Fall is a beautiful time in Michigan. The baseball team has made it to the playoffs for the third year in a row. Apples are plentiful from the orchards in the area. The music scene is springing back into action.
Although it is the start of my sixth season with the Detroit Symphony, it really is more like the third. Back in 2009, I only had a limited number of weeks to lead the orchestra due to previous commitments. The next year a heart attack put me out of commission for three months. And in the following season—well—our weeks together were cancelled due to a debilitating labor dispute.
Music directors who really understand the job realize that it takes time to establish a true working relationship with an orchestra. With each of my ensembles over the years, I have always used the first two seasons as a kind of get-acquainted period, when we go through a lot of repertoire, judge each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and take baby steps as we develop our musical chops together.
So this season in The D, I began working in a different way. Far more attention is being paid to ensemble, intonation, balance and overall sonic profile. Not that this was ignored in the past, but with several new members of the orchestra in principal roles, it seems that stability has brought a new sense of purpose for all of us.
The first week for the orchestra saw them returning to New York in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall. I flew back from Lyon in time to attend this program of works by the Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye, conducted by his colleague and friend Yongyan Hu. This was a fascinating afternoon with some extraordinary soloists and an intriguing piece based on the Chinese texts of “The Songs of the Earth.” Anyone familiar with the Mahler cycle could not help but compare as the music went along. The orchestra acquitted itself in glory, and I was very proud of them.
Then it was my turn. We started with a series of concerts in the communities in and around Detroit. One cannot help but love these events, as most of the audience has usually never heard the DSO, much less visited Orchestra Hall. We played in high school auditoriums, civic centers and one enormous church. This was an amazing experience with the crowd clearly in sync with what we were performing.
At each performance, we ended with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” I usually made some excuse about being tired, or being bored with the piece. This gave me the opportunity to bring up a young person from the audience and let him or her conduct. A couple of the kids did such a great job that I feared for my continued directorship in the future.
We also had our first performance at The Max, in a concert featuring Lang Lang. It had been a couple years since we last worked together, but it only felt like a few days. The Russian program featured the pianist in Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto. As usual, Lang Lang brought a very individual approach to this piece, with extremes of tempi and dynamics. But his concepts are always well thought out, and one cannot help but be caught up in the moment. In many ways, his playing comes from an older school of thought, which relies on spontaneity coupled with technique. It continues to be a great pleasure to work with him.
Also on the program was the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet. I am not sure that I had ever done this in a string orchestra version, and when I programmed it, there must have been some remnant of my parents’ version with the Hollywood String Quartet in my mind. So I went back and listened to their recording from the early ’50s. Much of what they did in those days has influenced my own thoughts regarding string sonority, and it was gratifying to hear my roots again and then apply a couple ideas to the orchestra.
The first subscription concerts were next on the docket. These are usually programs full of standard fare, just to get the audience back into the swing of things. We went in a somewhat different direction this time. The main work was the world premiere of a violin concerto by Bright Sheng, who also is on the faculty of the University of Michigan. His music combines his Chinese background with the language of his adopted country.
No less a soloist than Gil Shaham took on the solo role, dispatching the extremely difficult work with aplomb and style. We all worked very hard to achieve what the composer had in mind, and each performance was rewarded with long ovations for the composer and soloist. Gil was most gracious in his encore, playing a duet by Piazzola with our concertmaster, Yoonshin Song. As with Lang Lang, it was really nice to catch up with Gil and spend some time with him away from the stage.
I suppose there was a time when the Russian Easter Overture by Rimsky-Korsakov was often performed, but it does not appear that much anymore. What a terrific work and great showpiece for an orchestra! All of us had a wonderful time with it, and the solo work by our section principals was outstanding.
I brought something from Lyon to these concerts with three Ravel pieces. Now that I have this typical French sound in my head, it was great fun to apply some of this sonority to the DSO. Of course many years ago this was de regueur for the orchestra during the tenure of Paul Paray. But that was a long time ago, and most of the orchestra members today came into the DSO after that golden period. So the Rhapsodie espagnole, Pavane for a Dead Princess, and Daphnis et Chloé needed to be approached in a fresh way.
Needless to say, the orchestra threw itself into this music and once again, all the principals distinguished themselves in the solo passages, with flutist David Buck and his section leading the charge.
For the past three years, our baseball team has made it into the playoffs. To cheer them on, we have an orchestration of their fight song, “Go get ’em, Tigers,” which we now perform as an encore. We were joined by one of our staff members as vocalist, and for the final performance, the Detroit Children’s Choir. I suppose there are some grumpy folks out there who think that this is stupid and a waste of a great orchestra’s resources, but it gives us a connection to the heart of the city. The audience eats it up, and since it will be shown on the Jumbotron at the stadium, about 40,000 viewers will learn a little bit about their orchestra.
In addition to this nice bit of PR, we were able to announce a projected surplus for this calendar year. The numbers are not all in, of course, but funding and ticket sales have skyrocketed. I told the staff that they have an hour to celebrate, but then it is back to work. And there is an awful lot to do.
For the orchestra, it was back to business, with a bit more standard fare in the second subscription week. The Tchaikovsky 5th was the main offering. It is certainly one of the pieces that I have conducted the most, and it would come up again in Lyon during my next week of concerts, so a rethink was certainly in order. As with so many pieces from the standard repertoire these days, I have come to a different viewpoint, especially in regards to the structure. The biggest difference this time around was a thought about the Allegro of the first movement. As with most of my colleagues, I usually start a bit slower and gradually work up to a more animated tempo. Now I begin this section with a feeling of tension from the outset. For me at least, this makes the movement more concise and actually gives the big second tune a bit more space to breathe.
See you in a few weeks,