January 15, 2009 leonard slatkin

It is only halfway through January of the new year but there is so much to write about that I thought it best to get a head start.

A quick wrap-up to the Taipei visit gets us going. I spent an hour in the hospital. Nothing serious. As it turned out, some good friends of violinist Cho-Liang Lin invited me for dinner. Regular readers of this column know about my recent fixation with Reflexology, so I was extolling its virtues to my hosts. On the way to the restaurant, I learned that one of them is the leading plastic surgeon in town and when she heard about my plantar fasciitis troubles, she suggested a trip to her hospital. I protested, saying it really was not that bad, but she said that they had a whole section devoted to orthotics.

The short version is that in about 10 minutes, I had a footprint made and inserts that go into my shoes. Hurt like hell at first but after about 10 days of wearing them, I almost feel as if there are no problems at all. The dinner was great as well, but the company was even better.

Following the New Year’s Eve performance of The Planets, we had a very tough program of Haydn, Hindemith and Strauss. The orchestra did a fine job with it. Very enthusiastic audiences and on the whole, a pleasant experience.

Then it was back to Detroit, with a very long flight. I arrived about 5 in the morning on a Monday and for the most part, took the day off to recover. Of course, I felt the need to go to the office, just to check in. But I could only concentrate for a little while before getting back to the apartment across the street. These were going to be two very intense weeks and I needed to get all the sleep possible.

On Tuesday, we began rehearsals for the first program. These couple of weeks were intentionally designed to give us a slightly different profile to our audience. So instead of the usual overture, concerto and symphony format, the concerts had four works rather then three. And these were thematically based, the first being an American program and the second, Russian. After a series of lengthy negotiations, we were able to announce that a recording would be made of the Triple Concerto, written and performed by Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Zakir Hussain. This is the piece that was premiered at the inaugural concert of the new hall in Nashville.

What can anybody say about these three astonishing musicians? Their intense practice schedule and consummate professionalism are beyond reproach. In addition to the regular rehearsals and concerts, they participated in outreach activities as well as a Family Concert. The orchestra and audience adored them and I am positive that we have something quite special in the recorded product, which was taken directly from the concerts.

Also featured was a premiere of a work by Margaret Brouwer. This composer won a competition that is now held here annually. It is named after the late Elaine Lebenbom and is for the encouragement of women composers. Each year someone is selected and she writes a piece for the orchestra. Margaret’s Rhapsody for Orchestra was a most engaging piece, well written for all of us and certainly well received.

An American in Paris was the concluding work. This is one of the pieces that I have conducted the most often, so it is with a great deal of experience that I can honestly say these performances were among the very best I have ever heard. The orchestra adapted quickly to my own thoughts on the work, and the spirit came through in a way that I have rarely encountered. This will become one of our repertoire pieces.

A side note here. There are three saxophones in the Gershwin. They enter about halfway through the piece. Initially, they just play some chords for a couple two-bar phrases. I like to differentiate the second set from the first with a particular sound. So when we get to this spot, I look at them and tell them I want a “Billy May” glissando. Unfortunately, many of the players are too young to know what this means, and even who Billy May was. It is possible that there is nothing worse than a confused sax player. In the end, they figured it out. You will have to look it up or listen to one of my recordings of the piece to hear it. Better yet, grab a couple Billy May albums. Great arranger and that gliss is still the best.

I went to my first hockey game here. The Red Wings always have one of the best teams in the NHL, but I had not been to a game since they instituted the new rules, following the paralyzing strike of a couple years ago. I am not so sure that these new ideas have improved the game much at all. But the local boys won so I should not complain. No octopodes thrown on the ice. You have to look that one up too.

There were the countless meetings and interviews as well during this time. At this point, I do not think there is any question that I have not been asked. The financial situation is still problematic but we are committed to a true artistic set of goals and objectives. The best news is that so far, my weeks with the orchestra have all done better than the initial budgetary projections, so we know that there is good buzz going on. And we do not disappoint at the performances. Over the course of nine concerts, there was not one where anyone let down in any way.

Our television show debuted to strong numbers. About 38,000 people watched the initial offering. It is only shown here but there have been some feelers from other cities wanting to air it. I had done six of the twelve episodes prior to this time and wrapped up the remaining segments over the course of a couple days. We seem to get better as each one is shot. Once again, the orchestra has been more than cooperative in allowing footage to be used and participating in interviews as well as whole portions. You can check out what this is about at the DSO website. The show is called Making Music.

The second week of performances began with a trip up to Lansing. We were giving the world premiere of a work by the Belarussian composer Alla Borzova. Her piece, Songs for Lada, calls for children’s choir without adults, which is very unusual. There is a group based out of Michigan State University and directed by Mary Alice Stolak. I worked with her before on the Bolcom Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Alla had been there the whole week before. To say that these kids did a spectacular job would be an understatement. Not only had they memorized the 40-minute work, but their Belaruss, at least according to those that know, was perfect. Unlike most choirs, they also move and sway as the music suits them. This was a truly remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards. Mary Alice will retire at the end of this year.

For the performances, there were indigenous instruments, such as the cimbalom, Dudka and Belarusian bagpipes. A folk-singer was brought in and sang in full native costume. This is an extraordinary work, very different than one can imagine. We hope that we have enough material from the four performances to be able to issue this as a commercial disc. I know that I will never forget it.

Just as I cannot forget the incredible musicianship brought to the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Olga Kern. This remains, in my mind, one of the few perfect pieces of music ever written. Olga simply masters this work from every angle: sound, technique and conception. The orchestra was with her every bar and the collaboration was electric from the first rehearsal. I am sure she will be a regular guest with us.

It is now easy to say that my relationship with the orchestra has solidified during these two weeks. We are very comfortable with each other and each rehearsal seems to bring us to a further understanding of what we are all looking for. Everywhere I can, I try to make the point of what is positive in Detroit. It is now time for people to stop asking why I came here. All they have to do is hear this orchestra and the question is moot. We must do everything possible to protect this invaluable resource during these lean times.

Now it is time to leave the balmy weather of Michigan and head to Dallas, Los Angeles and Nashville. Maybe the overcoat can stay behind.

See you next month, when I will keep the resolution regarding my complaint department.