December 15, 2008 leonard slatkin

Usually these columns are devoted to what has occurred over the course of one month, occasionally veering off into something unusual. However, events of this past week almost certainly demand a special edition of their own, so here it is.

It is difficult to know what has been more important, moving or even fun. After a long, long wait, I finally stepped on the podium at Orchestra Hall in Detroit and gave what will be the first of many downbeats as the orchestra’s music director.

A great deal had come before that time. The week before, I was in town for a quick 36 hours, with meetings, fund raising activities and interviews. Each day seemed an endless parade of different persons, each trying to get a foothold on what things would be like once I began. After a while, especially with the interviews, it becomes a bit of a challenge to give an answer to a question that one has heard several times that day. I don’t invent anything and there is virtually nothing that I would say that I would not allow in print. But you have to find different ways of stating the same thing.

In particular, it had become burdensome to answer questions about the economic conditions here. For the past few months I have wondered if there are actually such persons who could be called “economic experts.” Just as it is not so hard to criticize that which is deemed negative, it is equally, perhaps even more difficult to offer suggestions that could prove to be solutions. And I am certainly the last person who can do either as regards the situation here. But everyone wanted to know what the DSO would be doing in light of the hard times we are in.

However, it still remained that the music had to come first. And so it was that I found myself in front of my new orchestra on Tuesday morning, December 9. For the time being, I am staying at an apartment that is right across the street from Orchestra Hall. Looking out from the living room, I could see a huge picture of myself, and the proclamation, “The Legend Begins.” This sounds like the start of a set of movies and I could not help but wonder about the definition of legend.

More than one journalist had asked me what I would say to the orchestra on the morning of the first rehearsal. Lots of ideas went through my head. When the actual moment arrived, I remembered the advice that I give my conducting students. “Shut up and conduct!” And after a friendly good morning and how happy I was to finally be here, we launched into the Overture to La Forza del Destino. It is certainly possible that those three bars of E naturals have had more gravitas in the hands of others, but on this morning there was no better sound in the world.

Rehearsal went smoothly, professionally and we all found our collective footing right away. After the Verdi, we began to put together a piece by James Lee III about his grandfather’s service in WWII. He is a very talented young composer and we worked hard to help him achieve the dramatic impact that was intended. As with virtually every composer I work with, lots of changes were made along the way.

In the evening, I met with the chorus from the University of Michigan. Carmina Burana was the major work on the program and I wanted at least an hour with them to go through some of the thornier elements of the piece. Over the years I have had a love/hate relationship with this piece, but recently have rethought it. The chorus master had prepared by listening to my recording, which is about 15 years old at this point. Things change and so I had to do a lot of readjusting quickly to put it into the new framework that I have conceived for this piece. When the orchestra arrived, all went well and we worked very hard on balance and color.

Pretty much the same took place the following day. But now it was clear that the orchestra and I had found a real rhythm in our working relationship. I began to relax more and in turn the orchestra seemed to know that rehearsals would be focused but not without humor when needed.

Between rehearsals there were countless meetings and development events. These began to take a physical toll on me so I would sneak in power naps whenever possible. But there remained so many things to do in future planning that there simply was no escaping the rigors of a very long set of days, usually about 14 hours straight of work.

The first concert was on Thursday the 11th. I had decided that we would make a European style entrance, with the stage bare for the ten minutes preceding the concert. Then all the players came on together. Our concertmaster, the incredible Emmanuelle Boisvert, walked out, tuned and then it was my turn. No speeches, just music. To my surprise, the audience leapt to its feet when I entered. This was one of the most moving moments in my entire musical life, and we had not played one note.

All proceeded well at the concert. The Verdi was superb each night, the Lee had a fine reception from the audience, and we engaged in some fireworks and theatrics in the Orff. Each performance seemed to feed off the last and by the time we got to Sunday, there were no doubts on anyone’s part as to the rightness of this partnership.

Friday morning found the orchestra and me at the headquarters of Chrysler. For the past four years, the DSO has played a short holiday program for the employees. But this year things were different. The night before, Congress had not been able to shape a deal to help the automakers. The headlines that morning were about as bleak as can be imagined. I wondered if we should be playing there at all. But when it came time for me to speak, I guess I said the right things, recognizing the perilous times we are in, not just in Detroit but also throughout the world. “Music is a window into the soul,” is what I said, with the hope that perhaps for a brief while, we could get past the woes and let the sounds we were making take over and give us some hope. The letters and comments that we received over the next few days brought many of us to tears, as the workers seemed truly grateful that we had brought some sunshine into their lives right now.

On Saturday morning, we gave the first complete performance of the set of 10 holiday arrangements I made for piano and strings. As regular readers of this column know, they were intended to be performed by young musicians, and we used the Civic Orchestra as well as the winners of a competition for young pianists throughout the area. Everyone seemed to enjoy this family concert and I was proud of the young musicians. If nothing else, we were able, in a tangible way, to show our commitment to music education and the building of a broader audience base for the future.

As I write this, we have now finished all the performances, meetings and other events that have occupied the full week. My heart knows that coming to Detroit was exactly the right decision. There is a lot of work to do. But the fundamentals are in place; a great orchestra, hall, staff and public. If we can be the beacon for this city, perhaps the arts can become relevant in a way not thought of for more than half a century. I know everyone is looking to us for this kind of leadership. It is a journey that has only begun this past week. But I truly believe that the end result will be beyond what anyone can imagine. For the first time in quite a while, I know where I belong. And I am home.

Now it is off to Tokyo and Taipei. Let me wish all of you the happiest of holidays and a safe and prosperous New Year. Heaven knows we all need it.

See you next year,