MAY 2014

MAY 2014
May 11, 2014 leonard slatkin

In what was my final set of guest appearances for the season, I found myself having more than satisfying experiences for three weeks. Life on the road can be difficult, but if the music making is exciting, that more than makes up for the travails of the itinerary.

For the past two years, I have served on the board of directors of the Manhattan School of Music. However, my actual experience with that institution has been minimal. This changed with a week spent working with the student orchestra, culminating in the very first appearance of that ensemble at Carnegie Hall.

It is important to understand that the school is located in the same place where Juilliard used to be, 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue. So when I walked through the side entrance, there was more than just a passing familiarity with the facility. I was escorted to the backstage area of what is now known as Borden Hall. But almost 50 years ago, it was simply the Auditorium. Not much has changed, and at the moment I was taken to the dressing room, a series of images flooded my brain.

I could see my teacher, Jean Morel, sitting on a run-down couch and complaining about one thing or another. The sounds of the orchestra warming up were more than present, as the back wall is more or less ten feet away. The dark and dank hallway is exactly as it was, and the only difference is that now it seems less forbidding than it did in 1964.

My knowledge of the orchestra at Manhattan was not based on any direct experience, so I chose a program that seemed almost safe. We would give the New York premiere of Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos as well as my latest incarnation of Pictures at an Exhibition. In between would come Bernstein’s Serenade, with faculty member Glenn Dicterow as soloist.

Glenn and I go back a very long time, to our childhoods in Los Angeles. We were roommates while students in Aspen, and of course, I worked with him numerous times in his role as concertmaster with the New York Philharmonic. But on this occasion, we were reprising one of the most moving moments in both of our histories together.

When Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, I was in New York leading two weeks with the Phil. Beethoven and Shostakovich were on the second program, but when the Maestro passed away, we quickly put together a program to honor his memory. Glenn, who had played the work several times with the composer conducting, got the Serenade back into his fingers in two days. Those performances were at Avery Fisher Hall, and now we were going to perform it again together on 57th.

The young musicians had been prepared well, and this allowed me to focus on the musical aspects of all the pieces rather than just the technical ones. Considered sometimes as a cousin of the more famous conservatory downtown, the Manhattan School seems to be undergoing a major push in its path to star recognition. As it turned out, our concertmaster in Detroit, Yoonshin Song, studied with Glenn there, and MSM is now producing many fine instrumentalists and singers.

The concert was sold out, and even though one could spot a few empty seats, the audience was enthusiastic throughout. I told the musicians not to be nervous but to build on what they had learned. In the end, it was a triumph for the orchestra and school, and is certain to be thought of as another step forward.

There was one day when I had to return to Detroit. We had a special concert with Yo-Yo Ma, and I was not about to leave that to any other conductor. An all-Dvorak concert sold out quickly, and even though we had just one rehearsal, all went very well. We had one of our highest viewerships for our Internet broadcast. Yo-Yo continues to display his intelligent music making, and conversations with him are filled with both insight and humor.

Just as stepping back into the old school marked a 50-year anniversary, the following week trimmed 10 years off that. Almost to the day, it was 40 years ago that I made my debut with the Chicago Symphony on the stage of then Orchestra Hall. The last few seasons have seen me more in the role of substitute conductor, but this time around, I had a program to myself.

In 1974, I brought three works new to the CSO repertoire, including pieces by Purcell, Vaughan-Williams and Piston. Now I would introduce two big works in an all-American program. William Schuman’s Sixth Symphony and Mason Bates’s Violin Concerto would be added to the repertoire of the orchestra for this occasion.

Mason is one of the composers-in-residence in Chicago, and there is no question that he has developed a strong following in the Windy City. But even with works by Barber and Gershwin also on the program, there was some worry that attendance would be light for the four performances. As it turned out, each performance saw full houses, surprising virtually everyone.

This was a difficult program with a lot of unfamiliar notes for the orchestra. Schuman’s score is 30 minutes of unremitting tension, with his trademark counterpoint, polytonality and high voltage virtuosity. Written in 1948, the piece is difficult to separate from the aftermath of WWII. I have adored it ever since I first heard it on an old Philadelphia Orchestra recording with Ormandy. Even though I had conducted several Schuman pieces in Chicago previously, this work was new to me as well as the orchestra.

After the first rehearsal, I was not sure what the CSO had made of the piece. But by the time we got to the concerts, most of the members of the ensemble were more than convinced of its importance. They threw themselves into the difficulties, and I could only think that Bill would have loved how they played his symphony. Prior to each performance, I spoke about and demonstrated some passages to the audience. They responded with appropriate silence during the heartbreaking coda and seemed to truly appreciate the accomplishment of all the musicians on stage.

Anne Akiko Meyers reprised her solo turn in the concerto. This was the fourth time we had played the work together, so there were no questions of cohesiveness coming from the front of the stage. There are a few tricky passages for the orchestra, but again, they rose to the challenge, and the audience responded with a standing ovation for Mason.

Advice for young conductors: Never, ever, take An American in Paris for granted. I certainly do not, and even though the CSO, like so many orchestras, plays this piece almost every year, we spent an hour and a half rehearsing it. This was not a play-through by any means, and even though there may have been a few musicians who were not convinced by my own particular way with the piece, it was nice to remind everyone of how complex this masterpiece is. Coming after the other works on the program, it made great sense and did not seem like a frivolous, light-hearted confection, as is sometimes the case. Again, great playing and terrific solo turns from Chris Martin on trumpet and my old friend Gene Pokorny with his tuba.

As if this was not enough, I spent my day off reworking a program we did in St. Louis a year ago. “Notes from Hollywood” is a chamber event during which I serve as host, narrator, pianist and conductor. It tells the story of my parents’ work in the studios, in concert halls and on record labels. Music is played of composers primarily associated with film but who each had a purely classical music education.

The program ends with four songs that were part of an album done by the Hollywood String Quartet with Frank Sinatra. “Close to You” is one of those records best listened to at 2 in the morning, with the crooner in his most intimate mood. The superb arrangements by Nelson Riddle have been reimagined for smaller forces and serve as a fitting conclusion for this concert, which also features music by John Williams, Miklós Rózsa, Korngold, Tedesco and others who were major figures on the soundstages in LA. The musicians for this occasion included some from St. Louis and others from the Chicago area.

This made the perfect segue to the final destination on this trip: my old haunt about 300 miles to the south. Getting there was not so easy, as we had a Tuesday night concert in Chicago and the first rehearsal in St. Louis was at 10 in the morning the next day. I debated driving overnight but in the end, stayed in the hotel at O’Hare. With an early morning flight, I arrived and was taken directly to the first of two rehearsals that day. You hear about being able to do something in your sleep, but my concern is that I might actually find out what that means.

It has been close to twenty years since I left the Symphony as its music director, and there are many new faces in the orchestra. With the Copland Third Symphony on the program, those who were with me in the old days felt right at home, but perhaps the youngsters wondered what all the fuss had been about. Rehearsals went smoothly, and it appears that David Robertson is doing a fine job keeping the artistic quality at a very high level.

This was the first time that I played the original version of the piece in St. Louis. When I was music director, I had no idea that Leonard Bernstein had encouraged Copland to make a couple cuts in the finale. While in Washington, I checked this out at the Library of Congress and reinstated the missing measures. I have performed it that way for about 10 years now. With so many members of the SLSO playing this piece for the first time, it probably did not make any impression at all, but a couple of the veterans were curious and enjoyed it all.

Old friends came up and we exchanged fond memories. It occurred to me that as I get older, the phrase “How are you?” takes on more meaning as a question rather than just a greeting. But most of my dear colleagues seem to be doing well, and it was lovely to spend this time with them.

There were interviews galore, including one at KMOX. This is the CBS affiliate here. Back in the day, which, by the way, is always a Wednesday, I used to do morning shows with Jack Carney, one of the pioneers of improvised chat. He was a genius, and our conversations would almost be existential. It was possible that the listeners never really got what it was we were doing but boy, was it fun.

The concert opened with the Sierra that I had conducted two weeks earlier, and Conrad Tao was soloist in the Saint-Saëns G minor concerto. His playing is quite wonderful, and he captured the wit and depth of this piece. There was a time when this work was played almost every season, but now it is more of a curiosity. Still, I love it, and when it is played with vitality and panache, the piece comes across as much more than a virtuoso vehicle for the pianist.

There were also a couple of opportunities to join other musicians. Concertmaster David Halen and I performed a few pieces for a small group, and I also spent an hour with the Youth Orchestra, an ensemble I founded in 1970, and perhaps my finest achievement during my 27 years in St. Louis.

Now it is time to take care of Cindy. The next six weeks will be spent in Detroit, and three of them are devoid of musical activity. We both have every confidence in the medical team, and when the tumor is removed, I expect them to give it to me for use as a golf ball.

Also, we will have a new website design soon. You can now see all of the programs for next season, save Lyon, which will be announced in a few weeks. There will also be news of new members of the DSO.

See you next month,