiev works in this form could not be more different from each other. As with the two Elgar symphonies, it is impossible to pick a favorite. In the G minor, Prokofiev explores rhythmic meter changes in a way he had not done previously. This makes the finale seem like a roller coaster of pitfalls, but Vadim was solid and the orchestra was right with him.
For an encore, he tore through the Paganini version of Carnival of Venice and had the strings play a two-chord ostinato throughout. It was quite a display of technical and musical prowess that had the audience and orchestra cheering vociferously at the end.
Opening the program was Schnittke’s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, a cheeky take on what would happen should Haydn or Schubert have lived in the twentieth century. A simple melody becomes misshapen through harmonic twists and turns. It is all great fun, and I enjoyed doing this piece again after at least twenty years of neglect on my part.
Wrapping up the program was the Shostakovich 5th. This composer is not played all that frequently in Lyon, so there were trepidations as to how many people would show up for the concert. Never fear, we had nearly full houses for the two presentations at home and a packed auditorium for a run-out in Grenoble.
This is one of those pieces I do quite often, and it seems to turn up at least once each season. There are always new discoveries to be made. I personally do not think about the political underpinnings of the symphony. It is all about the emotions, regardless of their origins. But I simply cannot bring myself to plod through the coda at the nails-in-the-coffin pace that has become fashionable today.
D major is D major, and for me it cannot be turned into anything less than a positive moment in a piece that is mostly on the bleak and sarcastic side. Visions of Stalin do not pop into my head. However, over the years, my approach to the whole piece has become darker, and the pacing of the Adagio, assuming the orchestra can do it, puts a lot of stress on sustaining the tension as much as possible. The ONL gave three wonderful performances, and perhaps this can be the beginning of more of this composer for us.
With two big symphonies in a row, you would think that a hat trick was not a good idea. We settled on Mahler 4, not exactly a light bit of froth. When I first arrived in Lyon as music director, I was told that Mahler was, like Shostakovich, not so popular. But with this set of performances, we have almost come to the middle of a complete cycle, and full houses greeted each of these presentations.
For many people, this is the first of Mahler’s symphonies to strike a resonant chord. It is the shortest and the lightest scored. The prevailing mood is amiable but at the same time filled with great outpourings of emotion. Dispensing with trombones and tubas, Mahler creates an astonishing array of colors, and despite the lack of the lower brass, still manages to convey darkness when needed.
The previous two weeks of hard work paid off tremendously with these rehearsals and performances. Clearly the orchestra was primed and came prepared. The winds could be found working on their own, refining matters of phrasing and intonation. The strings threw themselves into the contrasts called for by the composer, and our stellar timpanist, Benoit Cambreling, outdid himself in refinement. Kudos also to the concertmaster, Giovanni Radivo, for making the devil’s fiddle dance.
In a rather clever programing concept, if I do say so myself, we began the program with Mozart’s concert aria, “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” This piece is scored for the slightly odd combination of mezzo-soprano, solo piano, a few winds and strings. Isabelle Druet, who had made such a strong impression with us last season, was the vocalist, and Bertrand Chamayou played the keyboard part. He returned for the next piece, the great A-Major Concerto by the same composer.
So what made it clever?
The obvious thing was that both soloists performed in two pieces on the program. But more interesting was that Isabelle not only opened the concert, but also sang the last movement of the Mahler, thereby becoming a vocal set of bookends. Nice symmetry and also unusually satisfying in the balance department. Having only worked with Isabelle in music by Ravel, it was good to hear her in a very different repertoire. Keep a close eye out for this name. She makes her U.S. debut with us in Detroit next season.
As this three-week period drew to a close, I continued to consider myself very fortunate to be the director of two exceptional orchestras. Next up is a trip with the DSO to Florida. Having been away during most of February during the winter of everyone’s climate discontent, I am certain that the orchestra is looking forward to temperatures above freezing. But I suspect that a few of our musicians have been working on their golf games, using their sand wedge clubs to get out of snow drifts.
See you next month,