MAY 2009

MAY 2009
May 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

Many people tell me that I work too hard. There are probably some who don’t think I work hard enough. All I know is that I have just spent one year during this past April. So hang in with me. This is not going to be short.

It started with a return to Detroit, doing about eight things at once. There were subscription concerts, with what might be characterized as the first substantive programs I conducted as Music Director. Of course that would be unfair to the three programs I had done earlier, but in fact, we had not played a work labeled “Symphony” on any of those concerts. This program was the only one where there was not a living composer represented, nor an American.

Three “B’s,” but no Bach or Beethoven. The “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s Peter Grimes began the program. By the time we had played this work three times in performance, I came off-stage and remarked, “This is a tour piece for us.” It was certainly possible to say that about all the works on this concert. The orchestra and I seemed to be on the same wavelength throughout the week.

This was also the first time I had the pleasure of having the concertmaster, Emmanuelle Boisvert, as soloist. When I first heard her play a little solo in an orchestral work the year before, I asked her if she had ever played the Berg Concerto. She said she had not and was not even sure if she liked the piece. But Emma, as the staff and orchestra call her, took the work on and delivered a truly mesmerizing performance: dead on intonation, suave phrasing and bravura when needed. By the end of the run, she had convinced the audience as well as herself about the genius of this piece.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony closed out the evening. Usually I do not dwell on why I am doing certain things, such as ritards, rubato and even altering dynamics. Now I realized that it would be necessary to let my new orchestra in on how I think about music. I tried to keep the talking to a minimum but still said things that usually go unspoken, at least with me. Retaining the new set up on stage proved truly outstanding for this program. With the violas on the outside, all the middle voices became clear and the cellos inside gave even greater warmth to the low end. We are still experimenting with the canopy and this will certainly be an ongoing project.

Along with the fine week we had, I started busying myself with moving in to the new digs. Boxes everywhere and no idea of where things would go. I made several trips to various stores and went so far as to buy a hammer, screwdrivers and other implements that, for most people, are in common use as household necessities. Reminder to self: Do not use a tool for anything! I should have remembered to buy bandages.

Across the alley in back of Orchestra Hall stands the Detroit School for the Arts. About 500 high school students go there from all parts of the city. The public radio station is also housed in this facility. We are trying to work on programs that the Symphony can participate in, where there is a shared goal of music education on all levels. So I did a rehearsal with the advanced orchestra, which also included members of one of the bands. Next year, the students will attend DSO rehearsals and we will be more present in their abode as well.

The day I left for London, there was a function that was part of “A Musical Feast.” This usually entails someone opening their home and charging a healthy admission fee for fine dining as well as performances by members of the DSO. On this occasion, the event was held at the Manoogian Mansion, which is normally the dwelling for the Mayor of the City of Detroit. I will not go into the political arena, but for the time being, we have an interim mayor. He has wisely decided not to live in the mansion until the election is over. But the Feast was there and I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Cockrel. There will be a primary, and then in November the election will take place. The event itself was very nice. One of our trumpet players, Bill Lucas, has a jazz quartet and they played on this occasion. We publicly made fun of each other and I was able to assure him that he could keep his day job.

It was with just a little bit of anxiety that I arrived at Heathrow, having had to make a last minute ticket change due to horrible weather. When I arrived at the hotel, John Corigliano was there with his partner Mark Adamo. He handed me the scores and various DVD and CDs for the film music we would record. These were sealed with a message not to give to anyone and return to the producer promptly, in the hopes of preventing piracy. So I spent the next 24 hours learning about 45 minutes of music for Edge of Darkness, the new Mel Gibson flick.

The last time I had done film work was about 23 years ago, so certain techniques had changed. First of all, the DVD did not exist back then, and this had a synth version of the score, which played in all the places the music needed to be placed. There were a number of alternate versions of some of the cues. Decisions needed to be made regarding the use of streamers (lines that run across the screen and highlight certain moments when the coordination of image and music must align), click tracks (audible headset metronomes, available to all the musicians), and time codes (moments when the split second timing must match).

Arriving at Abbey Road Studios on a rainy Wednesday morning, I met the production crew as well as the director, Martin Campbell. He was most sensitive to the music and seemed to trust John implicitly. Every day we had a different-sized orchestra and so knew well in advance how much had to be done at any moment. Sometimes a cue would be as long as three minutes and as short as 15 seconds. We would record with everyone and then just have various sections of the orchestra play, with overdubbing as we went along. It is a laborious process, as much is discussed in the recording booth. Most of the time, we were clueless as to what was going on. They move the music around to see how it works a fraction of a second earlier or later. Changes are made on the spot, whether it is for orchestration or wholesale new pieces. I have to say that all the sessions went very well and there were no real moments of tension on the musical end.

The film itself seems to be excellent. A moving story, violent at times, but one in which the director and composer have caught every nuance of Gibson’s very strong performance. We do not know when it comes out, but most likely this is a September release. I was very honored to do this and it reinforced my interest to do a bit more work in the land my parents inhabited.

After 24 hours back in Detroit, I drove to Pittsburgh for the final week of concerts during the first year of being Principal Guest Conductor. The orchestra was engaged in a project titled “Rachmaninov Rediscovered.” Author and musicologist Joseph Horowitz had conceived this three-week festival. There were many concerts of piano music but only two programs in which the orchestra participated. Earlier they had performed the 1st Symphony and the Spring Cantata, rarities indeed.

My program was much more familiar, with the Symphonic Dances and 3rd Piano Concerto making appearances. The soloist was Denis Matsuev, with whom I had worked this past summer at Ravinia. He possesses an imposing technique, replete with one of the biggest left hand sounds imaginable.

After the concerts, there were discussions on stage. I had already decided that the festival was interesting but misleading. Maybe if I had conducted one of the pieces that were truly underplayed there might have been more sympathy with the project, but, as I pointed out, there has never been a time when this composer was unknown. I argued that the popularity of the 2nd Concerto and C sharp minor Prelude, as well as the 2nd Symphony and Paganini Rhapsody, had swamped the playing of many of his other works. Most composers are grateful if they are remembered for even one piece. In addition, since Rachmaninov was one of the last remaining composer/performers, it was difficult for others to take on this formidable pianist in concert.

Nonetheless, the festival did very well. Three weeks of playing just one composer had led to a final wrap up party, which the Director of Artistic Planning had dubbed, “Rach-man-enough”!

On the Saturday afternoon of that week, I strolled across the bridge to take in my first ball game of the regular season. And this takes me to:

Complaint Department 1

For those of you who do not follow the sport, Pittsburgh’s baseball team is called the Pirates. We were now less than a week after the drama on the high seas. But what were we treated to on the scoreboard, as the team lineup was being announced? A digital cartoon showing a battle between ships, where the pirates destroy the opposing fleet! It was what I call a Producers moment, in which my jaw dropped and I could only sit there in stunned silence. Didn’t anyone at least read the papers or watch a news program? Insensitivity took on a new dimension that afternoon.

Driving back to Detroit was a bit tricky, as it rained for the entire five hour trip. But I had one free day to get a few more things organized in the apartment. This time I got smart. The telephone company put in lines for the phones, television and internet. A handyman put up the pictures and installed various items. I was implement free.

Once again, the week’s program was demanding. Mahler’s 1st Symphony, with the discarded “Blumine” movement opening the concert, made up the bulk of the program. But we also played a relatively new work of Christopher Rouse titled Friandises. This was conceived as a ballet, but works very well as a concert piece. Of particular beauty is a Sarabande, dedicated to the memory of Robert Harth, who served as Executive Director of Carnegie Hall. A circus gallop concludes the piece and the audience responded with cheers.

As for the Mahler, it is an understatement to say that this was the highlight of my first season in Detroit. Being the last subscription concert for me, it was important to set the tone for future seasons. The orchestra delivered a truly committed performance that rose to heights I could have only dreamed about. By the final night, we had such command of this piece that it was more like chamber music, with everyone listening to each other for the hour it takes to play the work. The crowd would not let us go, so after the 7th curtain call, I simply took the orchestra off-stage.

We hired a new tuba player. I spoke to a large group of people at the Village Club. And I worked with the educational arm of our organization, the Civic Orchestra. This is the group that did my arrangements of Holiday songs in December. Now it was a different kind of program, featuring two young soloists. First up was Clayton Penrose Whitmore, who played the first movement of a Violin Concerto by one Chevalier de Meude-Monpas. This composer was a black French violinist who served in Napoleon’s army. Our violinist played with the simplicity and virtuosity that this music requires.

The other soloist was a 13-year old pianist, Serena Zhang, who played the first movement of Beethoven’s C-Major Concerto. This exceptional young artist also is a cellist, capable of negotiating the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations. A triple threat: She also is a composer. With talent like this, I do not think we have to worry about the future of performances on the stage.

Much the same could be said of the orchestra. We played music by Bernstein, Copland, Hailstork and Williams. Every time I work with young people, I am amazed at the level of proficiency that exists today. It is now a question of whether or not there will be jobs for them as they move further into their careers. In Detroit, we have made education and outreach our number one priority. You will be hearing a lot more about this in future columns.

There was still shopping to do, which gets us to:

Complaint Department 2

If you go to a coffee shop, it is clear what the aroma will be. I personally don’t drink coffee or care for the smell all that much. So it is rare for me to go to Starbucks or any of the other stores that dot every square block around the world. But I have a choice and do not have to go to one of these places.

But I do need to visit department stores once in a while. Why is the perfume section always on the ground floor? This is total sensory overload, and, with one fragrance after another, overwhelming as well. Can’t they put this on the top floor? What if someone is allergic to the smell? And what about those people who try to give you a litmus test sampler? I also do not need to see eyebrows being plucked or makeup applied before I head to the shoe department.

Now it is back to the road. Six weeks away, to be exact. I will miss Detroit, my new apartment and the orchestra. My fingers will be grateful that there is not a hammer, screwdriver or box cutter in sight.

See you next month,