When is a lot of American music simply too much? Never!
The entire month of February was spent conducting creations from the States, some old and some new. Over the course of four weeks, I led pieces by 18 different American composers. Performing these wonderful works was nothing short of exhilarating.
It all started in Bern, Switzerland. They had asked for a program of American works, and I included the Barber Violin Concerto among them. This would be the only piece that I repeated during the whole month. Our soloist was Augustin Hadelich, a violinist I certainly knew about but had never worked with. His sweet tone and sense of rubato for this most romantic of concertos was always in good taste.
There is an interesting side note with this concerto. During the last five years of my father’s life, he played on a Guarneri that was previously owned by Albert Spalding, the violinist who premiered the Barber in Philadelphia. After my dad died, my mother gave the instrument to the Philly Orchestra for exclusive use by its concertmaster. While I was a student in NYC, I went to Cheesesteak City to hear the work performed by concertmaster Norman Caro on the violin my father had once owned, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy, the same conductor who had led the premiere.
To contribute to the ongoing celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th, we performed his first symphony, “Jeremiah.” The mezzo-soprano Claude Eichenberger sang the final movement with great passion and expression. Growing up, this was one of the first Bernstein works that I got to know. It was via an historically important recording from 1944, the composer’s first with an established symphony orchestra in the States, which was none other than the St. Louis Symphony. When we were recording Songfest in St. Louis in 1992, I thought it would be a good idea to reissue this early performance on the same album. As a little encore for the disc, I played Bernstein’s piano piece dedicated to Nathalie Koussevitzky, No. 5 from Seven Anniversaries for Solo Piano, which is basically the final two minutes of the symphony.
An American in Paris closed the program, performed in the newly minted edition by Mark Clague of the University of Michigan’s Gershwin Initiative. He would be an integral part of the next three weeks in Detroit. This is the version that reinstates the original taxi horn pitches and has numerous alterations informed by early editions and recordings. There are some places that are a little awkward, and I can understand F. Campbell-Watson’s desire to re-orchestrate some passages. But overall, the mood and atmosphere are unchanged. The piece remains a remarkable tone poem by a still young composer.
Opening the concert was Cindy’s Double Play. When I am seeing an orchestra for the first time, it is difficult to gauge what they can and cannot do. Having spoken to a couple other musicians who knew the Bern Symphony, I was well-assured that there would be few, if any, technical problems. That proved to be true, and the whole program was played with great panache, subtlety and flair.
Say what you will about the Swiss, but sometimes punctuality is not their strong suit. Whenever a taxi was supposed to pick us up, it was invariably late. And after the final concert, when we were supposed to have a car take us to Zurich, it never showed up. All this is forgiven with the graciousness of the good people of Bern. Perhaps the cheese and chocolate didn’t hurt their cause either.
Next it was back to Detroit for a three-week festival dubbed American Panorama. Most of you reading this will know that we have had five previous mid-winter periods devoted to a common theme. The first four were, respectively, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mozart. Last season we went French, with a strong emphasis on Saint-Saëns. This year’s entry was devoted to music from the States.
It is usually very cold and snowy in Hockey Town during the month of February. Many of our usual patrons and subscribers head south or maybe to the slopes. This means that we had to find a way to attract new listeners to Orchestra Hall. The initial festival did well enough to encourage further forays into the festival format. With events taking place mostly in Orchestra Hall as well as its smaller cousin, The Cube, our American adventure was a rousing success.
The main difficulty for the DSO is preparing two different programs each week. Rehearsals must be compact and efficient, and the repertoire needs to be adjusted to accommodate this limitation. A balance of familiar with new is the only way for us to accomplish what needs to be done. Two of the three weeks have five rehearsals, and the middle week just four. With two performances of each program, it really is a lot on our plates.
With the time constraints in mind, I tried to come up with programs that would be appealing to the audience but also within the almost unlimited grasp of the orchestra. For openers, we primarily looked at a few composers who have largely been neglected over the past 20 years or so. Morton Gould was certainly an imposing force on the American musical scene in his day, and his Star-Spangled Overture was the perfect piece to kick off the festival.
Virgil Thompson and Ferde Grofé used to be commonplace on programs during the middle part of the 20th century. These days, however, they are barely on the radar. That is sad because they, along with others of their generation, represent the true heart of American music. These were composers who defined the sound of the orchestra in the States. Most of their music was premiered by conductors who were not born here, and yet the majority of music directors and guest conductors today simply do not know about them. Preserving the traditions that set the table for today’s compositional talents is as important as promoting the new.
In 1936, with the assistance of the United States government, a 25-minute documentary film outlining the plight of farmers in the Midwest was made. Its title was The Plow That Broke the Plains, and Thompson was asked to write the music. The film was a powerful statement, showing how unregulated over-farming led to the Dust Bowl, particularly in Oklahoma. There is a narration in the film, which I read to the audience between the six movements. Here is one passage that is particularly moving, and when applied to today’s environment seems more than just enlightened.
“All they ask is a chance to start over …
And a chance for their children to eat,
to have medical care, to have homes again.”
Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite was in the repertoire of every orchestra and conductor for at least 35 years. It is not really clear why the whole work has pretty much disappeared from the symphonic canon, as it remains a wonderful depiction of nature at its boldest. Perhaps it is time for a Grofé revival.
We were blessed to have Joan Tower visit us for a performance of her early work Sequoia. It was the first piece of hers I ever performed, and it stands as tall as the magnificent trees out west. Bernstein was represented with a work each week of the festival, this time the Three Mediations from MASS, played exquisitely by principal cellist Wei Yu.
As an encore, I brought out a short piece that had received its premiere last June. During an event in my honor, the DSO had, unbeknown to me at the time, asked my son, Daniel, to write and conduct a work. Since I was occupied weeping and overcome with emotion, I did not remember that much about the piece. This time, with Daniel watching from California, I led In Fields and was moved once again. However, now it was more about his true skill and talent as a composer and orchestrator. There is no doubt in my mind that he will go far in the motion picture and television industry.
To round out the first week, we performed a program devoted to John Williams. Remember how I wrote about playing works that were familiar to the orchestra so that we could maximize the short rehearsal period? It turned out that only some of the pieces I selected fell into that category. The first half had celebratory works—a march written in honor or Arthur Fiedler and an oboe concerto, skillfully played by Alex Kinmonth. Certainly nothing we already knew.
The second half was film music, but again, some of it was not regular fare for the DSO. With excerpts from The Book Thief and Memoirs of a Geisha, we had a lot to learn very quickly. After five previous festivals, the orchestra was certainly up to the challenge, and it all went very well. I wanted to say swimmingly, but since we played the theme from Jaws, perhaps that would not have been the way to word it.
It is always difficult to decide what to play for an encore when dealing with John’s music. Everyone has their own favorite piece. Mine is the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, I had to figure out what kind of schtick to do, and the stagehands accommodated by placing a small black towel on my music stand. It was covering up what would be revealed about halfway through the piece: a lightsaber! Giving my most evil grin possible, I unleashed its fury first to the audience and then to the orchestra. Okay, Darth Slatkin does not have a menacing ring to it, but when I handed it off to a young girl in the audience, all was forgiven.
Packed into the first week was a showing of The Beast with Five Fingers. This 1946 Warner Brothers film featured my uncle, pianist Victor Aller, or at least part of him. One sees his left hand playing Brahms’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne. For about ten minutes, I told stories about the filming, my mother fainting when the orchestra played a prank on her, and how the various effects were achieved. A bit campy by today’s standards, the film is still quite entertaining, and even though I did not find it as scary as I did as a kid, Peter Lorre’s performance was amazing. I did my best impression of him and got a nice round of applause and cheering. Vegas, here I come, but only when I get my Elvis down pat.
Week Two was a little less hectic, but part of that was due to only having four rehearsals rather than five. That meant we really had to work quickly to put the programs together. One day before the first rehearsal, I got a message from our scheduled soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, saying that he had contracted a severe ear infection, and his doctor ordered him not to fly for a few weeks. We now found ourselves without our star pianist and only one day to find replacements.
Immediately I asked if Orli Shaham was available for The Age of Anxiety, an aptly named piece considering this new development. She was but could only make it for one rehearsal. It is a Bernstein work that the orchestra had not played in quite a while, but the situation did give me an opportunity to do a rehearsal without the soloist and at least teach the band the basic idea of the work.
For the first program of the week, I wanted to start each half with an Adagio for Strings. The initial work was the obvious, and the other was Cindy’s piece taken from her symphony. A few days earlier, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, John Dingell, passed away. Our “National Anthem of Mourning” once again was utilized to honor this great man, who did so much for the State of Michigan. Barber may not have meant it for this purpose, but the piece continues to give us comfort and solace during times of loss.
Cindy’s could have served the same purpose, as could many other works in the American canon, including the slow movement of Piston’s Second Symphony. At the dress rehearsal, we played the two adagios back to back, and we were struck by how the single arching and aching melodies were similar, although set in very different ways. Each had its impact on the audience and orchestra.
Orli was terrific in the Bernstein. During this celebratory year, she told me that she has performed the work seven times. That experience paid off in a solid, expressive and cheeky way, as the music required those qualities. The percussion showed off their collective chops in “The Masque,” and Orli returned to the stage to play a short transcription of part of the Bernstein Serenade, made by the composer but apparently not yet published.
It has always been my opinion that Appalachian Spring is the true exemplar of what American music is all about. Utilizing original themes for the most part, Copland fashioned this ballet as an abstract work, with no programmatic intent. The final three minutes or so contain that feeling of cautious optimism that embodies the spirit of the land. Perhaps someday this is the music that will be played at solemn occasions. We performed the familiar suite as opposed to the complete ballet. Three works on this program contained endings that all fade out into the distance, and at both performances, there was not a sound from the audience. We had done our job well.
Gershwin ruled the roost over the weekend. Many years ago, I had commissioned Rob Mathes to make an arrangement of a few Gershwin songs, which he titled Gershwiniana. I am the only conductor allowed to perform this potpourri and am honored to do so at any occasion. With a terrific turn as Benny Goodman, assistant principal clarinetist Larry Liberson turned into the King of Swing without missing a beat.
Jon Kimura Parker gave an elegant as well as virtuosic account of the Concerto in F. We had not worked together in quite a while, and I was pleased to tell him that we are doing the Barber Concerto in Toronto next season. For an encore, he turned to a fellow Canadian, Oscar Peterson, in a transcription of his fiendishly difficult Blues Etude. It reminded me that all of you should have at least five recordings of the big guy with the fleet fingers. Well, maybe not the ones where he sings.
Robert Russell Bennett is best known for his Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess. Hard to believe that this was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony with Fritz Reiner. It is one of those sets of rehearsals I would have loved to have attended. But Bennett also made a 45-minute condensation of music from the opera that includes two soloists and chorus. Almost all the great tunes are there, excluding “I Loves You, Porgy.” No wonder there is always a debate as to whether this is a true opera or a musical. So many memorable songs, even outdoing Verdi in that department. I find that this version, although effective, is a bit on the heavy side, but it does work. Perhaps someday, with the help of our scholar in residence, Mark Clague, there will be a version about an hour long and taken directly from the opera itself.
Returning to the five-rehearsal format of the first week, our concluding programs ventured the furthest into unusual repertoire. Still, it was useful to have some popular fare, as there is the matter of selling tickets to take into account. Bernstein’s final appearance during the festival consisted of two works. First off was the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, originally written for a television show in which the composer tried to find similarities between jazz and classical music. Budgetary considerations came into play for us, but my brother helped out by telling me that the New York City Ballet, where he is the principal cellist, does a version that eliminates the four saxophones and replaces them with a small string complement. Lukas Foss made this alteration in 1997, and it works quite well. Ralph Skiano and the DSO Big Band swung into action and were very cool.
Speaking of “Cool,” we wrapped up the program with a selection of dances from West Side Story, followed by three songs featuring vocalists from the University of Michigan with great stage presence and terrific voices. The audience roared its approval, and we dove into the “Mambo,” encouraging them to join in the shout.
Speaking of the University of Michigan, our concert began with a world premiere of a work by their chair of composition, Kristin Kuster, commissioned by the DSO and the BMI Foundation in honor of its president emeritus, Ralph Jackson. Her piece, Dune Acres, was inspired by favorite landscapes experienced during her childhood in Indiana. Cast in three movements, the work is immediately accessible, and its rich textures contain elements of Stravinsky via Steve Reich. Kristin’s husband, Bill Lucas, is a member of the DSO trumpet section, and she featured him with a lengthy, contemplative solo in the slow movement.
Speaking of the DSO, the orchestra’s Associate Concertmaster, Kim Kaloyanides Kennedy, performed the Barber Concerto to conclude the first half. As usual, her sparkling personality, elegant sound and virtuoso playing made this a memorable occasion. What was unusual was that the instrument she played on was a Stradivarius that is housed in a collection of violins owned by Henry Ford. They sit in a museum and do not get out all that often. Ford himself was an amateur violinist and apparently a composer as well. Who knew? So a bit of history was on display with this instrument that has mostly remained silent for many years.
Speaking of silence, we also performed, if that is the correct word, John Cage’s 4‘33“. This is possibly the most provocative of works in the American canon. For those of you who do not know, the piece lasts the length of the title, but no notes are played. The philosophy is that there is always sound, and by having everyone just focus on the ambient qualities around them, we become more aware of the importance of silence as it relates to music itself. We did this straight, as I did not want to make light of the conceit of the work. Aside from some coughing, we heard breathing, a hum from some of the electrical mechanisms in the hall, as well as other assorted sounds, all of which Cage considered an integral part of the musical experience. And of course, we did the full-orchestra version.
Our final offering was the only one that included all DSO premieres. Entitled Maximum Minimal, this program was designed as a glimpse into the still-thriving world of music that changed how we perceived sound during the last third of the 20th century and beyond. In an almost open act of rebellion, composers began going in exactly the opposite direction of their 12-tone counterparts, dividing melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements into separate and only sometimes equal measures.
The three pieces we performed showed off how a few of these progressions manifested themselves. Beginning with one of the early classics, percussionists Joe Becker and Andrés Pichardo-Rosenthal entered the stage sans orchestra to play Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. One could feel the audience’s knowledge that this evening was going to be different than anything else we had done during the festival. Without so much as a drop of blood from their hands, the performers brought terrific clarity and even some interesting dynamic shifts to this fun piece.
With only rhythm on display to start, we added the elements of harmony (not so much melody) and sequencing with the Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. As far as I know, this Philip Glass concoction is the only piece to utilize a timpanist duo in the solo role. It is a true, almost classic, concerto, complete with a virtuoso cadenza. Jeremy Epp and Jay Ritchie got a roaring approval from the crowd.
We ended the festival with a more subdued but substantial piece, Become Ocean. This work won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, and John Luther Adams certainly showed why this award was so deserved. Coming in at 42 minutes, the work is completely haunting from start to finish. This piece seems to emanate from the world of Ligeti and various experiments in electronic sounds, although only conventional instruments are utilized.
With its subtle commentary on our environmental crisis, the piece takes the listener on a slowly evolving set of wave rides, with none of the three elements—melody, harmony and rhythm— immediately apparent. Although each is there in some form, it is the sonic architecture of the work, as well as the amazing orchestration, that beguiles the listener. The orchestra is laid out in three different physical positions onstage, and in order to show how the dynamics are passed to and from the groups, we used some discreet lighting effects to give the audience visual cues.
It made for an enthralling end to what was certainly the most ambitious of the six winter festivals I led with the DSO. Kudos all around to the orchestra, staff and stagehands, who had to put in a lot of work to make these three weeks so successful. I do not know what the future holds as regards the festivals, but it is clear that they made an impact on anyone who attended Orchestra Hall concerts in the cold, dead of February in Detroit.
Soon Cindy and I head to Asia for a five-week tour. Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Osaka are on the docket. But right now, I really need to get some sleep.
See you next month,