April 11, 2008 leonard slatkin

Normally, I try to keep this column down to once a month. But every so often, something happens which demands a “special edition.” For the past eight days, I have been in Detroit, the first time I have conducted there since being appointed music director. This was originally to have been a guest date, but now it was much, much more.

Over the past six months, I have come here several times for meetings, dinners and functions designed to get to know the area, orchestra and community. All these trips have proved useful in setting forth an agenda for the next several years. But ultimately, none of it matters if the music making is not good.

At first, the program had two works scheduled, one for strings and one for winds and percussion. Now that my position with the orchestra had changed, I felt the need to alter the program, including a couple of standard works. We made a theme of Italian-inspired works by composers not from Italy: Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Corigliano.

But first it was more meetings. Most of these were focused on planning, securing guests, and working on education initiatives. In short order, we managed to set down recording, touring and commissioning projects through the next four years. Funding and other fiscal matters were addressed and overall, I believe we have laid the groundwork for a very successful future.

Then came the first rehearsal. The greeting from the orchestra was simply overwhelming. I said to them that it was finally time to let the music do the talking, and we launched into the Roman Carnival Overture. That work, as well as the “Italian” Symphony took up the morning session. The discipline, precision and intonation of the orchestra was so impressive. They have an innate musical sensibility and a true sonic profile. This is aided by a fabulous hall, although I will do some “tweaking” over the next year or two.

In the evening, we were joined by members of the University of Michigan Symphony Band. This was for Circus Maximus, the 3rd Symphony by John Corigliano. The work calls for numerous players to be scattered throughout the hall and a great deal of time was spend figuring out where they should be placed. This was an open rehearsal, with about 100 or so donors in attendance. I decided to engage them in helping with balance, specifically regarding where the 11 trumpets should be situated.

By the time John arrived the next day, we were in pretty good shape, although there were still some balance issues that he addressed. The other two pieces had gone very well in the morning rehearsal so we were certainly ready for performances the next evening.

The feeling that this was more like the opening of the season, as opposed to mid-way through, was palpable. But we had some sad news as well. A gentleman who had been in the orchestra’s violin section for 66 years passed away. We decided to play the Bach Air in his memory, but without rehearsal. So what was going to be celebratory was now slightly somber as well. Maybe it was his spirit that guided us, but the whole evening was truly inspired.

On Saturday, I had the chance to indulge in every kid’s fantasy: throwing out the first ball at a Major League baseball game. Earlier in the day, I went to the alley in back of Orchestra Hall and warmed up with the security and stage folk. By the time I strode out to the mound, I was ready. 40,000 people were in attendance and I was a bit taken aback when introduced as “seven-time Grammy winner,” but the pitch was right on target. Wish I could have said as much for the Tigers starter. They lost their fifth game in a row on that day.

After the Saturday evening concert, the orchestra threw a party for me. It was a chance to get to know them a bit better off-stage. Current members, as well as former musicians in the orchestra, were there, and I got a good idea of the history of the ensemble. It helps to know a bit more about the individuals in order to make the collective ensemble even more cohesive. This is very much a true orchestral family.

Our last concert was on Sunday afternoon and principal flute auditions on Monday. The woman who has been the 2nd in the section wound up winning this position. But it was yet another chance to learn of the depth of quality within the orchestra. By the time the day ended, I was exhilarated and exhausted. It had been quite a week, filled with emotion and anticipation. But it turned into an extraordinary time of discovery and hope. I feel at home.