November 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

We ended last month with the Cardinals winning their division, the Tigers still in first place, the Lions on a one-game winning streak and the DSO in great shape.

Three of the four collapsed quickly. The orchestra remained in first place.

Earlier that month, a production of Tosca debuted at the Metropolitan Opera which was met with disdain by most of the public as well as the critics. I took the opportunity to write a satiric piece, wondering why we cannot take the same liberties in the orchestral world as stage directors do in theatrical outings. Purposely, I did not state that the item was false. It was disguised as a news release, although there were enough clues that should have made the facetious nature clear.

Why did I take this route?

Well, I wanted to see what kind of response it would get. And sure enough, some people truly believed it, including a few musicians and journalists who should know better. The most interesting responses were from those who wrote back, saying that we should not implement any changes until we lower the ticket prices. Actually, you can get a subscription here in Detroit for 10 concerts and it will cost you under $100. But mainly I felt that in this particular economic environment, with orchestras under great pressure to cut back, a little bit of humor was needed. All of us need to be able to laugh at ourselves once in a while.

I thought it might be informative to include some commentary that has popped up either via web or as letters. I will parse these out at various points during this blog.

Here’s one.

Very funny. Thank you, Mr. Slatkin. A little laughter can help ease a lot of real pain. But I have to wonder a bit about those offended. Did they feel targeted in some way? Or perhaps they subscribe to “concerts as religion” model that began in the 19th Century. (Some religions are uncomfortable with satire as well.)

Our final set of concerts in Detroit, during this first extended period with the orchestra, were exceptional. We began our look at Samuel Barber, this being his centenary, with three works: the School for Scandal Overture, the Adagio for Strings and the Piano Concerto. For the latter we were joined by James Tocco, who is quite well-known around here as the director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. Jimmy worked closely with Barber and brought some wonderful ideas to this great piece.

I made my DSO debut as pianist, when Jimmy asked me to play one of the “Souvenirs” as an encore. I had recorded this enchanting piece with John Browning the day after Leonard Bernstein died. Playing it in concert is a whole other ball game. There was shtick galore, with each evening becoming more and more outrageous. The orchestra and audience seemed to eat it up. I came up with a new musical concept: if you miss a lot of notes, make sure that the routine is good. Perhaps coming on stage for a bow with carnations in our mouths was a bit out of line.

Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote rounded out the program. Our principal cellist, Robert de Maine, was perfect, playing with great passion and persuasion. Along with Till Eulenspiegel, this is program music at its best, with real story telling complimenting the extraordinary orchestral writing. It is not possible to get tired of this piece.

From the title “Change Is in the Air” to the last line, I read this excellent send-up a bit differently than as a light inside joke for the audience to “dish about over intermission cocktails.” This humor has an edge – and a target.

Maestro Slatkin may object to my interpretation, but I’m afraid it is guaranteed to be unassailable by the Postmodern Bill of Rights. Here is what I hear bubbling up:

To all the helpful bloggers, critics, consultants and Monday morning quarterbacks out there: Those of us who actually make music as our profession are grateful for your suggestions to help us discover the fountain of youth for our (literally) dying audience. Some of these ideas are new and show some wit. Those few—especially those that encourage us to “get with it” as the young people say—are welcome, if for no other reason than in this economy a good laugh now and then can boost our morale. But, in general, You Have No Idea What You’re Talking About.

Next stop was Vienna. This was a six-day trip and at first I did not want to do it, as turn-arounds are getting harder. But it emerged as a most interesting week. The concerts were with the Wiener Symphoniker, the “other” orchestra in the Austrian capital.

Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony was the main orchestral offering, although it could be argued that the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto was equally substantial, especially as played by Sol Gabetta. We opened with Ives’ “Unanswered Question.” The audience seemed perplexed by this work, with a lot of coughing punctuating the stillness of the string writing.

The final concert was in Brno, about a two-hour drive from Vienna and the home of Janácek. I wished that we had time to take a look around, but arrival was just 30 minutes before a sound check. At this concert, we had prepared an encore, the “Thunder and Lightning” Polka by J. Strauss II. At the rehearsal, when we got to the reprise of the initial section, I said there would be no repeat. The whole viola section said that they always play it. Of course, they also said that they never do the first movement of the Dvorák with the exposition repeat. Go figure.

Complaint department

Prior to each of the concerts in Vienna, as I arrived at the stage door, there were five or six people wanting autographs. They had pictures and old programs for me to sign. One person had a photo that he took in a record shop, from an album cover. I asked him why he did not simply bring in the original for me to sign. He said that he did not want to buy it. I was okay with that, but when I said that I hoped he would enjoy the concert, he told me that he was not attending.

If you are going to ask for an autograph, you had better come to the show.

Blog response with historical precedence.

Sadly, I heard about a production of a Rossini opera a few years ago in which the director cut almost all of the recitative sections because he thought the music was “boring.” It didn’t matter that the story line was contained there or that it was part of the original composition. The show was shorter, took less rehearsal time and was much more “exciting” … for those with ADD. True story. Mr. Slatkin, while satirical, might be giving ideas to the bean counters.

The next two weeks found me in Pittsburgh as Principal Guest Conductor. This is a post I have held with several orchestras over the years, including the early St. Louis days, Minnesota, Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic in London. The title means different things to different groups. In Pittsburgh I do three weeks each season. Their excellent music director, Manfred Honeck, focuses almost exclusively on the Central European repertoire. Therefore much of what I do is to cover the areas of repertoire that he does not. And so a great deal of American music falls into my province. During these two weeks, only one piece was not from the United States.

Week One had Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, which the orchestra played beautifully. My approach to this work is a bit old-fashioned, having grown up with the Columbia recording with Ormandy and Philadelphia. In fact, I spent some time with Maestro Ormandy discussing this very score. He reminded me that his orchestra was the favorite one of the composer. That says a lot as to how to face performance tradition. Many of the young Finnish conductors take a somewhat revisionist view of this music, putting a Boulezian spin on it. This approach is certainly valid, but I am not sure that it is the one Sibelius himself favored. In any event, we had a wonderful, supple and great time with the piece.

Two American works were in the first half. Peter Mennin’s “Concertato” (Moby Dick) and a world premiere of a song cycle by Richard Danielpour. This piece is based on poetry by Maya Angelou and was sung quite dramatically by Angela Brown. But it was the Mennin that got me thinking about the plight of the earlier generations of American Composers. I was reminded of concerts almost a year ago in Los Angeles, where we had done Steven Stucky and William Schuman back-to-back. Stucky was a house language for the LA Phil but the Schuman was a mystery. Same situation here with Danielpour and Mennin.

Are we losing our connection with the classic composers of America’s past?

I am afraid that is true, but the reason is understandable. More and more living composers have made strong impacts and have a devoted public following. So Corigliano, Adams, Rouse, Tower, and many others have replaced their teachers, so to speak. Plus, there are not many of us left who had a personal connection to the earlier composers. This has gotten me to envision a series in Detroit, which might pair one of the Beethoven Symphonies with a classic American work in symphonic form. Harris, Schuman, Diamond, Sessions, Hanson, Mennin, Ives, Persichetti and Gould come to mind. We will see.

Here is one blog exchange that appeared on a site devoted to Gustav Mahler.

Slatkin: There will also be a chamber version of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Sometimes referred to as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” Slatkin hopes to get it down to 46.

Interesting …

No, not interesting.

The second Pittsburgh week was an entire program devoted to music by American composers, something rare around here as it is with most orchestras. We have no problem with all-French, Viennese and Russian concerts. But it remains somewhat perplexing, given the diversity of our music, that this kind of program is not done more often. There was nothing astringent for the listener, with works by Copland, Barber and John Williams, but all the pieces required an intensity and energy that almost defines the music of the United States.

Having played and recorded the Williams Horn Concerto, I was very interested to hear how a different soloist would approach this work. William Caballero, the PSO’s first hornist, was probably a bit more introspective in overall approach than Karl Pituch in Detroit. But both brought incredible finesse and technique to this work, meaning that, as with any fine piece of music, it can undergo transformations at the hands of different performers. I enjoyed this immensely.

The Pittsburgh Symphony must have played a number of the classic American scores during the tenures of Previn and Maazel, but, aside from the Barber Adagio, almost all the pieces were receiving performances for the first time in more than 10 years. And the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo had never been programmed on subscription concerts. Amazing!

Here is one that may be putting me on. Let’s hope so. Spelling, punctuation and grammar are exactly as they came in to me.

dear mr. slatkin,

i am professor for composition and contemporary saxophone at the california institute of the arts in south california.

unfortunately i wasn’t able yet to hear one of your concerts live.

but i want to gratulate you for your brave step towards a new classical orchestral performance esthetic.
we surely need this in the early 21st century—otherwise the classical repertoire will just become commodity pop music.

i am a classical saxophone player, who has played the small classical repertoire for sax and piano as well as having performed in most orchestras in berlin (where i am original from)—radio symphonie orchester, berliner philharmoniker, etc—as well as having recorded and performed piece by cowell, grainger and contemporary composers as soloist with orchestra.

my experience always was, that the performance of the classical repertoire needs to take a leap into the 21st century.

we can’t go on just perform the way it was done 100 years ago.
thanks for taking a step into that direction. i am looking forward hearing you live some time

In between the two weeks in Pittsburgh, I traveled to St. Louis to participate in a fund raising event, the cause being the Youth Orchestra, which I founded there 40 years ago. About 120 people gathered in a home for drinks, dinner and music. It is always difficult to predict which will be the most effective pieces to play at a function such as this, but a couple weeks earlier, the second volume of my arrangements for Piano and Strings of Holiday music was published. Although Christmas was two months off, we decided to celebrate early and, with the help of six members of the St. Louis Symphony, we performed 11 of the pieces.

My piano skills still leave a great deal to be desired, and I suspect that I will not do much in the way of playing in public anymore. But for this type of occasion, it seemed appropriate. When you consider that these arrangements were written for middle and high-school students, it is hard to understand why I miss so many notes. Might have something to do with no time for practicing.

In any event, we had a good time and raised money for an important part of musical life in my former hometown. No one spoke of the Cardinals, other than the orchestra’s PR director, who clearly had not come out of his depression yet.

Is this a joke? Seriously, how the hell can they expect people to pay big bucks for the symphony if the musicians are facing away—the sound is going to be misdirected, too!

You know, if this were April 1st, I’d say sure, it’s a joke, but now … I honestly can’t tell. So glad we don’t have tickets there, though!

Near the end of the month I was informed about a release of a CD, containing music by Delius that was conducted by my father. In his fledgling days as a conductor, he recorded several albums with a pick-up orchestra called the Concert Arts Orchestra. These performances stem from the early fifties and back then had a devoted following in the record-buying community. A company called Pristine Classics, based out of the UK, re-mastered a couple of my Dad’s recordings and I have to say that they have done an incredible job. Hopefully, they will get around to issuing the remaining albums.

Pristine has also put out the recordings made for the Westminster label by Fernando Valenti. When I first went to Aspen in 1964, I was dragged to a harpsichord recital given by Mr. Valenti. It was an all-Scarlatti program and my own thoughts were that Horowitz owned the music. Plus, I hated the harpsichord.

But that evening totally changed me. I had never been aware that this clumsy looking instrument could produce the variety of sounds and colors that Valenti brought us. He and I became good friends and I even did a concert in St. Louis where he played solo Scarlatti sonatas on the harpsichord, I would play one on the piano, and then the orchestra would play one in the orchestrations by Walton. He was a joy and it is wonderful to have these performances available once more. I encourage all of you interested in some wonderful examples of earlier recordings to check out the Pristine site.

This commentary appeared on the web site of no less a music journalist than Alan Rich. Go figure, indeed.

Maestro Slatkin, may I remind you, is the son of two great Los Angeles musicians, Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller, whose Hollywood String Quartet once performed and recorded great, honorable—and uncut— performances. Their CD of Schubert’s C-major Quintet is what I play for friends to demonstrate honest musicianship. Go figure.

October ended with another trip to Europe, this time to conduct the Rotterdam and Czech Philharmonics. The former usually gets passed by in favor of its more famous counterpart in Amsterdam, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. But make no mistake, the city that is only 45 minutes away has a very proud and distinguished ensemble. They have had music directors who include Edo de Waart, David Zinman, James Conlon and Valery Gergiev, so there have been some impressive leaders over the course of the orchestra’s history.

For these concerts, I returned to the piece I performed and recorded about a month prior in Detroit, the 2nd Rachmaninov Symphony. Usually I try not to repeat most works in a given season; as for me, it might be difficult to start over. One develops a certain way of playing a particular piece and the idea of having to go back in order to go forward can seem frustrating. What might have worked with one orchestra may not be as successful with the next.

But this approach has changed in my mind, after so many years on the podium. I now look forward to taking a piece and recasting it each time. With different players, sounds, acoustics, and the like, come new challenges. You take what you learned from the last set of performances and adjust to the new surroundings, not really thinking of how it went before. And so the Rotterdam performances had a very different feel from the ones in Detroit. Since I had sent my own set of parts ahead, we did not have to deal with bowing or breathing issues, and could get right down to the business of making music.

The Rotterdamers did a fine job. Warm where needed, good contrasts between the loud and soft sections and a nice sense of understanding the long lines of the piece. We also had Lars Vogt as soloist in the 3rd Beethoven Concerto. We have been working together since he was in his late teens, and it is always nice to hear the maturity creep in. He is much freer in his playing now and his sound has much more tonal variety. Overall, this week was a great pleasure

Finally, I want to leave you with another example of satire that has been around at least from the time when I was a student. People thought it was serious then, and I suspect some still do. With the economic crisis still hanging over the orchestral world, there are probably some who wish that the following could be implemented.

     Memo From: Efficiency & Ticket, Ltd., Management Consultants
To: Chairman, The London Symphony Orchestra
Re: Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor

After attending a rehearsal of this work we make the following observations and recommendations:

1. We note that the twelve first violins were playing identical notes, as were the second violins. Three violins in each section, suitably amplified, would seem to us to be adequate.

2. Much unnecessary labor is involved in the number of demisemiquavers in this work; we suggest that many of these could be rounded up to the nearest semiquaver thus saving practice time for the individual player and rehearsal time for the entire ensemble. The simplification would also permit more use of trainee and less-skilled players with only marginal loss of precision.

3. We could find no productivity value in string passages being repeated by the horns; all tutti repeats could also be eliminated without any reduction of efficiency.

4. In so labor-intensive an undertaking as a symphony, we regard the long oboe tacet passages to be extremely wasteful. What notes this instrument is called upon to play could, subject to a satisfactory demarcation conference with the Musician’s Union, be shared out equitably amongst the other instruments.

Conclusion: if the above recommendations are implemented the piece under consideration could be played through in less than ten minutes with concomitant savings in overtime, lighting and heating, wear and tear on the instruments and hall rental fees. Also, had the composer been aware of modern cost-effective procedures he might well have finished this work.

See you next month,