Even though my music directorship in Lyon has ended, the six-year tenure stayed very much in the forefront during the month of February in Detroit. At this time, during the usually bitterly cold weather in Michigan, we put on a festival, in the past devoted to a single composer. With Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mozart represented in previous seasons, it was time to try something different.
What could be more natural than bringing some of the repertoire from France back to Detroit? After all, the Motor City was founded in 1701 by the explorer and adventurer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. It also happens that I drive one of his automobiles. Okay, so he really was from what is now part of Canada, but still, he did create this bustling town and give it a French moniker.
Orchestra Hall transforms into a beehive of activity during this three-week period. We give two performances each of six different programs. By the end, everyone is exhausted, but the effort is worth it. With many of our usual patrons either soaking up the sun in the South or hitting the slopes in the North, these festivals offer an opportunity to reach a different audience. In addition to the concerts in the main hall, our other venue, now known as “The Cube,” attracts a great deal of attention and sizable crowds.
It is not possible to summarize four centuries of musical creation over the span of three weeks. Instead, we focused primarily on two composers, almost polar opposites in their approach to composition. One was Camille Saint-Saëns, whose popularity comes and goes. During the first week, we performed a full program devoted to his music, and we revisited this composer over the course of the festival, playing seven of his pieces in total.
The all-Saint-Saëns program opened with the Marche héroïque followed by the Danse macabre. These two orchestral showpieces were once mainstays of the repertoire, but only the latter is encountered these days, and that is usually around Halloween time. In these works, as well as all the others on the docket, one could not help but be in awe of the composer’s command of structure. There is not a wasted note anywhere.
George Li was the outstanding pianist in the Second Concerto. He brought a full range of color and dynamic contrast to every aspect of the piece. It is easy to dismiss this work as just a showcase for the soloist, but George made it a musically memorable experience, delving deeply into the interior and avoiding the superficial.
To close, what better than the Third Symphony? Although some may consider this piece overwrought with fireworks and sentimentality, in my view, it is an absolute masterpiece of construction. I have always sought to bring the architectural structure to the fore, hoping to make all the thematic connections that clearly were in Saint-Saëns’s mind during composition. We do not yet have an acoustic instrument in Orchestra Hall to call the work the “Organ” symphony, but the electronic replacement was one of the best I have encountered.
Ravel was the other composer we highlighted, represented in Week One with five of his works on the opening program. Making its first appearance at a DSO concert was the delightful Menuet antique, followed by the graceful Pavane for a Dead Princess. Both works were originally written for piano, and we should be grateful that Ravel chose to orchestrate them. Certainly in the case of the former, the dark character is probably better represented by the varied instrumentation. I go back and forth as regards the Pavane. Both are wonderful.
Six-and-a-half years ago, my very first performance as music director of the ONL featured the pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet playing the Ravel G-Major Concerto. Here he was in Detroit to perform it with me again, throwing in the Left-Hand Concerto for good measure. Written simultaneously, these pieces display Ravel’s creative genius. Whether with the smaller orchestral forces for the two-hand piece or the very large instrumentation for the D Major, Mr. Bavouzet showed a true master’s touch. We had a great time collaborating on these concerti.
The second suite from Daphnis et Chloé rounded out the program, with a particularly affecting solo from flutist Sharon Sparrow. No matter how many times I conduct this piece, there is a feeling of exhilaration that is hard to describe. The only downside to the week was that we experienced one of the snowiest and most blustery days imaginable. Even though ticket sales were very good, only about 400 or so made it to the Friday morning concert. But it was clear that they really wanted to be at Orchestra Hall, so we all played our hearts out for this special audience.
During the second week of the festival, we were joined by the duo-piano team of Christina and Michelle Naughton. The twins’ first outing with us included the Poulenc Double Concerto, which I had performed earlier this season with another pair of twins, the Pekinels. Their American counterparts brought virtuosity and lyricism to this amazing work, reminding me yet again of the individuality of the composer. Sadly, Poulenc did not write very much music for orchestra.
Darius Milhaud occupies a special place in music history as one of the true revolutionaries. We performed his early La création du monde, a work written before the Rhapsody in Blue. Having been seduced by jazz during a visit to London, Milhaud substituted a saxophone, superbly played by Marcus Schoon, for the usual slot designated for viola. The result, especially when one has great soloists from the orchestra, is a delightful and sometimes melancholy work that enchants from start to finish.
Less familiar to almost everyone was the work that began the second half of the program. In 1962, Milhaud, at that time living in California, was asked by RCA Victor to write a companion piece to Gershwin’s An American in Paris. By this time in his life, Milhaud was not really interested in program music, and the piece he wrote was more than likely not what the record company expected. The resulting work consists of six movements only related to his adopted homeland by its title, A Frenchman in New York. I was pleasantly surprised at the audience response, considering the abstract nature of the piece.
An American in Paris was the obvious pairing on this program, but there were a couple surprises in the Gershwin as well. The University of Michigan has been collaborating with the Gershwin estate to produce new editions of George’s works. Many of the changes in American in Paris are not readably audible, but easily perceived are the different pitches for the taxi horns and the elimination of a timpani roll that usually heralds the climax of the final section. It is certainly possible to approximate how this music was first played, because recordings exist. But the influence of everything we’ve heard since (the Beatles, Springsteen, Bartók, Stravinsky and more) makes it difficult to replicate those early performances. After the first performance of the Gershwin, which I tried to do in a more straightforward manner, I realized that this did not represent my thoughts on the piece. At the subsequent concert, I went back to my usual tempi and rubatos.
Our second program in Week Two opened with a chestnut that usually does not appear on subscription concerts. Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, minus the mouse, is an incredible feat of composition. Like so many French works highlighted in this festival, it does not waste a single note or rest. Our scholar in residence, Dr. Steven Whiting, pointed out in a pre-concert lecture that Dukas only wrote one piece in each form—just a single symphony, overture, opera, ballet, sonata and tone poem. Remarkable.
The Naughtons returned to join in what was a somewhat hysterical view of Carnival of the Animals. All blame must be placed on me, as I probably overdid it in terms of extra-musical distractions. But since Saint-Saëns never intended this piece to be played publicly, I thought it would be fun for everyone to see a totally unbuttoned Slatkin—acting, telling jokes and kibitzing with the musicians. The audience ate it up, and I suspect that a few of the musicians did too.
After intermission, we began with the two orchestrated Gymnopédies by Erik Satie. However, the naïve sentiment that those works usually convey was dramatically altered by events of the days leading up to the performance. Just as we use the Barber Adagio for Strings for moments of musical condolence, the two short works by Satie served as our memorial to those whose lives were cut short by the shooter in Parkland, Florida. I asked the audience to also consider anyone who has been the victim of gun violence.
The concert concluded with the concoction put together by Manuel Rosenthal of music by Jacques Offenbach. Gaîté Parisienne used to be played all the time but is rarely encountered these days. The piece has a special significance for me, as my father’s recording of it won a Grammy during the first year of the award ceremony. It is a bit long for concert performances, so I omitted five of the numbers, but we did have can-can dancers.
The home stretch proved a little more challenging than expected. Just three days before his scheduled performances with the DSO, violinist Renaud Capuçon had to withdraw due to illness. We were very fortunate to secure the services of Benjamin Beilman, who was going to be in Michigan for a concert with the Dearborn Symphony. He had most of the planned repertoire in hand and was stunning throughout.
We played more Saint-Saëns, presenting the 3rd Violin Concerto as well as the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The latter took the place of what would have been the American premiere of Ravel’s Violin Sonata, in an orchestration Renaud and I performed in Lyon last season. Ben was certainly in command of all the passion and virtuosity required. He also brought a refreshing simplicity to the slow movement of the concerto. To wrap up his stint, Ben showed his wizardry with Ravel’s Tzigane, the finger-busting romp that used to challenge even the most technically capable.
Henri Rabaud is not a name familiar to most audience members or musicians, but his La procession nocturne is a beautiful piece, with more than a slight nod to Gabriel Fauré. Another name that had not yet appeared at the festival was that of Claude Debussy. We made amends by playing the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as well as La mer. With all the Ravel we had done, I began to think that Debussy probably had to fuss more with his composition technique, whereas Ravel seemed to be facile at every turn. Ultimately, I found little similarity between the two composers and treated them as separate but equal.
The one living composer from France whose work we presented was Guillaume Connesson. I have been playing his works recently—he was composer in residence in Lyon for two seasons—and find him to be incredibly gifted with a wonderful ear for color. His Flammenschrift is a true workout for the orchestra but very effective as an opener. I will keep it in my repertoire.
Last, but certainly not least, was the one composer that not only redefined French music but also revolutionized the way we played and listened. Hector Berlioz has become, for me, a virtual anomaly of his time. It is hard to imagine how audiences reacted to the Symphonie fantastique when it was first performed. There had been no music like this in the 1830s. It still has the power to shock today.
We decided to do every last drop of it, including all the repeats as well as the obbligato cornet part written for the virtuoso teacher Jean-Baptiste Arban. One would have thought that by the time we got to the last concert, the twelfth over the course of three weeks, we would have collapsed. To the contrary—the orchestra played with utmost precision and passion. I had a ball.
Now it is off to Lyon for two weeks of nothing but Scandinavian music. It would have been way too obvious to do an American Festival.
See you next month,