October 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

A café by the river Rhône. Sunny September skies. The sounds of many languages floating in the air. It is Lyon and the start of a beautiful relationship.

Although it should really be called “The City Where Cholesterol Is King,” Lyon is my second home now and this was the first time I would see my new orchestra as its music director. I had guest conducted here five times previously and each was a wonderful experience. The position had been offered to me quite a while ago but due to administrative changes it took some time to effect a contract. But that is long past and we were off and running with a bang.

Originally there had been a plan to do a free outdoor concert as the opening salvo. For reasons that are still unclear to me this was not possible so we decided to use the extra time to make some recordings. At the first session I was greeted with a very generous round of applause from the members of the orchestra. My usual no-nonsense approach kicked in and after a brief thank you, we launched into the Symphonie fantastique. How nice to do this with an orchestra that knows the ins and outs of the piece so well. I had my own touches to add, and these seemed to go down well with everyone.

That first day was just for rehearsing. After that all the services would be used for recording purposes. The producer was Tim Handley, who had done several sessions with me in the past. He had also overseen the nine-disc Debussy cycle, which the orchestra had recorded under its previous music director, Jun Märkl. We were all on comfortable ground. When I gave the downbeat on the second day, the orchestra launched into Happy Birthday, as number 67 had arrived.

Let me digress for a second to thank all of you who sent me greetings and notes on Facebook, emails, cards, and letters. Please do not think these go unnoticed. Each one is an important reminder of friends and colleagues.

After getting some balances in check, we started recording. On the first day we were able to complete three movements. Absolutely no problems. And the next day we finished not only the symphony—including the alternate version of the second movement—but the Corsaire Overture as well. For those of you who need to know, the “other” movement includes an ad-lib cornet part that Berlioz wrote for the distinguished trumpet pedagogue Jean-Baptiste Arban. We also utilized four harps as well as a heavy set of cast iron bells made specifically for this piece and the orchestra in Lyon.

This disc will be issued by Naxos and is the start of a Berlioz cycle of sorts. Next year we will record the Requiem, and the following season Harold en Italie as well as other overtures. The composer has a connection to Lyon, and there is an annual festival that takes place near the city.

With another day of services ahead of us, we embarked on another cycle, this one featuring the music of Ravel. Considering that the venue in which we play is named Auditorium Maurice Ravel, it is only logical that the orchestra record a complete cycle of his music. It includes all the orchestral works, both with and without soloists, the two operas, transcriptions made by Ravel as well as orchestrations of works the composer did not complete himself. The project will take about five years to complete.

During the course of recording I was reminded of all those musicians in the 60’s and 70’s who kept insisting that Debussy was far superior and that Ravel lacked melodic gift. Nonsense. Every bar by Ravel leaps off the page in sonic splendor as well as invention. Even some of the lesser-known works have delights in almost every bar. Perhaps it is not infused with the same intellectual prowess of Debussy, but that really does not matter. Ravel’s music is certainly the equal of any and it is an honor to be able to commit these compositions to disc, download, or concert.

When the week was over there was no question that the orchestra and I had a bond. Smiles abounded and everyone enjoyed the hard work we had done. My recording method is to be as compact as possible, not wasting one second of precious microphone time. I listen to the first take with members of the orchestra and then do not return to the sound booth, letting the producer take the reins. This means that we play for almost the entire session other than the usual break time.

Daniel was with me for this first week. After his triumph in engineering at the Hollywood Bowl—see last post—he chose to spend some of his time at the piano. I was able to arrange a couple of lessons at the Conservatoire with the dean, Géry Moutier. For some reason, this seemed to have inspired Daniel and he would go to the piano on his own, sometimes practicing for three hours with no pause.

Even after three weeks of French classes in Detroit, I still felt awkward using the language. As you will have noticed, I cannot even figure out how to put those accents in the typewritten words, but I did manage pretty well with the orchestra. After all, what do conductors have to tell them? Faster, slower, louder, softer, longer, shorter. That is about it. My un, deux, trois’s are better than my A, B, C’s. After a few days, I could get around fairly well simply because the language was all around me. Most musicians speak a bit of English, and the days of the French sticking their noses up at anyone who did not do the native thing are over.

Some of you have asked, “What happened to the complaint department?” Given the travails of the past year or so, I decided to stop whining. However once in a while, something will occur that prompts the reappearance of my griping. This is not actually a complaint but is worth putting in.

On my third day in France, I started getting messages on my phone from Betty. At first she asked where I was. Then she wondered what time I would call. Next she got annoyed that I had not responded. Daniel and I were both amused and let her go on for a couple more messages. Neither of us knows the woman, but if we acknowledge that she has been sending texts to the wrong number, we give away our phone number! A true Catch-22. There must be a way to block these but the number that was called still appears on the sender’s phone. I wish all the best for Betty in her search for happiness.

Meanwhile, week two also saw us recording more Ravel. For the record—no pun intended as there are no records anymore—here are the pieces we committed to posterity:

Alborada del Grazioso
Pavane for a Dead Princess
Minuet Antique
Rhapsodie Espagnole
Habanera (an orchestration of a vocal work)
Une Barque sur l’Océan
Mother Goose (complete ballet)
Shéhérazade Overture
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales

Whew! And we were going to start Tombeau de Couperin but that seemed like overkill. As it was, we had to start rehearsing for the two opening programs of the season that would take place next week. Yes, there were four concerts with two different sets of repertoire. The first would be mostly pieces we had been recording so there would be little problem putting them back together. The other program consisted of Mahler Symphony No. 2.

All of us felt that it was time to get out of the studio and start playing for the public again. After all the French repertoire, there was some relief in the gigantic Viennese blockbuster, but it required a complete shift of gears. Once again the orchestra surprised me with a true understanding of the style and sound.




Walking around town, it was somewhat disarming to see my picture on busses, posters, and bicycles advertising the new season. There were even street signs put up welcoming me to Lyon. A few people on the street seemed to recognize me from these photos but most just went about their lives normally. The concept of marketing an orchestra is relatively new to European thinking but more and more are adopting principles long held in the States. With the competition from all areas of the entertainment industry it is truly important to reach as many people as possible, even if they do not come to the performances.

By the end of the second week, Cindy had arrived, fresh from a successful first round with chemotherapy. No real weakness had set in and the physical damage was minimal. It is good to have her here and feeling well.

We attended a memorial ceremony at the Parc d’or, in commemoration of 9/11. It was a partly cloudy day and not a plane was to be seen in the sky. The mayor of Lyon spoke as well as a 13 year-old Franco-American student. The most memorable moment was when the consul general said, “We are September 12.”

It was back to business the next day. A rehearsal with our opening night soloist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet went well. He is a very vivacious character and the Ravel G Major suits his abilities well. That evening I saw the chorus, lead by Bernard Tetu. Although we only have 120 voices for the Mahler, they seem to produce enough sound to cut through the gargantuan orchestra.

Prior to each concert there was a discussion with the audience about the program. I struggled to speak a little French but gave up after a while. Where I did not relent was at the concert itself. There had been posters, signs, and even a traffic indicator welcoming me to Lyon. All this helped bolster sales. By the time of the performance, we had most of the large auditorium filled. The concert was broadcast on medici.tv and it will be on their website for a couple months. [Click here to watch the broadcast.]

At the conclusion there was quite an ovation from the audience. I had been bienvenued by the public. It continued for quite a while and eventually I took the concertmaster’s hand and led the orchestra off the stage. By this time, about 18 people from Detroit had arrived and they would be seen at a lunch the next day.

Meanwhile, I was cementing my relationship with the mayor, probably the person who determines the financial fate of the auditorium and orchestra. He was in attendance for the second performance and gave a lovely speech to the audience. I was very moved. At a reception following, he continued to be gracious and it is clear that I have a strong ally. This concert was amazing!

The first two programs were a great opening for the season, but everyone, including me, was a little anxious as to how it would go after spending so much time recording. By the second night, we all just went out and had a ball. Both the orchestra and audience were rapt when the distant storm of the third movement took place. I put the timpani off stage, to help insure that it did not rain on the platform. It is an eerie effect and put everyone in their most silent mode.

By the end of this performance the audience simply went nuts. Cheering, screaming stamping and whistling, very uncharacteristic for the audiences here in Lyon. It was more than just touching. I was overwhelmed.

At the reception following the concert, a giant block of chocolate was unveiled welcoming me to Lyon. I had to chop it up but everyone ate some. It was like breaking off a piece of the Berlin Wall, without taking years to accomplish. Members of the American Embassy were there and a lot of good connections were made between the DSO patrons and local representatives. We hope to establish regular visits between the two cities.

It was a tough weekend. With two performances of the Ravel/Berlioz program under our belts, we had to return to the Auditorium the next day for the dress rehearsal of the Mahler. This set of performances was being recorded for possible release on a new label created by the orchestra. We had to play through the entire work for balances and early taping. The performance itself was only six hours later, which meant that we would play Mahler 2 twice in the one day.

The concert was quite amazing. Very focused and intense playing from everyone. Many people commented on how the orchestra had changed in such a short time. The ovation seemed to go on forever, and I felt truly welcomed.

There was one dramatic moment that could only occur in a hall such as this. At rehearsals we discovered that the off-stage music sounded best when the doors that cover the organ pipes were closed. This meant that we had to figure out a way to open them for the grand entrance of the beast. So about a minute and a half before the organ plays, the panels started spreading slowly, completely revealing the instrument about ten seconds prior to its first notes being sounded. In addition, we added some silver/green light. Yes, it was a bit Hollywood, but jaw-dropping.

I was fortunate to have two outstanding soloists, the soprano Camilla Tilling, and mezzo Sascha Cooke. The latter also sang Ravel’s Kaddish, a ravishing setting of the Hebrew pray for the dead. The work makes a perfect introduction to the Mahler and allows latecomers to be seated prior to the start of the symphony.

The final day saw a repeat performance in the afternoon, followed by a “patch” session to insure that we had gotten mistakes, audience noise and other imperfections out of the way for the recording. Cindy and I boarded a late train to Paris, feeling elated and knowing that we had found our second home.

Now it is back to Detroit and the opening of the season. I am so fortunate to have two outstanding orchestras with which to make music on a regular basis. There is much work to be done in each city but the groundwork has been laid in both. I cannot wait to see my musicians back in the States.

And if I need a French language fix, Canada is just a few minutes away across the river.

See you in a few weeks,