October 1, 2023 leonard slatkin

A mostly calm and quiet September followed my 79th birthday, but I experienced one moment that made my month.

Not wanting to make a big deal out of turning another year older, I decided to go to a ballgame that evening. Instead of getting the tickets online, I headed to the ballpark’s box office. When I arrived downtown, other than noticing that the once-teeming metropolis that is St. Louis felt more like a ghost town, I went directly to the ticket window.

“It’s my birthday and I want to see the Cards. Any good seats left?”

The reply was courteous, of course. “Yes, we can put you right behind home plate.” Not wanting to be in the catcher’s lap, I said that a few rows back might be better.

Then it was time to pay up. I placed my credit card and ID in the trough under the window. The woman looked at it and asked, “Leonard Slatkin, the conductor?”

“Guilty as charged, literally.”

She called over her co-workers, who heartily congratulated me on my birthday, and we all had a good laugh.

I realized that as nice as it is to be recognized by colleagues and peers, it is so much better to just have the random person on the street know who you are. I have never been interested in stardom or standing out in the crowd, yet this moment was very flattering and humbling at the same time.

The game was terrible, but the seats were terrific.

Those of you who regularly read this column know that I have been hinting at a book project but have not been able to say much about it. The book is now in the production stage, and the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, will announce it a few months prior to its scheduled release in March.

It will be the first volume in a series primarily intended for conductors, those interested in becoming a conductor, or people who want to understand what the score-study process entails. I think will be a valuable addition to the music education catalog.

At the same time, I wound up completing (mostly) a piece of music that will receive its premiere in 2025. The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra asked me to compose something for my next appearance there, and once I knew what they were looking for, the ideas flowed rather quickly.

However, technology has its limits, at least as far as this composer is concerned. Ah, for the good old days of a No. 7 pencil and manuscript paper! There are now several computer programs that allow you to input notes, dynamics, expression marks, and pretty much everything else that goes into a proper score. I would need advanced degrees in both mathematics and physics to figure them all out, but since my calligraphy can only be deciphered by a pharmacist, I use the Finale software.

Right from the first bar, I knew I was in trouble. An offstage piano starts the piece, followed by a crashing, highly dissonant sound from the onstage forces. There is no tempo for the orchestra here—within that first measure, several figurations flitter around at various speeds. This is easy to convey when written out by hand but impossible for me at the non-instrumental keyboard.

At the moment, the piece resides in the hands of an engraver and copyist with whom I will have several discussions, screen-sharing video calls, and email exchanges. Hopefully this person will figure out my intentions and a professional version of the piece will exist in a few months.

Throughout most of September, I had fun with the Big Green Egg. For those of you not in the know, it is a combination barbeque, grill, and smoker. We had some great days weather-wise, so I spent a lot of time on the patio, often forgetting to put gloves on when placing the lumps of charcoal in the basket. Some of the offerings turned out quite well, and I eagerly await the next time I can enjoy the aromas and flavors of the grill.

A nice set of lunches and dinners took place with a few former members of the St. Louis Symphony and its staff. We told some great stories, remarking on how fortunate we were to be part of this rather incredible period of music-making. Many have chosen to remain in the area, and we could probably field a pretty good ensemble if everyone took out their instruments and practiced a little bit.

My first conducting assignment of the new season was in New York at the Manhattan School of Music. Travel from St. Louis can be tricky, but at least we still have a few nonstops to La Guardia and Newark. In addition to experiencing delays due to storms in the East, I saw something that disturbed me at Lambert airport.

In the check-in line was a family of four. The father wore a bright red t-shirt, the front of which contained the following words: “If you are woke, you should go back to sleep.” My initial reaction was to approach him and ask a simple question: “Do you know what ‘woke’ means?” Messages such as the one emblazoned on his chest strike me as the equivalent of emails or texts sent in all caps. The people communicating them are yelling without making the actual sound.

Of course, we all have the right to think and say what we wish, but provocative statements really have no place in an airport. All it takes is for one person to disagree and initiate a confrontation that escalates into violence—not that anyone reading this would behave in an aggressive manner. The air travel experience already has enough stress attached, severely testing the patience of employees and passengers alike, without adding to the potential list of dangerous situations at the airport.

But back to the music. An all-American program was on the menu, with four important statements about society. We rarely think of An American in Paris as a controversial, or even socially conscious, piece. But this seventeen-minute tone poem tells us so much about the culture of the late 1920s, a time when musical tastes were moving from the ragtime world into the swing era. Jazz was still considered forbidden fruit, but its appearance in the concert hall gained traction in subsequent years. Today, we have to decide whether to play this piece in the style de jour or to move things forward.

Since this work comes up several times for me this season, perhaps some of you will tune in to one of the streams or broadcasts to hear my current thoughts on a piece I have performed more than one hundred times.

The performance in New York held special significance. In April 1966, I conducted An American in Paris when I was a student at Juilliard, which at the time was located in the building where MSM currently resides. Although the hall has since been renovated, much of it remains as it was back in the day, including the dressing room. Fifty-seven years later, I was back in the venue where I performed what was probably my most important concert in those formative years.

My teacher, Jean Morel, who rarely had anything good to say to his young charges, was forced to admit to me, “Slatkeen, it was not bad.” That was the highest praise I ever got from him, and I treasured the moment. Maybe someday I will actually listen to the tape that was made from that concert. Hopefully, Morel was right.

In his final years, Edward Kennedy Ellington began to compose works for orchestra. Some, such as Harlem, utilize a big band with full orchestral forces. His last piece, left incomplete, is titled Three Black Kings. In this case, they are Balthazar, Solomon, and Martin Luther.

The piece was completed by Duke’s son, Mercer. There are two versions, one by Ellington’s longtime arranger Luther Henderson, and the other by conductor Maurice Peress. The latter uses a few jazz musicians, and this edition was a great fit for MSM, which boasts a fine jazz department. We placed the jazz students in the orchestra, bringing the two disciplines together.

A piece that pairs nicely with the Gershwin, in terms of contrast, is the Second Symphony by Alan Hovhaness. “Mysterious Mountain” is the most popular of the composer’s sixty-seven published works in that form. I premiered the forty-seventh. I believe it sounded a lot like the forty-sixth. The one we played is a great exercise in modality, counterpoint, and beautifully voiced chordal structures. If you are unfamiliar it, I recommend listening to the wonderful recordings by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony and Gerard Schwarz with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

It made sense to include a more contemporary view of social mores on the program, as depicted in The B-Sides by Bay Area composer Mason Bates, whose career I have championed from its beginning. Usually when I have performed this work, Mason has been on hand to contribute by playing electronica, mostly on his laptop computer. But we could manage by having a percussionist press a couple buttons to cue up the rhythms and sounds that enhance this most entertaining piece.

I will head back to MSM in March, when the students will be joined by several members of the New York Philharmonic. This side-by-side performance is now an annual event at the school, and everyone learns a lot during the preparation and performance period.

Cindy and I go home for a week before the calendar gets really busy. Lots of wonderful programs and places to visit. I just hope I do not run into the guy in the red shirt.

See you next month,