Throughout my adult life as a musician, I have never experienced what most people would call a daily routine. Those of us in the profession don’t keep regular hours. We have rehearsals and concerts on different days at different times. Sleep patterns change depending on when we complete our work and then start up again.
Now that I have been holed up in my bunker for six weeks (or has it been six months?), I have a consistent regimen. It did not take long to settle in, and I suppose it was inevitable that some sort of pattern would emerge. Conductors do not practice at home; they study whichever works are next on the agenda. As the cancellations kept rolling in, the need to have pieces ready to go disappeared. Oh, once in a while I would traipse down to my library and look over some composition because curiosity called, but for the most part, this is what my days have looked like:
To start with, I have never been a breakfast eater. Once the alarm sounds, I am up like a shot, no caffeine infusion needed. I didn’t like coffee before, and still do not drink the beverage. Unless there is a call to take, there is actually no need to set the clock, though my waking times varied at first. With no one other than Cindy to view my morning appearance, I head downstairs and select a little bite to eat.
It occurred to me that this would be a very good time to get serious about losing weight. The Battle of the Bulge saw the enemy winning, and when I heard the scale in the bathroom groan whenever I approached, my fear was that I possibly could injure the machine. At least when I was conducting, there was plenty of aerobic activity to keep my heart in running shape. My usual choice is something along the lines of a Boost protein drink (not as awful as I expected), Multigrain Cheerios with strawberries, or possibly an egg—stirred not shaken. Then I head back upstairs to perform my morning ablutions and grooming.
A few days into isolation, I decided to try, for a third time in my life, to grow some kind of beard. Looking at possibilities, it became evident that this was a much more daunting task than I had previously thought. The number of styles, shapes and lengths was overwhelming. Even more intimidating were the beard apps, which allowed me to take a photo of my face and pin the tail on the donkey with adjustable facial hair. That was not helpful, but sometimes it was very funny. No, I am not going to share any of the photos, and in fact, they have been deleted off my server. The only way this was going to work was to let it grow for a couple weeks and then have fun on the new playground. Looking like someone who was about to hop on a freight car, I took out my recently ordered Norelco beard trimmer. This came with all kinds of devices to get those whiskers into some semblance of order. Trying to understand what each attachment did was another matter entirely.
I wrote to my friend, Harvey Steiman, who has had his bristles forever. He said that I should set it to Number 4. There are 20 different adjustments one can make, and I could not figure out if the lower numbers meant you trimmed more or less hair. The instructions that came with the machine did not help much. There were many drawings of how to do it, but they did not seem to match up with the written instructions. Harvey had another caveat: Do this before taking a shower.
Following Harvey’s advice, I plunged ahead, but with my pale skin more or less matching my white hair, or what is left of it, I advertently took off too much. It was then that I realized that I had to have some sort of shape in mind. Two days later, I lopped the sideburns away, leaving the upper part of my face completely shorn. Well, not quite. The electric shaver was not easy to manipulate around the beard. So two days after that, I went back to the old standby, my trusty Gillette with shaving gel.
Now I was getting someplace. Working slowly, I took out those side panels and went under my chin line to create some semblance of a rounded goatee, complete with ’stache. I thought maybe I would go for the John Williams look, but then I studied a photo of his growth and realized that someone must come in every day and give him a trim. He also sported sideburns, and mine were already out of the picture.
Every two days, I would shave off the excess and leave the rest to grow out. Then it was time to use those attachments to the beard trimmer. In the interim, the kind folks at Amazon sent me several products that are supposed to help out, including beard shampoos, beard conditioners, beard oil, beard balms, and anything else you can put on your face. I remembered with fondness the times I had a shave at a real barbershop and smelled the refreshing Bay Rum they would splash liberally on my countenance.
After my grooming session, I hit the shower, take my meds, work on the beard some more—did I mention the beard brush?—and select what to wear for the rest of the day. Since I am not going anyplace anytime soon, it is usually some kind of short-sleeved shirt and shorts. Long pants sit in their isolated place in the closet, going unused and making dry-cleaning inessential.
The rest of the morning is devoted to catching up on the news, with apparently only one thing going on in the whole world. Emails still need answering, but the big discovery for me is becoming more active on social media. Also, the word “webinar” has become a regular part of my vocabulary. I have had a lot of fun leading several classes, complete with Q&A sessions, which in one case included students sending in queries using the chat function. Of course, it is not even remotely like being there in person, but at least there is some social interaction. Plus, I could still wear my shorts.
Facebook has turned out to be more interesting than I expected. I have re-established contact with a few old friends whom I have not been in touch with for quite a while. As the isolation continues, people have started up games to play, such as listing music that influenced you, the best books you have ever read, or the stupidest thing you have ever done. The forum also provides some terrific satire and political humor, very much needed at this time.
One of the dear friends I have had the opportunity to connect with during this lull is Teresa Myers, whose father produced many of the albums for Capitol Records. My parents worked with him often, and the Myers and Slatkin families were constant companions.
Terry posted that she was going to pick 20 record albums that were fundamental to her early years, and I took up the challenge as well. Here are my selections:
- The Robe, Alfred Newman
This was the first LP I ever owned. Alfred Newman signed it, as I had been to the scoring sessions. It is still in my collection.
- Riders in the Sky, Vaughn Monroe
This was my favorite record during the Slatkin cowboy years. I would not go to bed until my parents put it on. There was a country music DJ in LA called the Squeakin’ Deacon who used to play three songs for kids at the top of his show.
- Tubby the Tuba featuring Danny Kaye
Here is Number 3 in my all-time kid hit parade. Danny Kaye was possibly, along with Sammy Davis Jr., the most talented person I have ever met. He could do anything and did not read music. This recording was another that I must have worn out.
- Songs for Young Lovers, Frank Sinatra
This album is tied to the relationship my family had with Frank Sinatra. When he left Columbia to go to Capitol in 1953, my mom and dad became his go-to first cellist and concertmaster. This was the first album they made with him, at the old KHJ studios, before the tower went up.
- The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce
In 1959, during my first year of high school, this album was released. At the time, Lenny Bruce was not quite the controversial figure he would soon become. My friends and I loved the album because it referenced jazz, used Yiddish, and made fun of almost all religions. Of course, we could not listen to it when our parents were home. Now it seems tame, but things have changed a lot.
- Time Out, The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Jazz was always a big part of my life. I used to go to Shelly’s Manne-Hole, illegally, from the time I was 14. When this album came out in 1959, it changed the way many of us thought about the rhythmic structure of any jazz standard. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Brubeck was in the Army with my father. Dave got caught growing weed behind the barracks, but the commanding officer looked the other way.
- Secret Love, Doris Day
When I was a kid, with the likes of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and so many other show biz luminaries popping up at the house, none compared to Doris Day. I was sure that she was singing “Secret Love” to me. A few years ago, a Happy Birthday autographed photo of her, from her home address, arrived at my office in Detroit. It now has a special place in my studio at home. We had a bit of correspondence, but she was already quite ill. I wonder if she knew that Rock Hudson was gay.
- Tone Poems of Color, Frank Sinatra
My next choice is the very first record made in the Capitol Tower. It was Sinatra, but he did not sing. This was his second try at conducting, and he studied all the scores with my dad. Although not proficient in score reading, Frank knew enough to get through it. At that time, the studios had not put in the sound panels in the basement, but still, the idea was interesting, and a couple of the charts are very good. I kind of wish I had been there, but you can’t have everything.
- Surf City, Jan & Dean
Okay, everybody loved the Beach Boys, but then there were these two other guys. “Surf City” was actually co-written with Brian Wilson. My dad produced a couple of their tunes.
- Walton: Quartet in A Minor / Villa-Lobos: Quartet No. 6 in E Major, The Hollywood String Quartet
This is the first album made by the Hollywood String Quartet. It was released in 1947. You will notice that each member is listed on the cover, something very rare. Although the liner notes are excellent, there is no mention of the production team. Most people remember standard rep from their childhood. My first musical memory is the Villa-Lobos. This was also the only work the quartet recorded twice. The second time was in stereo in the Capitol Tower. They hated the sound.
- The United States of America, Stan Freberg
Next up is a man who mostly recorded singles. Stan Freberg was easily the most important satirist on disc. He made irreverent fun of everything commercial, and I wore out all those 45s. The album I selected is remarkable for its off-beat musical references. During the Yankee Doodle parody, the flutist starts jamming, and his sidekick says, “You’ve influenced me a lot, Bix.”
- West Side Story original cast recording, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
In 1957, my parents took my brother and me to New York. My first-ever Broadway show was West Side Story, in its first-season run. When we got home, I went to Wallach’s Music City, the largest record store in LA, and bought the cast album. The movie version did not appeal to me much, and we shall see what Spielberg does with it. But Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert were amazing.
- Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould
This one is essential for every classical musician as well as others who love music. in 1956 Columbia released this recording, and it generated controversy and praise. No one had ever played Bach this way before. I heard his LA debut in that year at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, where he played the Variations. Coincidently, his very final recital, in 1964, was in the same auditorium. This is one of the most influential albums ever recorded and worth every minute.
- Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
In 1970, I had a radio show in which I played anything I wanted to. One day, this album came to the station, and I put it on. Most people don’t remember that it was a recording before it was a show or movie. After listening, I started inquiring if it could be done in concert. We premiered the work live about five months later in St. Louis. The two shows sold out in hours. Many orchestra managers came to see it, and in some ways, my guest conducting career was launched that day.
- Switched-On Bach, Walter Carlos
This album changed so much for me and others. It was 1968, and electronics were bursting on the pop scene. The album crossed over and became one of the Top-10 best sellers that year. Walter became Wendy and continued to produce recordings like these. I did a concert with him soon after the release of this disc. It showed that music from long ago really could be reinvented without sabotaging its original message. Notice the “Quadrophonic” label at the top. That sure caught on.
- Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson, Lake &Palmer
When electronics started in earnest, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were leaders with this technology. Each member was a classically trained musician, and they always included something from the repertoire on their albums. This one, Brain Salad Surgery, has an amazing version of the neglected First Piano Concerto by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, here titled Toccata.
- Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book
I worked with her twice. My mom and dad did the Gershwin sessions. She was a kind and generous lady—always elegant and sort of deferential.
- This Lusty Land!, “Tennessee” Ernie Ford
This is really a blast from the past. People only think of him with “Sixteen Tons,” but his silvery voice lent itself to all kinds of music. If I remember it correctly, he had a radio show on KXLA and referred to kids as his little pea pickers. I loved this album and played it constantly.
- Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss (Herbert Von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra)
This was the first recording of an opera I ever had. It was given to me by John Coveny, NY head of artist relations at EMI/Angel, which had bought Capitol. Two years later, in 1959, I was given a copy of the orchestral score by Dick Jones, his West Coast counterpart. Both men were the epitome of elegance and wit. And they worked with my parents all the time. Oh, the recording is still the best one of this particular work.
- Close to You, Frank Sinatra (Nelson Riddle • The Hollywood String Quartet)
And for the Grand Finale, I have to go back to Uncle Frank. This was all Sinatra’s idea, as he wanted to give cover credit to the Hollywood String Quartet musicians, and especially my mom and dad. Capitol balked at first, but Frank said he would walk away from the company unless they complied. It took eight months and five sessions to complete it. This was 1957, and after its initial run, the album lay dormant, the only one of Sinatra’s albums not to be released on CD until recently. Intimate, warm, and clearly one of the best ballad recordings ever made, it now has three additional tracks that did not appear on the LP. I was privileged to attend a couple of the sessions, with Voyle Gilmore producing.
After clearing out my inbox, it is time to get down to serious stuff—working on my third book, Musical Chairs. I have completed most of it, but as those of you reading this know, it requires participation by readers. Every Monday, I post the summary of a chapter on my website and invite everyone to submit a question or comment. If there is something I can address that is not contained in that part of the book, I will use it and credit those who proposed the idea.
Next it is off to lunch, heralded by a trip back downstairs. With the low-carb diet, bread is off-limits, so the sandwich as I once knew it has gone away. The lettuce wrap has taken its place, and I have become addicted to a couple slices of low-fat salami on the green stuff, topped with a slice of low-fat cheddar cheese and some mustard. If that gets boring, I add a fried egg. Surprisingly, I have not yet grown tired of it.
I have also been keeping busy with projects to do around the house, mostly regarding organization. First up was putting straight my CDs. For this, I had to get down to the library in the basement. With the potential of having lots of time for the foreseeable future, I started with the DVDs. It was fairly easy to categorize them into movies, TV shows, music, and other assorted topics. But I also weeded some out. I did not expect to be watching all 12 episodes of Undersea Kingdom starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan, for example. Even my beloved Doris Day collection needed to go.
When we moved to St. Louis, I attempted to categorize my CDs, but I never really sorted them out. I have almost all the recordings made by Heifetz and Horowitz, so I took those, scattered them on the floor of the man cave, and set about putting them in order by label. For the several that were not really issued commercially but sold in Europe and Asia, I found a way to keep them separated, again by label, even though it might be totally obscure.
I alphabetized all the other violinists and sorted their recordings in the same fashion. Pianists followed, and then the other string instruments. Add to that a few wind and percussion albums, and the orchestra was complete. Conductors were easy—I just put them in alphabetical order, again by label.
I made separate sections for jazz, pop, comedy, stage and screen, and of course, miscellaneous. I arranged my own collection of broadcasts by orchestra, trying as much as possible to do it by concert date. I made some interesting finds as I progressed. Some pieces I did not remember conducting came rushing back. Depending on how much longer we are sequestered, I might have a listen.
With the growing number of streaming services, it is now possible to watch any movies and TV shows that are not in my library. I decided to resurrect the matinee, and each day I watch something that probably would not appeal to Cindy. It might be a series, such as The Blacklist, Dark or Ozark. It is easy to fit in two episodes each afternoon. I even watched a South Korean set of four films called Ip Man, having read Roger Ebert’s review of the second one. It turned out to be a fun group of Kung Fu movies representing the master who trained Bruce Lee.
After another check on the email front, it is time to prepare dinner. Cindy and I share this effort, usually trading places every other day and sometimes doing it together. Keeping the low-carb regimen in place, it has been fun to try out new recipes or adjust ones that we were used to. Portion control has become important, but one luxury remains. That glass of wine is simply impossible to eliminate. I could now start to make a dent in the wine cellar. After all, what is the point in having all those bottles just lying there for the next 20 years?
After a good meal, Cindy joins in for a movie. As a follow-up to our mini Werner Herzog festival, Jacques Tati kept the spirts high. Better Call Saul, A Very English Scandal and Unorthodox were just a few of the shows we took in this month.
Meanwhile, I have also recorded new episodes of my radio show, The Slatkin Shuffle, which is now available to stream on demand. Since I could not go to the station and work directly with my producer, we had to set up a makeshift studio in my workspace. I put the playlists onto my computer, record the voice tracks with Cindy’s assistance, and send the programs over via WeTransfer. Brandon LaMew of Classical 107.3 then edits them and gets them ready to air. So far, we have done more than 40 of the two-hour presentations, and they are improving with each go.
One last check of the mail precedes the evening rituals, which are followed by a peek at cable news. All this gets done from around 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. Remember that here in the Midwest, television is an hour behind the East Coast. I might do a little reading before hitting the light switch and falling asleep.
I read that this isolation is causing many people to wake up after four hours or so. This happens to me almost every night. I head back down and perhaps have a little fruit or cheese before going back to bed. It all seems part of this new world we are in. So far, it has not bothered me. Not making music is tough, but we are all in the same boat.
Who knows what will come? I can safely predict that it will not be the same. At the moment, I am not scheduled to do anything until October. Summers are usually the time off for me, so with everything cancelled for the season, even if concert life returns, I am still unemployed. Do not feel sorry for me. Instead, focus on your own future and know that it is my sincere wish that each of you is healthy and safe. We will all be adjusting to something different as the weeks and months drag on.
I almost forgot. What about exercise? There is a stationary bike and an elliptical machine down in the basement. I use them during the matinee. After all, if I am going to watch the Spanish TV series Money Heist, I need to relieve the tension in some way.
See you next month,
On April 28 we learned of the death of Lynn Harrell, and I was inspired to share this brief tribute to my friend:
The big bear of the cello is gone. Was there ever a more congenial musician? It was never work with Lynn—that smile always let you know that he was at one with the music and eager to collaborate with you, wherever the turn of phrase went.
So many memories, whether making great music all over the world or just sitting down for a meal. His stories about the Cleveland days were filled with childlike wonder. How could it not be so? He was the son of a great baritone, and this must have been where he got his lyric voice. Studying with the best and then passing on those traditions were a hallmark of his life.
The last time we performed together was in 2013 in Detroit. We had gotten the news that János Starker had just passed away, minutes before we were to do the Dvořák. I knew he could not concentrate in his usual manner. Lynn announced to the audience that we had lost a great cellist and that it was time for some consoling Bach. I never knew my friend to be shaken by anything, but on that afternoon, his bow trembled, and he was overcome by emotion.
Now it is my heart that is heavy with this loss. Lynn will be among the cellists in the celestial orchestra. It would not be like him to assume to sit first chair. But he does get to hear his father sing, “Ich habe genug.”
RIP my dear friend.