October 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

Finally! A chance to spend more than one week with the DSO!

Music directors are supposed to be working with their orchestras on a regular basis. In the previous season, since my appointment in Detroit happened rather quickly, I was only available for five subscription concerts. So, in most ways, this 2009/2010 season is truly my first full year. It is a time of settling in with the new band, getting familiar with how we will work together, and for me to immerse myself in the new environs.

There were many interviews and social events over the first days leading up to the preliminary rehearsal. When the actual day arrived, I was not sure what to expect. The orchestra had not played together for four weeks, and had not been in their home for almost three months. Rather than start with a piece from the first week of concerts, I chose to read through the Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony. This is a work we would play a couple weeks later, as well as commit to disc. It is also one that lends itself to a play-though, with little or no commentary the first time out.

Everyone seemed pleased to be back and they all launched into the big, sprawling piece with gusto. Perhaps we were all a bit too anxious, what with needing to get our chops back. But it was nice to hear the orchestra in this repertoire, one which I have performed virtually all my conducting life.

Then, after intermission, we headed into the Copland 3rd Symphony, which was the major work on the opening concerts. Again, I tried to just play as much as possible without speaking too much. But there was enough time to go back and rehearse the first movement. Now we could deal with balances, ensemble and other matters, in a more detailed way. In the afternoon, I just had the strings for a sectional rehearsal. It must be remembered that most of a conductor’s comments will be to that section, and sometimes it is helpful to get certain passages sorted out, without the winds and percussion sitting around.

As we progressed through the second day, it was clear that the orchestra was coming together very quickly. The sound had a nice heft and roundness, characteristics of the hall as well. Our soloist was Midori, playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. We spent a good deal of time on this, and it wound up paying off, as the performances felt more like chamber music rather than accompanying.

Prior to the concert, I did a chat with about 300 audience members. This year, many of these pre-concert events will actually consist of performances, sometimes with the guest soloist, other times with chamber groups. There is almost nothing worse than talking to people without any music being heard. As it is, we do post concert chats on Friday nights, where the audience can engage in a discussion of what they have just heard.

As for the concert, it was truly amazing! The Dvorak Carnival Overture jostled and sang. Midori was intense and brooding in her performance. And the Copland was a small miracle. Rhythmic security was there, and the range of dynamics was most impressive. Clearly we had hit mid-season stride in the first week.

After such exhilaration, it was possible to let down in week two. But we tried something a bit different. Instead of playing the second subscription concert, the orchestra and I travelled to four different venues around the Detroit area. This was part of a new program, which is funded by the Knight Foundation, to reach out to the community. The first events were in the suburbs of Beverly Hills—yes, we have one too—and Dearborn. Both cities have good halls. Audiences there are not so much different than those we see downtown, but many are reluctant to travel to our home. Judging from the enthusiastic response, I believe that we made some new friends and just might see them at the Max. After that, we played at the headquarters of the Salvation Army. This was quite a different audience for us, with many who had never been to a concert. The stage only permitted us to use the string section, but the program was a nice balance of repertoire. Once again, several of those in attendance said that they hoped to come to our house at some point.

Our final out of home show was for the students of the Detroit School of the Arts. This is a high school where about 500 gifted young people come to study, with a focus on various arts. The really good news for us was that this facility is located directly in back of our orchestra’s hall, so we did not have to travel very far. On the program, which we had played earlier in the week, was The Entertainer, in a less than satisfactory arrangement for orchestra. But it seemed as if everyone in the audience recognized it, perhaps even more than the Star Wars selection. Playing for predominantly African-American spectators made this experience particularly moving.

The final day saw us back at our home base, but with a twist. I have always felt that community outreach is a two-way street. And so the DSO headed to different locations, but the audiences also came downtown to our house. And so it was that we decided to have an outright “Open House” where the facility was thrown open to anyone who called and asked for a free ticket. We had performances in various spaces throughout the building, rehearsals with our youth ensembles and a presentation about the Max M. Fisher Center itself.

The culmination was a concert with the DSO. The first two pieces had been played at each of our programs earlier in the week, the intention being for the audience to hear these same works in different acoustic surroundings. Then we had a remarkable experience. Thirteen year-old Sarina Zhang played the Rococo Variations in a fine, polished performance on the cello. This was a lovely rendition by a major talent. After intermission, she returned to play the solo part in the G-minor Piano Concerto of Mendelssohn. Her musicality was evident in both works, on both instruments, and there is no question that she can become an important player on almost any musical stage.

The concert ended with the 1812 Overture. Our brass section was joined by about 15 young members of the Civic Orchestra. The combination of youth and experience made for an exhilarating afternoon.

I am often asked if classical music makes a difference in the 21st Century. And it is on days – no, weeks – such as this, that I am reminded of the power of what we do. So many people came up to me, speaking of their first time experience with us. Most indicated that if they had the opportunity, they would definitely return. We are now offering very low cost—in some cases, one dollar—tickets. The week also seemed to have had a positive effect on the orchestra, as we all try to find ways to reach more diverse audiences. It is extremely important that we continue the work we have just begun.

The second subscription week followed on the success of the first. The difference was that two of the works we played were recorded for commercial release on Naxos. The Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony is a piece I committed to disc more than 30 years ago. It sold very well back then and we went on in St. Louis to tape all of that composer’s music with orchestra. With an entirely different technology, and different orchestra, it seemed like an interesting idea to do the major works again,

I very rarely listen to one of my own recordings once it has been released, and I did not refer to the old performance on this occasion. Our hall is perfect for this music and the orchestra threw themselves into the sonic bath, with a particularly outstanding contribution from our Principal Clarinetist, Ted Oien. We also finished up a disc of music by Alla Borzova. You may not know the name yet, but you will. Sharon Isbin joined us in the “other” Rodrigo concerto, bringing her incredible variety of colors to this piece. It was an exhilarating week, with wonderful sounds and a delightful set of concerts.

There really was not much to complain about this past month. But perhaps one item should be added to a previous posting. Having learned to live with the Michigan lefts, it has become more apparent that in order to vent their frustration, drivers here take it upon themselves to make left turns on red lights. Over and over I see this going on. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is a one-way street, or even just a normal stop light. And after the final concert of this recording week, I saw a taxi driver do it! Last time I checked, this was illegal. But since everyone seems to do it, I will probably follow suit. With my luck, I will discover what kind of hat the members of the Detroit police force wear.

The Cardinals clinched the pennant and the Tigers are still hanging in there. Even the Lions won a game. Things are pretty good.

See you next month,