MARCH 2024

MARCH 2024
March 1, 2024 leonard slatkin

February was education month for me, in a couple different ways. In recent years, I have devoted some time to teaching at university music schools and conservatories. More than likely, most people think this is a one-way street, with the professor passing down knowledge accumulated over many years.

In fact, I probably learn more from the experience than the students do. Assessing the health of music education in our society by finding out what it is really like in the artistic/academic world has become something of a pet project for me. I am gleaning that there is considerable talent out there, perhaps too much for the marketplace.

Each time I work with students, I try to be positive and encouraging, but I cannot help splashing a dose of reality into the mix. Whether seeing orchestras or conductors, I tell everyone that these days, they must have a backup plan and should not limit themselves to just one interest. None of us knows where the industry will be in even five years. It is constantly changing, and we need to be prepared. Our quest to achieve something meaningful might shift to teaching, management, or even a field seemingly unrelated to music. At one time in my early life, I thought I might become an English teacher.

These thoughts and so many more went through my head as I visited Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Cleveland Institute of Music. The first came at the invitation of my friend and former Pittsburgh Symphony Concertmaster Andrés Cárdenes. One of the finest leaders of an orchestra I have ever encountered, he has moved on and now serves as Music Director of Orchestral Studies at the school. He is also the co-founder and director of the Josef Gingold Chamber Music Festival of Miami.

Almost all the principal musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony teach at Carnegie. With a sizable endowment, the school boasts an active program with many opportunities for the young musicians to study and perform. For my visit, we selected a program representing composers who were not born in America but immigrated here. Each of the masterworks was written in the United States.

Ernest Bloch has not fared so well in recent years. Even his oft-played Schelomo is now a rarity. Back in 1925, when he was head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, this conservative composer was frowned upon by the students, who perceived a lack of forward thinking in his musical compositions. Bloch responded with his Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Strings and Piano.

In it, he tries to marry older forms and structures with slightly more modernist harmonies, but only once in a while. Remember, Rhapsody in Blue was just one year old at the time, and what could be called real American concert music was still in its infancy.

I have loved this piece from the time I first heard and played it as a youngster. With an imposing first movement, slow and gentle second, folksy third, and grand five-voice fugue, it serves as a fine showpiece for the talented members of the orchestra’s string section. Bloch came to the States because he felt he was underappreciated in Europe. Perhaps his time will come again, and maybe this performance will help.

Just five years after Bloch’s Concerto Grosso, the already well-known Igor Stravinsky wrote his Symphony of Psalms for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Andrés told me that I could utilize the CMU Chorus, and this seemed like the appropriate piece. Stravinsky was in neoclassical mode at this point in his compositional life, but rather than concluding with a fugue, as did Bloch, he put it in the middle. With audacious scoring effects and words with stresses on unexpected syllables, this work for chorus, winds, two pianos, harp, and low strings has always had a place in the standard repertoire.

The 60-member choir projected above the thick sonic textures quite well, in general. As with most university groups, the chorus comprises numerous vocal majors. Getting these soloists to think and sound as one unified ensemble as opposed to a collection of individual voices can be challenging. However, by the time we got to the final “Dominum,” with its C-major chord minus the G, I sensed that we had conveyed the heart of the piece to the audience.

In 1943, Béla Bartók, another émigré composer, wrote his last complete work, the Concerto for Orchestra. Having experienced financial difficulties and health problems after relocating from Hungary to New York during World War II, he received the commission to write this virtuoso masterpiece. It immediately entered the mainstream repertoire. Like the other two works on the Carnegie Mellon program, it also contains a fugue.

Bloch, Stravinsky, and Bartók all left their homelands to settle in the United States. This concert celebrated the works of American immigrants, highlighting the importance of their contributions to a healthy cultural life. The students worked diligently and kept the energy flowing from beginning to end.

It is a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, the next stop on my music-school tour. With a storied history going back about 100 years, the Cleveland Institute of Music sits alongside Severance Hall and other cultural buildings to form an impressive arts complex. As with other similar institutions, its teaching staff comprises most of the principal musicians of the city’s premier professional orchestra, and that is one of the attractions for recruiting new students.

Recently, the school has encountered some legal troubles, but my job was to ignore those and get the young musicians to work as a cohesive unit. The hall within the institute is currently under renovation, so rehearsals moved around from one venue to another. With a moderately difficult program, I felt that this would not pose a problem.

A few weeks before I stepped foot in Cleveland, JoAnn Falletta contacted me, as she is one of the principal teachers in the conducting department. It seems that they only have two students, and one of them, Jake Taniguchi, is pursuing his doctorate. She suggested that I give him some time to work with the orchestra, and I took that idea one step further. Since it was not a particularly long program, I added the Overture to Die Fledermaus and asked Jake to lead this opener in the rehearsals and concert.

In the interest of giving the percussionists a workout, we played Cindy’s Double Play. Everyone seemed to enjoy the athletic aspect of the piece. At this point, I should be able to conduct it from memory, but having the score to refer to makes everyone onstage feel more secure.

I was asked if I would accept a concerto-competition winner as a soloist and happily complied, especially because she was playing the Copland Clarinet Concerto. In many ways, this was the most difficult piece on the program, with its shifting meters and awkward string passages. The orchestra had rehearsed the other works prior to my arrival, but the concerto did not have any previous preparation. So, we had to work extra hard to get it done.

When the young musicians leave school, one of the first works they will encounter in a professional orchestra is the “New World” Symphony. With that in mind, I tried to show various ways in which certain passages could be interpreted. Having my own set of string parts helped a great deal because we did not have to waste any time putting in my preferred bowings.

There was certainly a palpable energy at all the rehearsals and the performance, which took place within the wonderful confines of Severance Hall. I was reminded about just how much difference a fine facility can make in securing a wonderful result.

By now, most of you reading this have learned about a new venture in my professional life. Not wishing to be a music director any longer, I nevertheless accepted an intriguing invitation to assist the Las Vegas Philharmonic. When the opportunity first came to light last summer, I was not sure that even an advisory position was something that would interest me, but that city remains one of the most fascinating in America.

Recently, Las Vegas has secured all four of the major professional team sports and has continued to experience growth with new hotels and casinos. Its population is increasing, and many of those relocating to the desert will be partaking in the cultural scene, which presents the Philharmonic with an opportunity to grow its base.

My job is to help the orchestra find its next musical leader. In the meantime, I will see what can be done to increase the profile of this 25-year-old orchestra. With any luck, the Las Vegas Philharmonic will become a model for how an arts organization relates to its community and expands to embrace the world of entertainment that already exists.

With four days off in between the CIM rehearsals, I flew out to Nevada to get the lay of the land. The orchestra was presenting its annual gala, and I took this time to meet the board members and philanthropic leaders, as well as the orchestra and staff. Although the temperatures in Cleveland had been trending upward, it was nice to experience the warmer climate out west.

Playing at the relatively new and outstanding Smith Center, the Philharmonic has a true home and one to be envied by many ensembles. They sounded excellent under outgoing Music Director Donato Cabrera, and the concert was sold out, a rarity in orchestral life today. This new adventure should be exciting for everyone involved.

On March 5th, my latest book, Eight Symphonic Masterworks of the Twentieth Century: A Study Guide for Conductors, is being released. Don’t be put off by the title—this can be absorbed by anyone who is a musician or has a working knowledge of how to read music. Use the code RLFANDF30 for a 30% discount on orders directly on the Rowman & Littlefield site.

It is the first of what I hope will be several volumes. A second installment focusing on the nineteenth century will be published in the fall. The reaction by those who have perused this initial offering has been most encouraging. The book fills a gap in the teaching of conducting, and I hope it will prove beneficial for not only those starting their careers but also those who need a refresher course on these pieces.

Next, I am heading to Vancouver and Europe for an eight-week concert tour, albeit with some time off along the way.

See you next month,