November 1, 2010 leonard slatkin

Last month I wrote that I did not feel it was the place of a music director to comment on any labor dispute taking place with his or her orchestra. The musicians of the Detroit Symphony went on strike at the beginning of the month, causing the cancellation of the season opening as well as the concerts for the remainder of the month. There remains uncertainty as to when we will get back to work. Until that time, I will maintain silence on the matter.

In the meantime, there were other musical assignments on my calendar for the second half of October.

Pittsburgh is a five-hour car trip from Detroit. Considering it takes 45 minutes to get from my abode to the airport, at which you are supposed to arrive at least an hour before departure, plus inevitable delays and the interminable wait for baggage, it is just as efficient to drive rather than fly. So it was back to the road.

I always enjoy coming to this city. If there is a model for returning from the ashes, this is it. At one time, the economy of Pittsburgh resembled that of Detroit. The steel industry, a pillar of the community, had disappeared. Buildings were going unoccupied and there was a general atmosphere of gloom throughout the area. But gradually, stability has returned. The downtown area, although still not 100% back, is doing well. Construction has increased and the cultural district is thriving. There is still a ways to go but most people agree that Pittsburgh is a city with a will as strong as the product it produced.

The program was a mix of less familiar works. Each season the orchestra appoints a “composer of the year.” This time around it is Joan Tower. We go back quite a long time and with the exception of a world premiere being given at the end of the season, I have conducted and recorded all of her works that will be played by the orchestra.

For this initial offering, two works were chosen. Opening the concert was the fourth in a series of pieces labeled “For the Uncommon Woman.” A play on the famous Copland Fanfare, Joan employs the full resources of the orchestra for this piece. It is typical of her style, with clearly punctuated rhythms and generally conservative harmonies, which are made dissonant by the fast and furious pace of the sixteenth notes.

Next came what is arguably her most popular piece in recent years, if you judge by number of performances. Made in America was written four years ago under a grant from Ford. The work was meant to be played by orchestras in all 50 States. It took two years but that goal has been accomplished. Quoting from “America the Beautiful,” there is an air of familiarity even if the listener does not know one note by Joan herself.

Next up was the not so often played First Piano Concerto by Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern was the soloist and she brought her customary flair and innate sense of musicality to the piece. I have always enjoyed this piece and was glad to see it again. Olga had three new dresses for this set of concerts and it is fun to watch the expression on the faces of the orchestra members when she enters. Once she begins, all the attention is focused on the music, as it should be.

The closer was the Sixth Symphony by Dvorak. It is still surprising to see that this work does not appear on programs very often. Even though it is a little naïve in places, especially the developments, there is a buoyant, sunny air that makes the work irresistible. The orchestra played it with gusto and the woodwind solos were performed with real style and panache.

I return here in four weeks with an all-American program.

There was time to take in one film. Hereafter is the latest Clint Eastwood opus and it is a fine work. For a movie billed as a thriller, it is languorous and restrained. All the parts are wonderfully cast and I enjoyed it very much. One slight annoyance was the use of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Eastwood himself wrote the score, and uses the triplet motif from the opening of the second movement. But instead of staying with the original melody, he places one of his own over the figure. For those that know the original, this becomes a distraction from the events on screen.

Personally, I like it when a film uses known pieces of music, as it tells us something about the director and their own preferences. But by altering the intent of the composer, there is an implication that we are supposed to think of the scene we are watching in a different way. Perhaps this is valid, and if one does not know the original it probably works just fine. But for others it seems just a bit too precious. Do not let this slight criticism stop you from seeing this beautiful film.

When I go to the movies, I love to get there in time to watch the previews. In some ways they turn out to be more interesting than the film that will be screened. Most of the time the music for these is recorded before the score is written. There are separate sessions for these, as the soundtrack is the final piece of the cinematic jigsaw to go in.

But when did they start to get so loud?

I was reminded of a piece I wrote back in 2008. I do not believe I posted it but since this has been a light month, it makes sense to reprint it here. As I sometimes do, it is in the guise of a news item but please do not take it as fact. I got in trouble the last time I did this with an article about changing the nature of the symphony season.


Dischord at the Symphony

“The average noise level in the orchestra during the piece was 97.4 decibels – a violation of new European noise-at-work limits.” —New York Times, April 20, 2008

It was to be a very ordinary evening at Symphony Hall last night until chaos erupted quite unexpectedly. By the time it was over, two men had been arrested and another possibly exhumed.

The case in question involved the rarely noticed 2nd trombonist of the Upper Lakes Region Symphonia. The first half of the program had gone without incident. A Rossini overture followed by a Mozart piano concerto. It was only after the intermission that things became perilous.

An oversized orchestra was employed to perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Everything started out peacefully enough. The sounds of nature emanated from the instruments with birds chirping and other tame beasts under control. Then, about 10 minutes into the first movement, all hell broke loose.

You sensed that something was up when the bassoonists, who sit near the trombone section, began to put their fingers in their ears. The visual aspect of this might not have been so disturbing, but the presence of Plexiglas panels all over the stage should have given us fair notice. But in one shattering moment, the atmosphere of the concert hall was totally disrupted.

A uniformed policeman came running on stage, halting the performance. Rushing into the trombone section he demanded, “Who has been making all this racket?” The bassoon section pointed fingers behind toward the culprit, James Sackbutt, currently the number two trombonist in the orchestra.

The officer went directly to the offending musician and said, “You are in direct violation of the European Union Sound Act of 2008. The volume level you achieved was three decibels over the specified amount, as written in Section 4, paragraph 3 of the Code. You are hereby ordered to cease playing immediately!”

“But the music specifically says Fortissimo,” argued Sackbutt. “Plus, the trumpets have a triple forte at the same time and I don’t see you giving them a citation.”

“I can only track one player at a time. And they simply did not appear on the sonic radar gun.”

Sackbutt countered, “Besides that, the conductor asked me to play the passage loudly. He is my boss and I am not supposed to argue with him.”

Officer William Guardate then moved to center stage to confront Maestro Massimo Extremo.

“Did you knowingly encourage Mr. Sackbutt to play above the decibel level prescribed by the ESU (European Sound Union)?”

“No,” replied Extremo. “ I was simply trying to obey the instructions left by the composer some 120 years ago. No one complained about it then and I do not see why we should be complaining about it now.”

“The law is the law,” said Guardate “I must insist that you and Mr. Sackbutt accompany me to the police station, where charges will be filed.”

Twenty minutes later, a district judge ordered that the composer be contacted about his role in the matter.

“But he has been dead almost 100 years!” responded a clearly frustrated Sackbutt. “Surely you cannot find out what he intended as regard volume levels. And there were no regulations about volume back then.”

Judge Camilla Jurisprude then issued a court order for the exhumation of the body of Gustav Mahler, in the hope that some DNA evidence might be uncovered which could exonerate the two musicians.

“It could be that something in Mr. Mahler’s genetic code caused him to over achieve when it came to issuing instructions to the musicians.”

In the meantime, the orchestra has been ordered to play nothing other than music by Grieg and Delius for the remainder of the season.


Since the last few days of October overlap with the first week in November, at least as far as my calendar goes, I will wait until next time to write about these travels. In the meantime, I hope that when I return, I can see my orchestra and that we will be making music together again.

See you next month,