MAY 2024

MAY 2024
May 1, 2024 leonard slatkin

Let’s see: terrific orchestra, great weather, beautiful ocean views, fantastic food and wine, lovely people, and scenic mountains. As the refrain goes, “Who could ask for anything more?”

Such was the first part of April, with two weeks spent in my new role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria. If you had asked me as recently as twenty years ago if I would be spending much time conducting orchestras in Spain, the answer would have been no, but the post-Franco years have seen an explosion of culture in this part of the world.

Spain boasts several ensembles, not just in the two big cities, Madrid and Barcelona, but also in Valencia, Zaragoza, Bilbao, and Galicia, among other places. These orchestras have opened their arms to Spanish musicians as well as those from all around the globe. There are actually two orchestras in the Canary Islands, one in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, and the other in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.

When I first guest conducted in Las Palmas a couple years ago, I was mightily impressed with not only the orchestra but also the amazing Alfredo Kraus Auditorium. Named for the outstanding Spanish tenor, the contemporary building sits on a promontory overlooking the sea, literally—instead of the usual wall at the back of the stage, there is an arched window through which you can see the Atlantic Ocean. During rehearsals, I watched surfers plying their boards and imagined how wonderful it would be to play La Mer in this setting.


Led by Karel Mark Chichon, the orchestra is poised to make some waves on the international scene, but for now, they are concentrating on reaching the sizable audience in their hometown. All the concerts are sold out, and the auditorium is busy virtually every night.

For the first week, I chose an American program. It remains that much of the orchestral music from the States is not very well-known in Europe. My idea was to present both the new and the old, featuring one staple of the repertoire. We started off with Ives’s “America” Variations, orchestrated by Bill Schuman. The orchestra delved into the spirit of the piece, and the audience was clearly amused.

Next, we played the European premiere of Jeff Beal’s Body in Motion, the violin concerto he wrote for soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins. We had hoped to record it for future release, but a scheduling conflict made that impossible. Still, the performance was received enthusiastically by the orchestra and audience, who then got a special encore from Kelly in the form of an etude by Daniel Bernard Roumain.

The following day, an online review appeared with a memorable translation. Apparently, we gave the premiere of a concerto for “villain and orchestra.” I hope to do that piece sometime in the future.

After intermission, we presented Joan Tower’s Made in America, a variation on “America the Beautiful,” giving the audience a taste of another alternate national anthem. Joan’s piece continues to hold up very well and shows off the virtuoso aspects of the orchestra. Many bravos rained down on us after the performance.

Finally, we returned to a familiar favorite with An American in Paris, which the orchestra had not played for a while. This piece should never be taken for granted because it contains lots of details that are often glossed over, especially when there is not a lot of rehearsal time; thankfully, we had plenty. Our hard work paid off in the performance, with great contributions from the principal trumpet and other soloists.

My second week in Las Palmas featured a program with a bit more meat on the bone. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a work I have performed often in my career. As it is one of the scores I examine in my latest book, I took this opportunity to put some of my thoughts into action. The orchestra was very enthusiastic and focused as we dug into the details during our intense rehearsals. The result, at least as I saw it, was an organic reading with a long line and a clear arc, culminating in a very special performance. The piece will come up a couple times next season, and I hope to draw even more out of it.

Spain was the subject of the first half of the concert, which opened with Iberia, a piano piece by Albéniz, here orchestrated by Enrique Arbós. The only other time I had performed it was in Portland earlier in the season. With its richly colored textures, this miniature suited the ensemble well, and the audience roared its approval.

Our soloist was the outstanding guitar virtuoso Rafael Aguirre. Playing what might easily be referred to as “the other” Rodrigo concerto, he showed a dazzling technique and tremendous musical instincts. As an encore he offered the “Gran Jota” by Francisco Tárrega, which manages to showcase almost everything that can be done on the guitar in nine minutes.

I eagerly look forward to returning to Las Palmas for two weeks next season.

With some free time for sightseeing around Gran Canaria and Tenerife, Cindy continued her journey as a photographer. The results show an expansion of her vocabulary and a confidence with various subjects. Here are some examples:

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To wrap up the two-month road trip, we were off to Prague. With Czech-born Walter Susskind as one of my teachers and mentors, I have always kept this city high on my list of must-visit places. And spring is a great time to be there. However, on this visit, it was freezing.

Cold weather aside, Prague is still the most beautiful of all European capitals. With its dramatic castle, dominant spires, and winding cobblestone streets, it looks and feels like no other city. Despite its history of wars, hostile takeovers, and civil strife, today the Czech Republic seems healthier and more vibrant than ever.

The program for this set of concerts was most interesting. I find that these days, more and more of my programs comprise four pieces rather than the traditional three. With An American in Paris as the closer, this is understandable, and I appreciate the opportunity to make some imaginative choices. In this case, I put together an all-American affair with a twist.

I had learned that the Prague Symphony Orchestra was featuring works by Czech composers this season, which gave me a reason to suggest one of the most dramatic works from the twentieth century, Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. This piece, originally written for band, depicts the tragedy of the spring uprising of that year, when Soviet forces invaded the country and crushed democratization efforts, killing hundreds.

Moved by the news of these events, Husa, who had immigrated to the United States in 1954, depicts the heroism of his native country. While a fifteenth-century Hussite anthem is the driving musical force behind the piece, the composer also includes representations of the bells in Wenceslas Square as well as the sounds of air-raid sirens and Morse code. Altogether, it is one of the most powerful musical-political statements ever penned.

Since that was the first work that came to my mind when putting the program together, I thought Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, another work by an émigré composer, would be an ideal pairing on the first half. I was delighted when it turned out that Olga Kern was available to play it with us. She spends more time in Prague these days, as her fiancé lives there.

The second half also followed the pattern of an unusual piece followed by a popular one, this time by two American-born composers. My own Kinah preceded Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and I believe the four pieces made for a thoughtful and interesting program appreciated by the musicians as well as the audience.

All the composers lived in the United States, and three of them had Los Angeles connections. My parents knew Gershwin, and my grandfather was friends with Rachmaninov. Even though there was no intended theme for the program, the one that emerged made it more interesting, at least for me.

Performing in Prague was a terrific way to end a marvelous two-month sojourn. May will be quieter, with no concerts to conduct. Nonetheless, I have lots of other projects to take care of, including more writing, radio shows, and interviews. I am looking forward to firing up the grill, as well.

See you next month,