It was homecoming month for me, with three of the five orchestras I led as music director on the docket. Over three consecutive weeks I conducted in St. Louis, Detroit, and Lyon. Only D.C. and the BBC were missing. But these three reunions were certainly enough to reestablish longstanding connections.
Now that we reside close to Powell Hall, travel expenses to get there are kept to a minimum, and the musical pleasures hit maximum stride in each performance. Although I had seen and conducted several members of the SLSO in smaller-scale programs, this was the first time we were all together onstage for a full-fledged program since the pandemic began.
Just as it was great to see so many of my friends at Powell Hall, it was equally wonderful to perform a couple of pieces written by composers quite dear to me. Joan Tower was one of my composers in residence when I was music director, and her work Made in America set the tone for the remainder of the program. Her take on the song “America the Beautiful” remains powerful and typical of her unique compositional style.
I suppose one could argue that Made in America is sort of neo-Stravinsky, but in fact, she creates her own harmonic and melodic language throughout this piece as well as virtually all her compositions. From my perspective, this trait, which seems to be fast disappearing among the current crop of composers, is vital to the growth of new music. Individuality may be inspired by previous composers, but materials are reimagined to form the basis of a unique sound and style. With Joan, it is always clear from the first few bars that no one else could have written this music.
The same could easily be said of the next composer on the program, William Bolcom. Probably the most eclectic composer on the planet, Bill has the rare ability to move easily from one musical style to another, whether writing a Renaissance melody or ’50s rock-and-roll tune. His violin concerto, performed by SLSO concertmaster David Halen, is a perfect blend of lyricism and virtuosity, featuring not only the capabilities of the soloist but the agility of the orchestra as well.
Everyone onstage and in the audience was completely engaged. It is a shame that more violinists have not taken up this piece, as it represents a wonderful combination of entertainment and intellect. David played superbly, as usual, with great flair for the various stylistic changes that occur throughout the concerto.
These days, almost every new piece of music arrives on my desk in a computerized fashion. The scores all have a similar look, and I do not see the ease or struggle of composition. Bill still writes his scores out, and sometimes I feel the need to take the music to a pharmacist to figure out what the notes might be. But I love this. You can easily imagine his brain at work as he decides what comes next. It adds a true personal touch to the study process, as if the composer is really communicating directly to the conductor.
The second half contained the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, a work orchestral musicians love to play. Ever since its premiere in 1944, the piece has become a mainstay for virtually all major ensembles, and it remains one of the great show-off pieces for conductors as well. Everyone in St. Louis gave their all, and one musician went above and beyond the expectations of today.
Starting in the late 1960s, two forms of relief came into play for orchestral musicians. With longer seasons and larger rosters, principal players began taking time off and letting assistants perform in their place. In both the strings and winds, when it comes time for the concerto, a new set of players emerges, and the principals often sit those pieces out. Sometimes it makes sense, especially for the brass if the big work on a program has a lot for them to do.
The other situation occurs when one of the orchestra members appears as the soloist in the concerto. Typically, this musician will only perform that piece and not play anything else on the program. This was not the case with David Halen, who returned to the stage to take his place as concertmaster for the Bartok. In my entire career, this has only occurred a couple of times, once when the great principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra, John Mack, played a concerto by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and then performed in the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony as well as Rimsky’s Russian Easter Festival Overture.
This is how it used to be, prior to the ’60s. One has to wonder how all those wonderful bands, such as the United States Marine Band or the groups coming out of Texas, manage to play difficult programs with no substitutes or alternates. It was exceptional to have David show that it can be done.
Maybe a substitute conductor should be considered. If I have Mahler’s First Symphony on the schedule, perhaps the assistant conductor could do the Beethoven Piano Concerto on the first part of the program. Seems logical to me.
After this exhilarating week, I headed to see former ensemble number two, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The last full rehearsal I did prior to the pandemic was with them, and we were preparing Carmina Burana. I remember thinking that if the coronavirus turned into a full-blown plague, I would not care for this to be the last piece I ever conducted.
As with St. Louis, we featured two composers who are longtime friends and true legends in American music. First up was Samuel Adler. His name may not be quite as familiar to concertgoers these days, but his influence is about as important as it gets. At age 93, he is still composing, teaching, and mentoring the next generations of musicians. I wanted to honor him for everything he has meant to American music. We were able to secure the world premiere of Mirror Images, a four-movement work indicative of his musical style.
What a treat to have this legend attend the rehearsals and concerts. We were able not only to play his music but also to listen to his numerous stories of a more-than-full life. There are not so many connections left these days to the time when our musical history was defined by the likes of Copland, Schuman, Harris and so many others. May he continue to flourish and give all of us his counsel and wisdom.
One of his former charges also had a world premiere on the program. Both were at the Eastman School of Music, with Sam supervising the composition department when the young Joseph Schwantner was brought onto the faculty. Joe and I go back to those glory days in St. Louis. He was my first composer in residence, and over all these years, I have continued to champion his music.
A few years ago, he sent me a message that he was writing a violin concerto and was looking for a place to premiere it. I did not know the violinist who would be giving the first performance, but I trusted Joe and knew that he would not take on something like this without having ultimate faith in the performer.
Yevgeny Kutik turned out to be a real discovery with incredible musicianship, flawless technical prowess and (even though he was very lightly amplified) a big, generous sonic palette. The concerto, in two movements and a bit longer than half an hour, is one of the most impressive new pieces I have led in a long time. It holds the performers and audience in a kind of hypnotic trance and as is usual with Joe’s music, has an incredible range of colorful sounds.
It is my hope that we get to perform it several more times together. The concerto is difficult, but once the various rhythmic patterns are understood, I think it can be done comfortably by many orchestras. Check out the video from the livestream on DSO Replay. You will be astounded.
On a side note, one of my theory teachers at Juilliard, Vincent Persichetti, used to end his lessons by asking the students questions, causing us to race to the library to discover the answers. The Schwantner concerto gave me a new one to pose to those of you who enjoy little musical puzzles. Here it is:
The two-movement violin concerto is rare but not limited to Joe’s piece. Can you name four others that follow this formula?
After the intermission, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony concluded the evening. Fortunately, the parts used by the musicians had all the markings I utilized the last time we played this piece together. Even though, for reasons that are affecting most orchestras today, numerous substitute musicians were playing with the orchestra, everyone focused, and we gave terrific performances of this staple. I tried out a few new ideas; some worked, and a couple seemed a bit over the top. My basic thoughts about the piece have not really changed all that much over the years.
There are a couple big changes on the Orchestra Hall stage. The new music director, Jader Bignamini, has placed the celli on the outside right. I used to put the violas there. This is certainly the conductor’s prerogative, and I am sure the orchestra will adjust comfortably. The other difference is a bit more extreme. Risers have been installed, built after many hours of deliberation. All the winds and percussion now sit above and behind the strings.
It is way too early to know what the long-range impact of this change will be. Everyone must get used to the new formation, with the horns on the extreme left rear and the other brass separated on the right. The members of the wind section love this new setup. They can hear each other and the strings more easily. It also provides the audience seated on the main floor with a clearer view of the orchestra as a whole.
The sound of the orchestra is also a bit different from what everyone was used to for the past several years. Since I could not go into the hall and conduct the orchestra at the same time, it is not for me to pass judgement on the sonic differences. Often, what one hears onstage is actually not the same as what is audible to the audience.
Jader is taking some bold steps, and I wish him all the best going forward.
It was with a bit of trepidation that we embarked on our first transatlantic trip since the pandemic began, one of the longest stretches away from home in a very long time. Maybe the correct word should be tripidation.
As we flew across the Atlantic, I realized that this would be the third orchestra in a row where I served as music director. Lyon constituted six of the happiest years of my career, and I was truly excited to be returning after almost two years. As it turned out, this was also the first concert the orchestra was giving at full strength, having performed with smaller ensembles or distancing requirements that made it impossible for everyone to play at the same time.
As with several but not all orchestras, the ONL is starting off with programs that contain no intermission. I have forgotten what the first half was originally going to contain, but now it was just the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony. Just? At a little over an hour, it is one of the most intense pieces of music that exists. The work is among my favorites to conduct, possibly because it totally encapsulates everything the composer stood for. As a vehement but abstract statement about the futility of war, it stands as a direct opposite of the symphony that came before it. There is no victory to celebrate in the Eighth.
The orchestra was magnificent in every respect. At first, the sheer joy of being back together produced a bit more exuberance in terms of volume, but as we got down to the business of rehearsing, things came together as if our partnership had never ended. It was moving to see so many people come to the Auditorium for this not-so-often-played masterpiece.
The next day, we had a brief concert as part of the orchestra’s Expresso series. These usually have some familiar fare for the lunchtime crowd, but this time it was different. I was asked to select one piece from the French romantic period that had been mostly overlooked. Henri Rabaud’s La procession nocturne is a lovely work that has bits of Liszt, Franck and Wagner but is skillfully blended and orchestrated to create a rich, atmospheric tone. The members of the orchestra did not know this piece but really enjoyed playing it.
This week also heralded a convention of double-reed players from the EU. I had visions of oboists and bassoonists hanging out at bistros and bars, swapping stories about making reeds. Originally, we were supposed to perform the Strauss Oboe Concerto, but that went away about three weeks before our performance due to the unavailability of the soloist. In its place, I suggested another work for a double-reed instrument, John Williams’s wonderful Five Sacred Trees for bassoon and orchestra. One of the two principals from the ONL, in this case Olivier Massot, delivered a rapturous account of this marvelous piece. All the signature Williams trademarks exist in his concert works, too, not just the film scores. He continues to amaze with invention and a sense of color that very few can match.
With three weeks of programs that each contained at least one big piece, it was quite a way to start up again. For much of the pandemic, the instrumentalists and singers could, at least, practice. This was not possible for conductors, as I do not think many of us want a full orchestra in our living rooms. Getting back into physical and mental shape was not so easy, and I was grateful that the next week would be free. But there are some large-scale pieces after that, so I cannot let the sore arms bother me too much.
See you next month,