November 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

October might be the best month of the year for me. I had my two orchestras up and running, Cindy and I moved into a new house, and both Detroit and St. Louis were in the baseball playoffs. The Lions had won their first four games of the young football season.

Music first.

No one really knew what to expect when the DSO started up this year. There were plans and more plans. The public was a little confused with all the new initiatives. When it was said and done, everything went smoothly and an air of optimism creeped into everyone’s collective being.

As promised, we became more involved in the community than ever. Our first week back saw us in churches, schools, a mall and suburbs that I had never heard of. Reception to the programs was more than just enthusiastic. Audience members were genuinely moved by our efforts outside of Orchestra Hall.

There were grumblings that this could be construed as a step toward the orchestra becoming “regional.” First of all, I am not sure what that means or why it is negative? Does it insult orchestras that actually pride themselves on this appellation? To me, especially after all that had transpired, the DSO needed to reach out to a broader audience base and one way to do that was to bring our music to the different neighborhoods, in the hopes that we will eventually attract our listeners downtown.

Most of the programs consisted of excerpts from works that will be heard later in the subscription season. It was like a preview of coming attractions that you would see in a movie theater. Others will conduct several of the pieces we played, so in one sense, I was preparing works I would not be doing. Well, I suppose I saved some rehearsal time for the guests.

The rehearsals for our Max concerts brought us back home. It remains a treat to play in this auditorium. It is where the sound of the orchestra lives. There was palpable excitement in the faces of the ensemble and most everyone truly seemed glad to get back home.

This season will have several works that did not get performed last year due to the work stoppage. Two of them appeared on the opening concert. It was less than three weeks before that I had started the season in Lyon with the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. That was a memorable performance and I was not sure how different this one would be.

The DSO sounded spectacular. All the musicians were focused and gave their all. I let them enter the stage in the European mass entrance, giving the audience a chance to welcome them back. Our acting concertmaster, associate Kim Kennedy, came out and when I started the Star Spangled Banner, there was no question that the public was thrilled.

During the summer, when the contract was settled, a few of the musicians had already committed to other engagements and did not play with their colleagues for a whole year. So it was with particular pleasure that we welcomed principal cellist Robert DeMaine back with the William Tell Overture. In fact, all the solo cellists were brilliant and took a well-deserved solo bow.

Michel Camilo, who had performed on the first concerts after the strike, returned to give the American premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. This composition is quite different than the earlier work, with even more complex rhythms and colorations. We had a wonderful time putting it together and it seemed as if Michel’s infectious way had spread to everyone. Cheers and encores followed.

The DSO sound is quite different than the ONL, but each orchestra has a fabulous string section, great solo wind players and terrific brass and percussion. Perhaps it is because the Detroit hall is so splendid that the Berlioz seemed even more immediate. I did not have to change anything in my conception of the work. The only differences seemed to be financial. Instead of the four harps I had in Lyon, the DSO used two. And since we do not have a third set of timpani, I could not put those instruments off-stage for the third movement.

In the previous week, I had been on a radio program and after talking about the orchestra and new season, I asked the host a question.

“Do the Tigers have a song?”

His staff found a recording of a tune written in 1968 called Go Get ‘Em, Tigers. After listening to it, I wondered if there was an orchestral arrangement.

None existed, but by the end of the day, our two librarians, Robert Stiles and Ethan Allen, had prepared one and we played it at all the community concerts. It also became the encore for the subscription series as well. I would like to think that the DSO was the principal reason for the team moving on to the Championship Series.

Now that I had opened the seasons in two cities, it was time to return to Lyon for the normal subscription concerts. The city was still enjoying beautiful fall weather and walking around was a pure pleasure. Rehearsing and playing the concerts continued the good feeling I was having about this season.

The first program was orchestral, with three heavyweight pieces. The Leonore No. 3, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Ein Heldenleben. Once again I was more than pleasantly surprised at the versatility of the ONL. Clearly the Britten was new to them but the musicians seemed to enjoy the dark world inhabited by the composer. The orchestra has two concertmasters and for these programs, Jennifer Gilbert was the protagonist’s wife, giving poignancy and virtuosity as needed.

It was also a time to settle into the life of the city. I began the search for a more permanent place to live, but did not want to buy anything. After all, I had just purchased a house in the Detroit area and one thing I did not need was another mortgage or whatever passes for the equivalent here. So I was shown a lovely, small apartment that overlooks the Rhone. Rentals here are not very expensive but finding one that is furnished is not so easy. This one should fit the bill, literally.

People on the street were starting to recognize me, one of the pluses and minuses of being in a compact city. Everyone has been very nice and I found myself settling into the French way of doing things. One of the things I needed to do was to open a bank account. In a radical departure from the way business is done in the States, you do not have to put any money in the account. It can just sit there until you are ready to do so. Very strange but convenient.

The second week saw the start of a Festival called “L’Amerique de Leonard Slatkin.” This seemed just a bit self-important, but the idea was good. What better way to introduce myself to the Lyonnais public than through the music from home? It was an eclectic mix for the first program with music of Ron Nelson, Copland and John Williams on the docket. Michel Camilo, fresh from the 2nd Concerto in Detroit, appeared here for the 1st. He had a huge success with the orchestra and audience, no surprise there. At one of the performances he played the 2nd Gershwin Prelude as an encore. After what is usually the middle section of the piece, he improvised a kind of blues on which the piece is based. This was one of the most extraordinary moments I have had in the concert hall. Everyone was moved.

If ever there was a time to plunge into the water, this was it. I decided to give spoken remarks before each piece, in French. After writing out the talk in English, it was translated and I took it to a French teacher, who walked me through the pronunciation minefield. For the most part, the speeches went well but I could feel myself tensing as words of more than two syllables appeared on the page.

It is very rare for me to use printed text in front of the public. This time I had no choice, unless I wanted to totally embarrass myself. However, for the encore, I chose to address the audience in English. The piece we played was an arrangement by my Dad of themes from Bizet’s Carmen, but set as if the composer lived in Texas around 1880 or so. The audience ate it up and the ovation after was tremendous. I think we will play Carmen’s Hoedown as part of almost any tour the ONL undertakes.

There were the usual good meals, wonderful wine, and great conversation during these two weeks. I was reminded that at one time I was heavily criticized for engaging my friends as soloists. It might be true, but these musicians are all among the very best and most respected artists in the field and were always hired because of their musical ability. I realize that regular readers of this column see the names, Camilo, Gabetta, Kern and Galway, among others, appearing often. No one can question the artistry of these individuals, and it is an honor to make music with them. It is also an honor to be able to call them my friends.

Now it was time to get on a plane and head to the third orchestra of my troika, Pittsburgh. Alas, the Tigers did not survive the second round of the playoffs, the Lions finally lost a game this season but the Cardinals were in the World Series. And Lyon won some sort of Rugby championship. Great. Just what I needed. Another sport to try and figure out.

See you next month.