November 10, 2014 leonard slatkin

And the celebration continued.

With all the hoopla in Lyon, and especially considering that several Detroiters were in attendance, I could only wonder what they had in store for me back home. I did not have to wait long to find out.

It was a pretty grueling trip, with driving from Bratislava to Vienna, catching a plane to Paris and then the 8-hour-plus flight home. The luggage came off quickly, and I was anxious to get to the car and go home. When Cindy and I emerged from baggage claim, the sliding doors revealed a huge throng gathered. It took me a second to realize what was happening.

The board of the DSO had moved their meeting to the airport, and several members of the staff as well as Civic Youth Ensemble members played and sang “Happy Birthday.” There were signs, banners and crazy headgear. Cindy had been texting my assistant, without my knowledge, as we made our way through the customs area, so everyone knew how to time this. It has been a long time since I was that surprised.

There was almost no time to catch my breath. We had a lot to do back at Orchestra Hall. As usual, we began with a set of community concerts, in four different parts of the city. Many in the audience were hearing an orchestra program for the first time. These are terrific events, and we continue to make friends wherever we appear.

For the “Stars and Stripes Forever,” each venue had selected a young person to lead the DSO. In fact, one place could not decide, so they chose three winners. This proved a bit tricky, but I managed to have them each conduct separately, and then all three stood on the podium together for the finale. Of course, there were “Happy Birthdays” at each concert, as well as meet and greets with plenty of cake.

The second week saw a lot of activity. First off, we had assistant conductor auditions. The field had been narrowed to eight contenders, each of whom conducted the orchestra for about 25 minutes in five different pieces. This represented about half of the process, and the whole orchestra voted on which conductors they felt possessed the technical and musical values that fit the bill.

The other half of the process was an interview with each candidate. We asked them for ideas about young people’s concerts, community engagement and what they hoped to gain if they won the post. A group of four musicians, four staff and myself comprised the jury, and the orchestra understood that it would be a combined decision based on the conducting and the interview.

When we concluded, with four candidates getting almost equal marks from the whole ensemble, one candidate emerged with all the qualities we were looking for. Her name is Michelle Merrill, and she hails from Jacksonville, Florida. Her background gives her a great foundation for work in Detroit. She is very poised and articulate. It will be our job to ensure continued growth and development as well as to give her a wide berth to express her own ideas.

Next it was on to the first subscription concert rehearsals and performances. Brahms 1 was the centerpiece, and it was clear from the outset that the orchestra relished getting back to the basics. It is almost impossible to express how much I missed Orchestra Hall over the summer. The moment my troops launched into the opening salvo, their sound and the glow of the auditorium came rushing back.

There were a couple pieces that we held over from the previous week. A short work by Ron Nelson, Sarabande: For Katharine in April, made a nice contrast to the opening work, Bill Bolcom’s Circus Overture, which I had already performed in Tanglewood and Lyon. Sarah Chang joined in for the Barber Violin Concerto.

We seemed to be in very good shape for so early in the season. It helped that we had some new blood in the orchestra, replacing our outstanding retirees. There are still several positions to fill, but I think all of us see the direction we are headed. After the Brahms, we played a short encore. This was Fisher’s Hornpipe, a traditional reel, arranged by my dad and rescored for full orchestra by Cindy. I have encouraged her to do more of these transcriptions, as the audience went crazy when it ended.

There were all kinds of celebratory events crammed into the week. The volunteer council had their annual luncheon for the orchestra and staff. The “Overture to a Season” musicale and dinner was held. All of a sudden I find myself playing piano a bit more regularly than usual. For this occasion, I joined Sarah in a Piazzolo tango. My digits often do not match what is on the printed page, but somehow, I managed to get through. As someone said a long time ago, “Your fingers are like lightning. They never strike twice in the same place.”

For the Saturday evening performance, I knew that there was some kind of birthday celebration that would occur. I just did not know what form it would take. As we got to the beginning of the second half, Anne Parsons and Phillip Fisher escorted me onto the stage. They had some really lovely things to say, and then a screen descended. There were about 12 clips of birthday greetings from musicians and friends all over the world. At that point I truly realized how fortunate I have been in my life. It was quite moving.

At the conclusion of the concert there was a reception in the Music Box. There, I was presented with some wonderful gifts, including an official Tigers jacket and a framed set of Naxos CDs from the musicians, documenting our recording work together. And of course, more cake.

After our first Webcast on Sunday, it was off to my old haunt, St. Louis. First up were a couple of performances with the Chamber Music Society. No piano this time, but a keyboard was involved. We did a small orchestra version of Anderson’s The Typewriter. The two keys I use did not respond well on the old Royal that I played. Perhaps hunt and peck does not work when performing this classic. There was also the opportunity to conduct chamber versions of Quiet City and Ives’ “America” Variations. Receptions followed with, you guessed it, cake.

The repertoire with the full orchestra brought home many elements that made our partnership in the old days so wonderful. The Fantastique was a work we had often performed, even taking it on tour to New York and Florida. The SLSO concertmaster, David Halen, played Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto. Twenty years ago, I hired him, basically promoting him from the associate position. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and he continues to shine in his command of the instrument and his leadership of the strings.

Cindy’s Einstein’s Dream opened the program. At this point, there are probably some accusing me of nepotism. But when the quality of work is at such a high level, there is no reason not to present the music. The orchestra completely enjoyed this venture into the soundscape world, combining electronics with the very- much-alive musicians.

At the first performance, the orchestra broke into “Happy Birthday” mode. I half expected a cake to be rolled onto the stage, but that only appeared at the dinner following the concert. Also appearing there was David Robertson, who was in town to lead a gala the next day. He and I don’t know each other very well, but we had a most delightful conversation. Strange to realize that I now head his former orchestra in Lyon and he has mine in Missouri.

It was a lovely week, filled with good music making, good friends and good food. But now it was time to get back to Detroit for what was a very interesting program. Two works by American composers and one of the big piano concertos with a good friend as soloist. Michael Daugherty was composer in residence in Detroit several years ago, but I had not played any works by this Ann Arbor-based composer with my orchestra. Lost Vegas is a three-movement work depicting those early days in Sin City when the Rat Pack prevailed. The piece was great fun and highly appreciated by the audience.

About 30 years ago, I recorded a complete version of Copland’s Billy the Kid. As we neared completion of the DSO project to document the six ballets by this composer, his portrait of the Wild West was on the docket. What a lively and exciting score it is. Certainly the suite has the edge when it comes to straight out, delineated movements, but there are magical portions that Copland omitted in the shorter version. The moment of quiet just before the gunshot ending Billy’s life is one of the most tension-filled passages in all of music. Again, the orchestra was in top form, and I am sure that the disc will be excellent.

Excellent does not begin to describe Garrick Ohlsson’s performance of Rachmaninov’s massive Third Piano Concerto. This was an interpretation of great depth as well as technical mastery. Never overstated and always superbly integrated with the orchestra, there was simply never a let up in emotional content. Collaborations such as these are always a high point for me, as making music at this level with good friends is the greatest pleasure.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one departure from the DSO staff. Alice Sauro, who has served as, well, almost everything over the years, including my assistant, said a tearful goodbye before heading to San Francisco, where her husband landed a plum job. We will all miss her, and I cannot say enough about this incredibly talented woman. I am certain that she will find a fantastic position in the Bay Area.


This month’s recording selection comes from my new favorite label, Real Gone Jazz. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to Orchestra Hall from our home, so there is ample time to listen to many of the fine transfers from this company. Lots of the material comes from recordings made in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Two volumes of performances by Ray Charles were in the CD player during the Detroit weeks. There are four discs in each set.

I had forgotten what a fine jazz pianist he was. The technique is solid and clearly heartfelt. In addition, one disc features Charles on Hammond organ with big band. I could have done without the one album devoted to songs that include women’s names, and one of the few where he does not play a keyboard instrument. But there are also some wonderful singles that I had never heard before. Highly recommended.

See you next month,