October 1, 2013 leonard slatkin

Vacation is over. No more Mai Tais. The only surfing to be done is on the Internet.

I had not seen either of my orchestras since July and missed them both very much. In a way, the true relationships started around the same time. My first three seasons in Detroit were each abbreviated due to outside circumstances, so it was only in September of 2011 that I felt fully in charge. Those two years produced outstanding results with both ensembles and I was eager to see how we would begin the 2013-14 year.

As has become traditional for the ONL, things started off with Festivals. With the Auditorium still closed for repairs, we rehearsed in a space nearby that is usually occupied with the Opera Orchestra. Since they had not started up yet, we took over the facility and I found it quite acceptable. Everyone seemed in good spirits and happy to be making music together again.

We had two programs at Cote St. André, the birthplace of Hector Berlioz. Guess whose music we played there? For the first concert we returned to the Symphonie Fantastique, the piece with which I began my tenure. Now that the orchestra and I were really starting to know each other, many things fell into place quickly. In the interest of transparency, you should know that we did observe the first movement repeat but not the one in the March. Also, the alternative version of the 2nd movement with the cornet solo was not used.

There was a theme that flowed throughout the program. It was something I always wanted to try but somehow never got around to. The Dies Irae, which is heard in the last movement of the Symphonie is well represented in compositions by others. I thought it would be interesting to hear the same tune earlier in the concert and we decided on Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead followed by Liszt’s Totentanz.

Our soloist in the latter was the young French pianist Betrand Chamayou. This piece has fireworks aplenty and he confided in me that this was his first time playing the Liszt. My yardstick for the work has always been the legendary recording with Byron Janis with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Bertrand will certainly grow with this piece but his early instincts seem excellent.

We last encountered the Rachmaninov during our traversal of his works for Piano and Orchestra with Olga Kern a few months earlier. The orchestra had fallen in love with the piece and was still entranced this time around.

Cote St. André is a little over an hour away from Lyon. The Festival attracts a wide audience from various parts of Europe. Last year, we performed the Berlioz Requiem. In order to accommodate the gigantic forces involved, the bleacher like seats for the crowd had been removed and they were seated on the ground. Now the risers were back in place and the whole area is covered with the sides open. This didn’t help much when a torrential storm tore through the area and we had to delay the start of the Berlioz by 15 minutes.

The orchestra was repositioned toward the rear of the shell, as the rain was coming onto the front part of the stage. I am not sure how much of the first movement was actually heard but we marched bravely on and the performance went well.

For our second presentation, we were joined by the French soprano Veronique Gens. She is quite the treasure in her country and it is easy to see why. Her natural way with some songs by Berlioz were a real treat. Dead on intonation and, of course, perfect diction. We did some rarities, including an orchestration of Schubert’s Der Erlkonig. But the highlight was a really wonderful song called “La Captive.”

Scattered as opener and penultimate piece on the first half were the Benvenuto Cellini Overture and Berlioz’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. After intermission we turned to Le Sacre du Printemps, giving the very conservative audience something completely different. Any fears we had of the piece being met with apathy were dispelled when a truly remarkable ovation took place. The orchestra deserved the plaudits as they dug into every aspect of the work with gusto.

Next up was a return trip to La Chaise Dieu. This sleepy town comes to life for several days as musicians make the journey to play in an extraordinary cathedral. It is quite reverberant and certain quick passages blur but the sound is wonderful. Our program consisted of music by Tchaikovsky and Schumann. Cellist Mischa Maisky joined the ONL and in addition to the Rococo Variations, performed his own transcription of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin.

Cindy got quite excited when I told her that we were playing Schumann 3, but that was short-lived as she thought I was talking about William and not Robert. Maybe sometime in the future for the great American but not yet. To play the 4th movement of the “Rhenish” in a cathedral was quite something. I could take a nice spacious tempo and the counterpoint could really be stretched out. This was a truly fine performance by the ONL.

We had a couple days off and decided on a little birthday celebration. September 1 marked my 69th year on the planet. Many people sent notes and my brother found a website that offers a coffin that can be programmed with music which will play for eternity. It would be just my luck that it would get stuck regurgitating the Pachelbel Canon.

Neither Cindy nor I had been to Marseille before and since it is less than two hours away by train, we decided to have a little adventure. The port city is bustling with tourists and has a very fine new museum dedicated to Mediterranean culture. Of course we had to avail ourselves of the local bouillabaisse. Many restaurants offer this fish stew but none does it better than Michael’s Brasserie. Highly recommended if you are in the area.

We returned to Lyon to officially open the new season. It would be my last concert in our temporary home, La Bourse du Travail. The program was the same is at Chaise Dieu but instead of a cool church, we had a stifling, dry venue. The onstage temperature must have gotten into the 85-degree range and we played without jackets. The audience, normally not vociferous regarding Schumann, exploded in delight.

The night before we had dinner with Mayor Gerard Collomb. He is a progressive in the best sense of the word and has done wonders for the city during his twelve years in office. He is up for reelection and Lyon needs him. Mr. Collomb was also at the concert the next night and at a reception, he announced a three-year extension of my contract with the ONL. I could not be happier. Unfortunately, his remarks were just a bit premature, as final approval rests with others at City Hall.

We hit the road again, this time making a quite long journey to Gstaad, Switzerland. This is what Aspen is supposed to be; at least as Swiss ski resort towns go. Cows abound wearing large bells, the sheep are busy with their cheese and there is a bucolic atmosphere pervading the city. The music festival has evolved into something very special, with the orchestral concerts being played in a tent that seats 2,500 persons.

We reprised the Schumann but since the theme for this year was that of water in motion, our opening piece was Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. What a wonderful opening section with its independent line for double basses! I was surprised that I had never conducted the work before. Two other members of the Maisky family joined their father for the Triple Concerto by Beethoven.

Next it was off to London for a couple of days of recording. Anne Akiko Meyers had arranged for four sessions with the LSO to put the concerti by Barber and Bates down, plus a short Lullaby of Corigliano. I had not seen this orchestra in almost 30 years. What a pleasure to work with them again. Clearly very quick on the uptake, they tackled all the scores with panache and goodwill throughout. It will be a marvelous disc.

It was also a chance to catch up with some good friends and meet some others in unusual ways. Mitsuko Uchida was on the plane from Zurich but we did not know that until arriving at baggage claim. At Harrods, I had the privilege of chatting with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. When I asked him what he was doing in London, he replied, “Trying to bring some peace to this troubled world.” Let us all wish him the best.

Some sightseeing with Cindy, nice restaurants and a trip to the theater rounded out this short but productive stay. A new play, Chimerica, is creating a lot of buzz, and it is well-deserved. Using the man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square as the catalyst, this remarkable production should easily find its way to success on Broadway.

For the final week of this European jaunt, it was back to Lyon. We are more than halfway through the Ravel recording project now. Our estimate is that when it is complete, there will be 11 discs, including some music never before recorded. Since the Auditorium is still closed, we headed out to the Conservatoire. There is a smaller hall that seemed to be ideal for a number of songs with orchestra, excluding the cantatas, choral works and larger scale pieces such as Scheherazade. In addition to the songs, we also recorded Ravel’s orchestrations of Debussy and Robert Schumann’s Carnival.

You may be wondering that if we are halfway through, where are the recordings? Well, Volume 2 will be released in about a month. With any luck, the others will appear every 5 or 6 months. I am not sure which pieces will be in Volume 3 but so far, all of us have really enjoyed this project. We will be recording more Ravel, along with Berlioz and Saint-Saëns, later this season.

With Lyon up and running, it was time to get the Detroit season underway.

See you in a few weeks,