November 1, 2023 leonard slatkin

The road beckoned, and I travelled west and east for what I hoped would be lovely sets of concerts. That wish has so far come true, but the intrusions on beauty by events taking place at home and abroad prevented total immersion in the music.

Over and over, I kept wondering what those of us who practice our art in public could do as war broke out in Gaza. And as usual, there was no answer. Organizations and individual artists can make statements, but ultimately we are powerless to do much more than offer some sort of diversion for a little while to those who attend our performances. The audience comes to the concert hall or opera house to escape the outside world. And, to an even greater degree, so do my fellow musicians, who work tirelessly to get to the heart and soul of the music we play.

The first stop was Portland, Oregon. It had been fifty years since I had visited this orchestra, formerly known as the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and now as simply the Oregon Symphony. Eileen Farrell was the soloist back in 1973 for concerts at the Civic Auditorium, where we performed selections from The Twilight of the Gods, including “Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene.”

At a restaurant following the first performance of this visit, a diner came up to me and said he played in the orchestra all those years ago. His recollection was that we did Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Half a century can play tricks on the mind, however. I do remember also visiting the city for a concert with an all-state orchestra, perhaps in 1973 as well. And I know that I have a recording from that performance, which I will have to look for when I return home.

The seven-week conducting journey this fall is particularly worthwhile because all the programs contain interesting material. Revisiting masterpieces is perhaps the most satisfying advantage of experience. I will lead only one piece I have never conducted before. And, as you will read in a little bit, this work is surprising.

For the Oregonians, we presented Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology as the main course. I performed this for the first time last season in St. Louis, and it is also scheduled for next year in Vancouver. At this point, I try to avoid programming any given work just one time. And, in almost every case, the composers I choose to perform are those who have been in my repertoire for a long time. Mason came to my attention almost twenty years ago, and I have enjoyed his unique way of manipulating material and creating his own musical voice.

The animals in question are mythical beasts and thereby open to interpretation. They cry, slither, roar, and conjure up quite a riot of sound. This piece forgoes the electronic elements that are often found in Mason’s music. The thirty minutes whizzed by, and the audience loved it. From the first rehearsal, it was clear that the musicians were already well-prepared individually. Their level of musicianship was indeed high throughout all the pieces on the program. Particular kudos go to the two solo violinists, the clarinet duo, and the timpanist, who played on eighteen different drums.

The program opened with the Third “Leonore” Overture by Beethoven. These days, my approach to the piece is a little freer than in years past, with more variety in the tempo based on how the different fragments occur in the opera. For those of you who know it, I do not slow down prior to the offstage trumpet entrance. The whole point is that this is supposed to be a surprise, so why give it away?

Again, the orchestra was outstanding, and the rehearsals proceeded with everyone really immersed in the music.

Our soloist was cellist Joshua Roman, whom I worked with last season when he played Don Quixote on the same bill as Mason’s piece in St. Louis. This time around, he performed the now-ubiquitous Elgar concerto. I say that out of respect for a work that was not all that popular until the famous recording by Jacqueline du Pré appeared in the 1960s. Since then, virtually every cellist has taken it up, and it now rivals the Dvořák as the most-played concerto for that instrument.

With overtones of WWI hovering, our performance had the somber character needed to present this work in the context of our time. We had the luxury of three performances, each with subtle differences that allowed us to re-explore several passages as we traversed the concerto.

As an encore, Joshua presented his own arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which he both played and sang. After the Bates, we performed my father’s Carmen’s Hoedown, complete with a vociferous “yee-haw” voiced by a second violinist.

After a two-day layover at home, Cindy and I headed for Europe, making our first stop in Valencia, Spain, a city with much more to offer than paella and oranges. When I was last there a little over two years ago, the concert hall was undergoing a renovation. The week before I arrived this time, the new one had opened. It is a fine venue with sparkling acoustics. It will take a little while before everyone knows just how to adjust to the sound, but the orchestra itself is terrific.

The program was not easy.

During my visit, the Mostra de València film festival was underway, and the orchestra wanted a program that reflected visual content. I opted for some unusual selections. The first half contained the Overture to Korngold’s The Sea Hawk, followed by a borrowed work popularized on screen. György Ligeti would have been 100 this year, and it seemed appropriate to turn to his seminal Atmosphères, brought to international fame with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had not done this work in a long time and was pleased to find that it continues to cast an amazing spell over musicians and listeners.

After that, we tackled a work taken from a film and fashioned into a suite. On the Waterfront was Leonard Bernstein’s only venture into Hollywood, and it was not a particularly happy trip, but it did produce a great film and outstanding score. The suite synthesizes all the thematic elements and has the same structure as Copland’s Billy the Kid. The orchestra enjoyed getting to know the piece, and several members said that after the first rehearsal, they watched the movie. I wonder if the youngest orchestra members even know who Marlon Brando was.

Although not intended for the big screen, Ottorino Respighi’s tone poems can easily be described as cinematic. They evoke exactly what the composer intends, and it is impossible not to envision some sort of imagery as the music progresses. There was not enough time to do all three “Roman” ones, but Pines and Fountains were certainly enough.

The latter work was appearing on a program of mine for the first time. Having known it since I was a child, I have no idea what took me so long to perform this marvelous piece. You would think it would have been a natural fit with my musical predilections. But here it was, brand spanking new and a pleasure to conduct. In their new hall, the brilliance of the orchestration came through loud and clear. And the Appian Way saw the army march full throttle, complete with organ and extra brass.

Leaving aside the horrific wars and ineptitude of government, spending hours in the presence of great music provided much-needed relief. With wonderful programs on the horizon, I can only hope that the musical goodwill continues through these next five weeks.

See you next month,