September 1, 2009 leonard slatkin

Egad!!! I am 65. Some folks have said that this is the new 45, but I don’t remember that time as being so great either. In any event, August was a fine month before I officially hit old age.

Wrapping up the week at Tanglewood was a concert that helped kick off the celebration of Sir James Galway’s 70th birthday, which is not for another five months. Jimmy and I have been longtime collaborators and there are few musicians who are easier to work with. And the jokes between movements … don’t get me started.

On this occasion, we decided that the program should begin with a work featuring flute, but not with Sir James. The piece was Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Earlier that week, the BSO’s principal flautist, Elizabeth Rowe, had already played the second Daphnis and Chloe Suite by Ravel, La Mer, and the William Tell Overture. Plus, we did the complete Appalachian Spring ballet, another work with extensive flute solos. Elizabeth had been the associate principal flutist in Washington, but we were only privileged to have her for one season.

The second half started off with a commission, utilizing as many flutists as could be found in the Berkshires. The piece was by Derek Bermel and was most attractive. It was also fun to see 40 or so flutists on stage at once. Next it was the Mozart D Major concerto with Jimmy, followed by solo performances featuring friends he had brought over from Ireland. There were several encores and we ended with—what else?—Danny Boy.

I will be doing several celebrations of this event during the upcoming year, and in the process, should have a number of new jokes to add to my stand up routine.

A return to my old stomping grounds, the Hollywood Bowl, was up next. This was a bit more challenging than some previous occasions, as there was only one rehearsal for each of two programs. Not so much trouble for the first one, all-Brahms, with pieces we all know very well. But the second concert had the Joan Tower Made in America as the opener. It is not as easy as one would think, considering that this work was written for smaller orchestras throughout the country. So a lot of very efficient rehearsing had to take place. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was given a dazzling performance by Nicolaj Znaider. I love it when the soloist just wants to have fun and let go. All of us have to be on our toes. It was amusing to read one critic who informed the public that Znaider had no trouble keeping up with me. In reality, a work such as this is entirely up to the soloist, and it is the conductor and orchestra who must keep pace, which we did.

Sibelius’ Second Symphony closed out the concert. Having had a Finnish conductor as music director, the LA Phil certainly knew the work, but in the style now favored by the younger generation. My approach is quite old-fashioned, governed in part by a performance I heard at the Bowl when I was all of 16. It was the same orchestra but conducted by Eugene Ormandy. The composer had said that the Philadelphia Orchestra under Maestro Ormandy was the ideal interpreter for his music. And so I take him at his word. But changing an ingrained approach is not so easy, and with little time, I simply tried to impose my thoughts as clearly as possible. The performance was fine but clearly not every one was on the same page. Well, not literally.

I had decided that I would drive wherever possible on this trip, and my next stop was Santa Barbara, about an hour-and-a-half north of the Bowl. In the summer there has existed in this lovely coastal town an Academy, which lures outstanding teachers and the highest level of students. It is the vocal department that gets the star billing, as it is headed by the indefatigable Marilyn Horne, one of the only people allowed to call me Lennie. Her presence is regal and she remains an inspirational force to her young charges. During my years as a young person in LA, I always knew about the Music Academy of the West, and in particular the conducting teacher, Dr. Richard Lert. There is no more conducting department, but there is a very good orchestra. Our program was not easy: Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a candidate for one of the top 25 in my book, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and the fourth Tchaikovsky Symphony rounded out the concert. One rehearsal per day for six mornings. It came out just fine, with incredible enthusiasm on the part of the players.

The evening prior to my concert, there was a fund raising event in the form of an outdoor cabaret. This brings me to:

Complaint Department 1

No, nothing against cabaret, but rather something that triggered all kinds of discussion that evening.

The show started off with “Libiamo” from La Traviata by Verdi. Following that, every number was primarily a song from a musical. But in those cases, they were listed as, for example, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, or music and lyrics by Hoagy Carmichael. Verdi’s wordsmith was nowhere to be found.

My complaint? Earlier in the month I had read a few blogs regarding why some people criticize opera for not having enough dramatic content. This went to the heart of an issue that has to do with the placement of words before music, or the other way around, as Richard Strauss would try to deal with in Capriccio.

Why is the librettist’s name never in the same size font as the composer? If the words set the whole of a work or aria into motion, shouldn’t those authors be recognized equally? No wonder people are going on about faulty and overly wrought librettos. If we can bring them to the fore, perhaps the words vs. music issue would start to waver. It is silly in the first place. A great work of art is just that and all should get credit. If the words are not as great as the music, then it is not a great opera, merely good. Period.

I ran into a cousin, Robert Aller, son of Uncle Victor. We had lunch and caught up with many family matters. A few will now make their way into the book I am writing. Nice guy and I am glad we have reconnected after almost 40 years.

It is certainly possible to drive to LA, catch a plane to Aspen and leave it at that. But I wanted to use my wheels the entire time, so I started out from Santa Barbara on Sunday morning, travelling about 10 hours and stopping at a place called Green River, Utah. The moment I hit that state’s border, the topography changed and for about three hours, I was treated to nature’s slide show. The sun was just beginning to set and since I was travelling east, the shadows were moving in just the right places. It is a drive everyone should take.

But the same drive got me to:

Complaint Department 2

When will Americans learn to deal with the highways in the same way that our European counterparts have? In other words, it is time to teach our would-be NASCAR champions that you pass on the left and keep slower in the right lane. On a long trip, this non-comprehension of the rules of the road is really annoying, potentially causing accidents and road rage.

I kept my temper, but that did not prevent me from missing the speed trap outside of Green River. Nice policeman though, and I loved the hat.

Arriving in Aspen, for the last leg of my U.S. summer festival circuit, the 9,000 plus mile altitude of the city still exuded its influence. But so did the charm of much of the city. Quite different now then when I was a student there in the 1960’s, Aspen remains a very special place. This year I was closing the Festival with a performance of the Verdi Requiem.

But Aspen is also a place where I get to catch up with friends, as so many musicians populate the town each summer. There were instrumentalists from my orchestras in Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, as well as so many others who play and teach for most of the nine weeks. We all shared anecdotes, jokes and reminded ourselves that the profession of music is still about camaraderie.

Among the pleasures of the school is a conducting academy, headed by David Zinman and Murry Sidlin. I went to the dress rehearsal of their final program, which featured no less than 12 maestros on the podium. The level of talent gets higher every year so even if there are fewer jobs to be had, we do not have to worry about a paucity of baton wavers for the future.

Verdi is frequently criticized as having written another opera in the guise of an oratorio. My own take is that this is simply not so. Yes, the work has arias, duets, etc., but the overall feeling is that this is a through-composed piece of music, which amplifies the text. After all, among virtually any composer who has tried to write a Requiem, who would be more qualified than the Italian master? The performance had a truly magical quality, especially when you consider that there were musicians in the orchestra who were no more than 14 years old.

One very eerie moment occurred the night before the performance. I had gone to dinner in Snowmass, a sort of suburb in Aspen. This is primarily a winter ski resort area, but before it was built up, it was, and still is, a training ground for sled dogs. There is a kennel, called Krabloonik, which still houses the animals, and has come under some heavy criticism for its treatment of the animals. It is easy to see why, when you look at the 150 or so canines that are tethered to their living spaces.

But, as I was leaving the restaurant that is at this location, the sound of a large animal was heard, most likely a bear. A few minutes passed as I drove off and then the dogs started howling. It was as if a chorus of ghosts had begun a wail for the souls of their lost companions.

See you next month,