MAY 2010

MAY 2010
May 1, 2010 leonard slatkin

To say that April was an interesting month would be an understatement of immense proportions. Many of you probably wondered why I did not continue the reportage of my Met assignment. I know this because the very site you are visiting crashed a couple of times due to the number of hits I was taking, literally.

At this moment, I have chosen to stay out of the fray. There is no point in commenting now, as it could lead to more misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Suffice it to say that there is more than what was reported. There will come a time when I will discuss what happened, at least from my point of view. However, I did continue to keep a diary of the events and they will most likely appear in a book I am currently working on about the conducting profession.

For the time being, I will write as I usually do, about events and other musings.

The day after the Traviata I conducted a rehearsal literally across the plaza. This was with the students of the Juilliard School of Music, where I had been a student in the mid-sixties. At that time, William Schuman had moved from the presidency of that institution and was ensconced in the same position at Lincoln Center. This year sees the centenary of his birth.

Music has a way of rejuvenating the soul and spirit. I needed it following the travails from the Met. The previous week I had already felt good about the level of orchestral proficiency for this demanding program. We finished early and with the remaining time, I offered to give a talk about what happens when one leaves school.

For forty-five minutes, the students sat quietly as I spoke about auditions, nervousness and unions. It is a talk I have done often, but surprisingly, very few educational institutions offer anything like this. It should be part of the curriculum. Dreams and aspirations are very important but a reality check is in order, especially given the harsh economic woes facing the arts these days. Not every one of the gifted musicians I rehearsed will make it in the profession. They must be prepared to explore alternatives.

Preceding the concert there was a dinner hosted by current Juilliard president, Joseph Polisi, with members of the Schuman family in attendance. The room in which this event took place held portraits of all five presidents of the school. I could look at the countenances of Joe, Bill and Peter Mennin, all of whom I knew.

The concert was exceptional. Everything clicked and the orchestra was highly charged. My tempi were probably not fast enough for what Bill would have wanted. They never were. But at the end of the Third Symphony, I knew that he would have at least smiled, watching his “great-grandchildren” toss off this masterpiece with such panache.

My hotel had already been paid up for the next week, so I decided to stick around Manhattan. There were meetings that had previously been scheduled that I did not want to change. Some of these would prove pivotal as regards my own plans for the future.

It was also a time to see good friends. One evening, with Manny Ax and Joseph Kalichstien, classmates lo those many years ago at Juilliard, we had a lovely meal near Lincoln Center. When we walked in, who was sitting right near the door? Itzhak Perlman, who had also been at school with us. And these musicians were only a small chunk of the talent that passed through those doors in the mid -sixties.

Speaking of small chunks, Itzhak has lost a great deal of weight and looks as good now as anytime I have ever seen him. We compared diets and told a few jokes. Some things never change.

With a few more free days on my hands, I took advantage and went out to St. Louis for the home opener of the Cardinals. Many years ago, while doing a recording and waiting quite a long time for the soloist to decide which violin he would use for the project, a Strad or a Guarnerius, the British orchestra I was leading asked me to tell them a bit about myself. I talked about my family and our love of baseball.

“Which team do you support?”

“The St. Louis Cardinals,” I replied.

“That’s amazing! Americans actually name their clubs after religious figures?”

God was smiling and the Redbirds won the game.
I also accepted a position on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan School of Music. It is located up on Claremont Avenue and was the former home of my old school, Juilliard. My brother teaches there. It was a strange feeling, walking back into the halls where so many musical thoughts were first formed. I could virtually see my conducting teacher, Jean Morel, as he walked with that little piece of cigar clinging to his lower lip.

The Manhattan School has a distinguished faculty, has produced many fine musicians, and possesses an excellent reputation for its academics and intensive musical training.

My job on the board is to give an outside view of the music world, looking at how we attract students and find places for them to enter the professional work force. There are so many talented young people today, but not so many positions available. Perhaps a course in music reality is what is needed, similar to the talk I had given at Juilliard, so that everyone understands the options that are out there.


No, it is not what you think.

For the most part, and with primarily nice weather, I was able to walk around Manhattan, sometimes logging up to 5 miles at a stretch. But every so often, a taxi was needed to get to a destination. When the New York trip started, there had been a scandal regarding drivers who overcharged passengers. It was done by simply taking a longer route or pressing a button on the meter, which increased the fare without the passenger knowing.

I did not have that problem. As least as far as I could tell.

But the constant lurching, with the cab operator stepping on the accelerator in spurts and then hitting the brakes, made it seem as if we were on the ocean. It is a waste of gasoline and is truly annoying. They should be penalized 50 cents each time it is done. That should make most trips free, or possibly Yellow Cab will have to pay us to take the ride.

Before hitting the road again, I returned home for a couple days. There was a lot to do in getting ready, as I would be away for six weeks. The trick for this trip is getting everything into one suitcase and a carry-on. In some cases, I have sent the scores and string parts ahead. A conductor will spend the most rehearsal time with that section, so it is very helpful to have all the bowings done in advance. A few orchestras prefer to use the parts that they own, and this can slow the rehearsal process down. But with weight restrictions for baggage being enforced these days, taking every piece with me is not an option.

One other factor of life away from home is something I had not really paid much attention to previously. My new life style dictates certain alterations to my traditional gastronomic pecadillos. If I were to remain on a strict Pritikin diet, much of my day would be focused on reading menus from every restaurant in each city I visit. Just trying to find one that has no fat, no salt is almost impossible. And with Lyon, Madrid, Paris and yes, even London on the agenda over the next several weeks, I know that a few baddies will creep in. It was tough enough in NY, and I found ways to modify my dining out experience, but I also put back a couple pounds.

That is why I was happy to get back to Detroit for a couple days. Among the pleasures of the area are the numbers of incredible independent markets, serving up almost anything you need. These are not just Mom and Pop stores, but full range supermarkets, rivaling many of the larger chains. From where I live, it is possible to travel less than five minutes and have a selection of delicacies that fit my eating regimen more than adequately. With the diverse ethnic populations it is also possible to cook up great Indian, Asian and other cuisines, simply because there are specialty markets for those foods.

I was reminded of this during a trip to Astoria, in New York City’s borough of Queens. We had gone for some fish at a Greek restaurant, and then stopped in a market to look around. My friends thought I had never seen a place like this, but there are several dotted throughout the greater Detroit area. You cannot travel more than three blocks without encountering something called a “Coney Island.” These are basically diners, but usually run by Greek families and featuring the homeland cuisine. Except for the main title product, which is a glorified chili dog.

No one knows exactly why it is called a “Coney Island” other than many Greeks came to Detroit from New York and started serving hot dogs. There are hundreds of these places, with the two leading rivals literally across the street from one another. Kind of the Macy’s and Gimbel’s of processed sausage. I had one before my heart attacked me, and thought about doing a comparison test. These days this will be limited to seeing which place has the best Greek salad. But I will watch the fat and cholesterol parade with interest.

The long journey began in Ottawa. Last year when I conducted in Toronto, I had decided to drive, with the hope of avoiding a lengthy delay at the border. It was not until midnight when I arrived so the control was pretty much empty. It still took a half hour to get through.

This time, I needed to fly and make a stop and change planes in Toronto to get to my destination. Contract in hand, I landed and was immediately whisked to a separate area for interrogation. It seems that they need to decide whether or not you are coming as a guest or working full-time. I don’t get it. The contract says how long I will be in Canada, but it still takes 15 minutes for someone to check it all out. Then I had to pick up my luggage, walk forever, clear customs, get my passport back and recheck the bags. This process took 45 minutes and I made it to the next flight with 20 minutes to spare. Fortunately, my luggage did too.

The orchestra in Ottawa is at the National Arts Centre, and Pinky Zukerman is the music director. I had conducted here a couple years ago and my school chum and former pool-playing partner asked me to return. Most of the time, they are a chamber orchestra, but every so often they expand the size of the group and play a big piece from the repertoire. In my case, I kept mostly to the smaller forces, even for the Schubert 9th (or whatever number it is these days).

The orchestra is playing very well. It is somewhat sad that Schubert does not appear on so many programs these days. We always think of him as being a mainstay, but aside from a couple of the symphonies and perhaps the Rosamunde Overture, we really don’t hear him as an orchestral composer all that often. But just this one “Great” piece would suffice. With torrents of notes, and lasting not quite an hour, it deserves Mendelssohn’s description of “heavenly length.” Even though the string parts are bow and finger breakers, each player loves to perform this work. There is a feeling of conquest and elation when it has ended. The audience will usually see smiles aplenty on the stage.

Our soloist was Leila Josefowicz, whom I have worked with several times. This is an artist who continues to grow and chooses repertoire that is a bit left of center. The last time we performed together was in Washington, and I had asked her to learn the big Hindemith Concerto, which she played magnificently. This time it was the John Adams Concerto, a work with which she is closely associated.

When I first performed this piece many years ago, I was not convinced as to the staying power of the work. Now I believe it is firmly entrenched in the repertoire, especially when given such a persuasive performance. This is very new territory for this orchestra but they got into it and were most enthusiastic.

There was a night off and the Stanley Cup Hockey playoffs were under way. I managed to get a ticket to a game between the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Attending a match in Canada is a bit different than back in the States. It is even louder here. And the fans really know the sport, being able to spot an offside or penalty well before the refs. Or at least they let everyone know what they think they saw. The local team got trounced. The crowd blamed the officiating.

But sports have a way of forgetting. Just two months prior to this match, a player named Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal for Canada during the Olympic finals and was the hero of the nation. He plays for Pittsburgh. Each time he got to the puck there was a chorus of boos. This did not seem to bother Crosby. He scored two goals on this night against Ottawa.

The concerts went splendidly. Audiences were warm and the orchestra played superbly. It was a fine start to a long trip.

See you next month,