November 18, 2013 leonard slatkin

When we left off last month, I had finished a set of performances in Detroit with the Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony. Usually I do not repeat a work in consecutive weeks, but as it happened, the same piece was scheduled for my return to Lyon.

A question I am asked quite often is, “What are the differences between American and European orchestras?” Here is the ideal opportunity to try to answer this.

First of all, every orchestra is guided by the acoustic space in which it performs. It is what helps create an individual sound. The space, resonance, and even the look of the hall make a difference in the approach to orchestral homogeneity. But individual playing methodologies are certainly present as well. Balancing these elements produces a singular sound of an orchestra.

Some ensembles have to fight with their homes but manage to achieve a unique sonority that characterizes the orchestra. The old Orchestra Hall in Chicago is a perfect example. It was not a deep stage, but rather wide, making it difficult for the musicians to hear one another. The dry acoustic also presented dilemmas. Somehow, the combination of strong leadership and pride made it all work, and the individual sound of that orchestra can be traced back to the hall itself. A great hall, and that definition varies wildly, has positive effects on all concerned.

Another aspect of orchestral homogeneity occurs when new members of the orchestra come from the same backgrounds as the veterans. One only has to look at the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics, where preference is given to those who have come through training programs run by those two ensembles. These days, it is a bit harder for some orchestras to accomplish this, as the audition process is blind, without anyone knowing the background of the auditionees.

So it becomes more difficult, at least to start with, for the incoming musicians to know how to fit in. Hopefully the more experienced players help guide their young charges and teach them how to be a cohesive part of the ensemble. Of course, principal players lead by example, but they often have much to learn from the new approaches that rookies bring.

Once the music director has established what he or she wants in terms of the overall sound produced, a work ethic is established, regardless of repertoire. It always strikes me as strange when someone comments about the “flexibility” of an orchestra to adjust to different styles. Do we ask our great soloists and singers to change their individuality? No. We accept them because it is their uniqueness that brings us to those artists in the first place. For me, the same should apply to an orchestra. Certainly one needs to adhere to certain stylistic principles, but at least to my ears, there should be a recognizable element that enables the listener to identify who is playing.

In Lyon there continues to be a strong tradition of the French style of performance. One can hear it particularly in the woodwinds and brass. For example, the oboes and bassoons play with a bit more vibrato than their American colleagues. The brass section emphasizes the higher part of the range as opposed to, say, their counterparts in Germany, where weight and heft are the focus. The strings play in a very rich and almost Central European way. This is actually a little out of the normal French mold, but it suits my own style of music-making very well.

One might add that the instruments themselves play an important part in defining orchestral sound. In Germany and Austria, they favor woodwinds and brass that are manufactured in their own backyard. The same is true for French instruments, at least as played by French musicians. String players tend to lean toward older Italian makers, although such instruments are difficult to afford these days.

America is a bit different. Our musical culture makes a great deal out of the acceptance of multiculturalism. The musicians come from all over the world, bringing all manner of sounds, instruments and styles to an orchestra. Sometimes we fear that we might all become the same and that traditions that have been passed down for decades could disappear. That is why the audition process must be rigorously monitored. One has to know exactly what one is looking for in making a decision about who might advance into the orchestra.

During the Tchaikovsky 5th, I stayed true to the tempos and ideas that I had formulated in Detroit in the previous week (quite brisk in the first and last movements and a bit more reflective and free in the middle ones). It took time for both orchestras to adjust, but once they caught on, each played with great panache and soul.

The differences? The solo players brought their individual characteristics to the piece. The lengthy horn solo in Detroit was darker than the Lyon counterpart, but both musicians played beautifully. The French clarinetists opened the work with a bit more vibrato than the Detroiters. The strings played in a similar fashion to their colleagues across the pond.

Was one better than the other? No. Each had a character and individuality that I would not have had any other way. What would be the point in working with two ensembles if they were the same?

I realize that this somewhat verbose explanation does not answer all the questions, but it is a start. As for the remainder of the Lyon program, it was all Tchaikovsky. Nothing fancy, but it was an important occasion for two reasons. It began my third season as music director and signaled the first concert in the renovated Auditorium. Actually, the hall remained about the same, but the organ was overhauled, the lobby areas completely redone, and the heating and air conditioning brought up to current standards.

In fact, this was not the precise opening concert. Two days earlier, we were part of the Festival Lumiere, an annual event in the birthplace of cinema. Each year the film community spends seven days in Lyon, with showings, lectures and commentary filling the city. It is a wondrous event, with luminaries—hmm, could this be where the word comes from?—arriving from all over the world. I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Quentin Tarantino, Michael Cimino and Christopher Lambert, all of whom were delightful.

The ONL participated by performing a 2009 score for the 1929 Hitchcock silent thriller, Blackmail. The 75-minute film is a masterpiece of tension and suspense, and Neil Brand composed a fine soundtrack. For this performance there were none of the usual aides to help the conductor coordinate with the screen. No click tracks, streamers, time-codes or punches ever appeared. I had to learn the film and, in some places, hope for the best.

At one moment, near the end, there is a visual of a telephone ringing. This is accompanied by a triangle representing that sound. I had gotten about one second behind the film, and when the triangle played, the inspector was already on the phone. This elicited a chuckle from the audience, and I was furious with myself for missing this cue. But in true conductorial manner, I decided to blame the inspector for picking up the receiver too early.

The following week was primarily devoted to Berlioz. This season includes Harold in Italy, a mostly cheerful work written originally for Paganini. We tend to forget that Paganini was a gifted violist but rejected the piece on the grounds that there was not enough for him to do. Later he would recant, but Harold had meanwhile managed his journey without Niccolò.

Our soloist was French violist Lise Berthaud, who brought youthful energy to the part. We were also recording the piece as part of an ongoing Berlioz project for Naxos. Also on the docket were the Overtures to Benvenuto Cellini and Roman Carnival, as well as the rare Rêverie et caprice for violin and orchestra. This featured our co-concertmaster Giovanni Radivo. The French term for this position is super-soliste.

All of you know that I am a baseball fanatic. This only intensified when my two teams, one from Detroit and the other St. Louis, made the playoffs. The six-hour time difference made it pretty much impossible to catch both teams when they played on the same day. But I managed to watch as much as possible and was saddened when the Tigers were declawed by Boston.

The Redbirds looked strong against Los Angeles and moved into the World Series. Yes, I still have an allegiance to my old stomping grounds when it comes to the National League. In some ways, I was grateful that I did not have to make a choice between the Tigers and Cardinals, but I had hoped that they would face each other in the Fall Classic. Wait until next year.

The next few weeks have some intriguing programs, and I look forward to telling you all about La Coruña, the American premiere of Cyborg and the dedication of the new organ in Lyon.

See you in three weeks,