MAY 2011

MAY 2011
May 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

Although I had a hefty tax bill to pay, nothing could diminish my pleasure in having my own orchestra back.

After the free concerts we gave in Detroit, things began to return to normal in our second week. Putting an abbreviated season together was not easy. Several decisions were made quickly. All of the guest conductors originally scheduled were still available to us. If that had not been the case, I probably would have asked to be relieved of my own guest conducting obligations for the remainder of April and May.

As it was, I still had four more weeks of work with the DSO. For the initial concerts, we brought in Michel Camilo, who is also the Creative Jazz Chair, to play the Rhapsody in Blue. Originally he had been slated for the American premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. This will now take place with us at the opening of the 2011-12 season. It was great to have this master with us and the orchestra really enjoyed his charged way with Gershwin.

Another holdover from earlier in the year was the world premiere of a piece by Stephen Rush. He is a professor at the University of Michigan, and had written a work called Tango Symphony. This 15-minute composition was most engaging, with a nice combination of the dance rhythm coupled with more complex melodic lines.

When it was all said and done, the most important aspect of this concert was the performance of the final work, Brahms’s First Symphony. We still did not have all the members of the DSO back, but gradually, a few more returned. This meant a more solid orchestral work force and a much more focused performance than the previous week. There was concern as to how ticket sales would fare. After all, there were only five days since the announcement of this concert, and it was not free, as had been the case earlier. But at $20 a seat, we were able to sell out the second performance. One thing we are learning is that sometimes price is not the motivating factor. On the Thursday night, we sold slightly over 1000 tickets, telling us that the problem just might be the day when the concert is presented.

There is not much time to put everything together in order to announce next season. The programs are set, as well as all the guest conductors and soloists. Now we must decide how often performances will take place at Orchestra Hall. Coupled with our realization that we must reach a broader audience, there will be significant numbers of concerts taking place outside of our hall. The Max will not be abandoned by any means, but it is vitally important to reach out to the constituency in the suburbs. With any luck, they will also return to our home as well.

There is much talk of a new model for the American orchestra. I am not so sure that is really needed, however it is clear that a different financial structure is required at this time. People still want to hear the great works from the symphonic canon. New music is probably easier for the audience now than it was, say, 30 years ago. Formats can be altered, but given contractual constraints, it is difficult to stay away from the two-hour structure that has been in place for at least a century.

In Detroit, I have been thinking a lot about the starting times for performances. Almost all of our audience reside in the suburbs, so if we have concerts on a weeknight, consideration of the workday must be taken into account. In the past, these concerts started at 8, meaning that someone might finish at the office around 5, go home, get a bite to eat, travel 10-15 miles to get downtown, park, hear the concert, get home past 10:30 and awake early the next morning. It seems to me that if we are to continue presenting performances on these days, the start time must be earlier, with the possibility of decent dining either at the hall or in the neighboring restaurants. Perhaps doing shorter programs might help. Ultimately, these days might best be used for the orchestra performing in the suburban communities.

Getting back to my own schedule, I was pleased to return to Seattle for a week of concerts. This is the final season for Gerry Schwarz, and despite some conflicts along the way, he did an extraordinary job for the orchestra and city. With a wonderful concert hall and a vibrant downtown life, making music here is a joyful experience.

The program included the piece Cindy wrote for the DSO and me last June. She is originally from the Tacoma area so this represented a kind of homecoming. Needless to say, Double Play was given a fine performance and received with great enthusiasm by all.

Jean Yves Thibaudet was soloist in the Gershwin Concerto. Over the years, I have come to regard him as a pianist of outstanding musicianship and one whose growth is always apparent. He brings a fine sense of style and flair to the work, never straying from the Fred Astaire character of the jazzier moments.

The Tchaikovsky Fifth rounded out the concert. These days, I tend to look more for the structure in works such as this. All too often, even in my own past performances, ritards have been stretched and rubatos drawn out to the point where the clear formal outline of the work gets lost. Forward momentum is now clearly intended and there is an almost take-no-prisoners approach which suits the dramatic moments quite effectively. It was lovely to have John Cerminaro playing the horn solos. We were in school together back in the 60’s. What a tremendous artist he is!

For extant or latent maestri out there, here is my personal solution for the problematic “false ending” in the last movement of the Fifth. About three minutes or so before the conclusion of the symphony, there is a moment that drives everyone on stage crazy. The timpani is playing a very loud roll, the orchestra pounds out a couple short chords followed by one that is elongated and then there is a silence. This gap in time is usually filled out with applause from the audience, even though the piece is not over. Mind you, I don’t mind it between some movements of other works but simply interrupts things at this point in the Tchaikovsky.

Some conductors hold up their hands during this silence in an effort to ward off the premature ovation. Others just stop and hope for the best. What I do is to keep moving and give four beats in the upcoming tempo during the rest, with a slightly exaggerated gesture. The audience sees that something is going on and does not applaud. In all the years I have been doing this, not once has there been an interruption from the patrons. At the first rehearsal with virtually every orchestra, at least one of the musicians starts making sounds imitating what they expect from the listeners. At that point I tell them that I have never had a problem here, but do not give the trick away. I also tell them that I will give them five dollars if the audience applauds. So far, I have never lost.

A month ago, I posted a recording of my mother giving the world premiere of the Korngold Cello Concerto. Response to this was more than gratifying, so I have decided to put up a few more rarities over the coming columns. Here is one that collector’s treasure.

My parent’s activities in the LA recording studios were legendary. Among the closest friends in their musical circle was Frank Sinatra. The crooner would not venture into the Capitol Records studios without my folks playing for him. One time my dad was ill and Frank told the already hired orchestra members that since Felix could not record, he would not either, and let the entire band off with pay.

Because of his high regard for the Hollywood String Quartet, Sinatra insisted that an album be made which featured the group and listed them on the cover. The result was one of the most acclaimed, but not highly sold, recordings he made. With fabulous arrangements by Nelson Riddle, here is the title track from the album Close to You.

The final week of April saw me in Toronto. The hockey team did not make the playoffs but the orchestra is going strong. They have enjoyed a renaissance under Peter Oundjian and even though the hall is acoustically problematic, some fine results are in evidence these days. The city itself seems to be booming with new construction on almost every block of downtown.

When I last appeared here two years ago, I promised the American composer and Toronto resident Michael Colgrass, that I would do a piece of his next time I was asked to conduct. As Quiet As is a wonderful work from the late 60’s. When it was premiered, many orchestras chose to program the work immediately. It still receives a number of performances and I was thrilled to do it after almost 40 years.

Yefim Bronfman brought his power and lyricism to the Liszt 2nd Piano Concerto and the concert ended with the Saint-Saens Third Symphony, “Organ.” I continue to be amazed by this piece with its incredible organic structure and mastery of orchestral resource. Perhaps it is time for a reassessment of his music, as there are probably some wonderful, neglected works to be found.

All in all, it was a fine month for me, with the knowledge that my own orchestra was back in business and that there were still pleasures to be had from being on the road.

See you next month,