Before our monthly update, it seems like time to think about the world in which we live. I am writing this a few hours before heading to JFK for my six-week European tour. October will seem like a distant memory in a few days, but how far can we go to be away from the hatred and enmity that exists on this horrifically troubled earth?
Predictions of the impending catastrophe of global warming started fueling the fire of divisive rhetoric and indecision this past month. Then there was the ugly spectacle of seeing victims being torn down because they told their stories of harassment and attack. The #MeToo movement appeared to be gaining momentum, but this moved to the back burner quickly.
Just a few blocks away from our lodgings in Manhattan, evacuations due to packages with incendiary devices caused a massive search for answers with conspiracy theories popping up in haste with no evidence to support them. With potential life-threatening consequences to politicians and journalists, as well as any others in the crossfire, there was a palpable sense of anxiety in the Big Apple.
Less than 24 hours later, as we were packing up for our trip, the news out of Pittsburgh was terrifying, but sadly, part of the fabric of our society today. The acts of individuals and fringe groups make each of us look even more regularly over our shoulders. We do not know what is next. And none of us has any reasonable solution, including me.
Have we come to the point where the sacrifice of certain freedoms is inevitable? Will we be reporting anything that seems odd or suspicious, only to learn that we might be hurting good people unintentionally? Is the level of vitriol and hate at a point where we cannot return to a civilized discourse? Has our constitution become outdated, making the great American democracy an experiment in failure? While we constantly are told that “we are stronger than this,” is this really true?
With these and so many more questions and fears, I could still look back as well as ahead, reminding myself that it is possible to bring something positive to groups and individuals. For brief periods of time, escaping into the world of abstract music making at the very least takes us out of these horrors and atrocities. Sometimes we use the notes to reflect on events that affect us all. But for the most part, we can take people into special worlds, reminding us that great art endures.
Those worlds can sometimes bring us into conflict within our own beliefs. The first engagement of the month was a return to Detroit, where I am now the Music Director Laureate. That means that I do not really do much in the way of administrative decisions but continue to help out where I can as the orchestra searches for a new leader. As is the case with most orchestras, the opening concerts begin with the National Anthem. Last season, I questioned that practice in the wake of the acts by football players and their own reaction to what many believe to be racially inflammatory actions taking place throughout our country. I decided that the ramifications of eliminating this, especially since it was listed in the program, would do more harm than good.
This season, I found myself in the same dilemma as our opening concert coincided with the rancor over the appointment of a Supreme Court judge. Regardless of how one felt about the eventual confirmation, the process was appalling to watch. It was not a time to be proud of our leadership, and once again, the anthem seemed inappropriate on this particular day. But again, everyone knew that we were going to play it, and so we did. Perhaps it is time to examine why we perform this and what it really means.
But everything else was wonderful. In recent years, I have been returning to a few composers who were significant in the musical world, particularly in the middle of the century. It was time to resurrect a highly influential work and help put Donald Erb’s name back in front of the public. The Seventh Trumpet was played more than 200 times during the work’s first years in existence. With a whole new set of musical sounds, mostly produced on conventional instruments, Donald was literally instrumental in changing the sonic landscape of music in the United States.
One of my composition teachers, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, used to say that “music needed to have three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm.” As the Sixties drew to a close, composers such as Ligeti, Penderecki, Crumb and Erb added a fourth—sound. Both serious and playful, The Seventh Trumpet was a joy to present in all its extravagant glory. Maybe for some it seemed like a remnant of a long-forgotten past, but for many, this music was fresh and energizing.
Gil Shaham joined the DSO for the First Concerto by Prokofiev. Always engaging and in touch with all the musical elements of this remarkable score, Gil is one of the most communicative of artists. His tone and virtuosity were on display throughout, and all of us were fully in sync with this artist. A few months ago, we lost a valued and courageous member of the orchestra. Ron Fischer died this past summer, and as he battled the most severe forms of cancer, he would always come to work with a positive attitude. During one of our performances, Gil and the orchestra played the Meditation from Thais, commemorating this incredible individual.
After intermission, it was on to a piece that, very surprisingly, I had never performed with the DSO. Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations has long been a specialty of mine, probably one of the five or so most performed major works in my repertoire. Bringing it to my former orchestra was exciting and very detailed. Everyone was in great form for all three performances, and I felt that I had set the table well for all the visiting maestri, one of whom may become my successor.
Following ten days off at home, Cindy and I flew up to Toronto to see the new opera by Rufus Wainwright. Hadrian tells the story of the Roman who had to deal with the conflict with Jews and Nazarenes as well as his own sexual ambiguity. Thomas Hampson was the title character and Karita Mattila was another extravagant piece of casting. The production was engaging to watch, and I felt that if the acts had been presented in a different order, with the needed textual changes and a few musical cuts, the work had promise.
Next it was down to DC, but not for an appearance with the NSO. About a year and a half ago, my recording producer, Blanton Alspaugh, had told me about the Kastalsky Requiem Project he was involved with.
With four choruses, two soloists, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the performance at the National Cathedral, this truly qualified as an “event.” Originally, we were supposed to do it also in New York and Kansas City, but financial constraints prevented that. Fortunately, we recorded the performance and are hoping that some enterprising company will pick it up for release. This was an act of passion for all of us, and the work deserves further hearings. It is a War Requiem before there was one from Britten.
A quick train ride brought me to NYC for the first of my two weeks’ work with the students at the Manhattan School of Music. The Conductors’ Project, now in its third year, saw two young maestros leading works with soloists. This is a neglected area when it comes to teaching, and it is also the most difficult to assimilate. With instant feedback from the orchestra, my two charges came a long way between the first rehearsal and the performance.
I took charge with Harold in Italy, being reminded that this is a unique and incredible work that really needs to be heard more often. The musicians gave their all, and even in the Riverside Church’s quite reverberant acoustic, they gave it as much clarity as possible. A good-sized audience greeted and cheered the protagonist, violist Devin Moore, who dispatched the itinerant Childe Harold with aplomb and sophistication.
There was time to see some friends and family during the five days in the city. As we prepared to depart for Lyon, the sight of the New York skyline once again took on a symbol for our troubled times. The buildings stand strong, new ones replace relics, and people try to go about their daily lives. But each day brings new challenges and questions. I am just a musician, trying to do something good, but as with many in the States and around the world, there is a frustration and anxiety that seeps into our beings. What can we do? How much longer can our leaders stand by and offer empty thoughts and prayers? Why can’t we feel safe in this stronghold of democracy?
When the month began, it was about climate change. As we came to the end of October, the word climate described everything that has been taking place. And, as with the forces of nature, that change is also global.
See you next month,