One big plus of doing an opera is that there is a lot of free time once you start performances. In fact, with the new/old Spratlan opus, we had one stretch of eight days off. This gave me a chance to do things I normally do not have time for during the concert season.
In the process of writing my book, I have needed to do a great deal of research. Very gradually I am figuring how to manipulate around the net, looking for small details, quotes or information I might need. At one point, I do not remember how or why, this little item popped up, but it prompted a somewhat amusing chuckle from me.
This photo was taken during one of the National Symphony’s Residencies. I was rehearsing a band, as part of the project included going into schools and doing some work. Someone on EBay is offering this for almost $40! And it is referred to as “classic”! After a bit more digging, I found that various unsigned pictures are going for around $12.
I have written before about autograph hounds, especially in Japan. Sometimes I will be asked to sign up to 25 CD covers for one person. This leads me to wonder what these people do with them. Are they waiting for me to exit the world? How much will the price go up or down? It also seems that these would be more valuable if the signatures are not inscribed to the person who has requested them. I always ask, “What’s your name?” before signing anything. Most of the time people are happy to tell me, but in some cases all they want is just my moniker and sometimes the date and place. In the case of the above, I would assume that people can figure it out.
Having successfully navigated the twelve-tone waters of Life Is a Dream, I returned to Aspen. This Festival has radically changed since I was a student there in 1964. At first an artistic think-tank, it is now one of the largest schools for music that gathers during the summer. I love going back there, as so many fond memories come flooding back.
In order to arrive in time for my first rehearsal, I had to drive right after an opera performance. And since performances began at nine at night, this meant hitting the road directly from the pit. The goal was to get about two hours or so outside of Aspen, as I did not want to navigate Independence Pass in the dark. On the map, it looked like there were not going to be too many options along the way in terms of accommodations. About three in the morning, we pulled into Buena Vista. I spotted a motel but it looked closed. Nonetheless, I rang the bell and just as I started walking back to the car, the door opened and a woman dressed a lot like the “concierge” in the film The Producers emerged.
Bleary-eyed, she tried to write down some information and gave me a key. After about five hours of very restless sleep, we awoke and tried to find a place to eat. You can experience some wonderful characters in the early hours at truck stops, especially in the mountain states.
Years ago, on another journey to Aspen with three other aspiring students, we stopped at a place that had a waitress who clearly was in her late 70’s. It was about eight in the morning and we wanted breakfast. The others in the establishment were already thinking about lunch, having been on the road most of the dark hours.
A man in his 60’s asked the woman if they were serving the afternoon meal and she said “Sonny, I used to teach you in the 4th grade. And I used to box your ears.” None of us really knew what was going on but it seemed very funny and we burst out laughing. After some very angry glances from the patrons at the “young un’s,” we sheepishly backed out of the restaurant, still looking for breakfast.
On this current trip, I navigated the Pass, got to Aspen around 10 a.m. and went to sleep for about an hour and a half. Rehearsal was at one.
There are several orchestras at the school and festival these days. I was leading the biggest of the four, in a program that utilized them very well. The main offering was the Strauss Sinfonia Domestica. There was also Tempus Fugit, written by Cindy McTee, which we premiered two months earlier in Detroit. In addition, pianist Joyce Yang, with whom I first worked with when she was 15 years old, was playing Tchaik 1. The orchestra utilizes professionals as the principal players and the remainder is filled out with students, so the likelihood of most of the orchestra members having played most of the music before was remote.
I decided to rehearse the strings alone for an hour followed by the same with winds and percussion. Then, for the final portion, we put them all together. It was a good idea to work this way, and my own feeling was that Aspen was a place where this should be the norm. In fact, in my early days, the first rehearsal was always devoted to just the strings. Getting bowings and the like sorted out made it easier as the rehearsal process went on.
Although I had not been asked to do any teaching on this visit, I was invited to speak to the piano students. This class was about the relationship of the soloist to the conductor. Of course, there will be a chapter about this in my book so it proved helpful in getting some of my own thoughts organized. At one point, I asked one of the pianists to play the scale that occurs just before the recapitulation in the first movement of the Emperor concerto. This is a notoriously treacherous place for conductors, as it requires a keen ear to catch the very last note of the run. I had the 30 or so students clap at the moment when they thought the player had reached the top. This was never together. Then I asked them to try to conduct it. Even worse. Now they know what the conductor has to go through. It is not so easy.
Rehearsals progressed well. There is no question that the Strauss can be a very confusing piece. It generates a love/hate relationship with many musicians and listeners. Even those who respect the craft of the piece can dislike the intent. The conceit of depicting the most intimate details of home life simply is not acceptable to some. I decided to let both orchestra and audience in on what was really going on in the piece. We prepared a demonstration, showing which character had which theme and how these motifs would come together both in peace and conflict.
During the trip there was the opportunity to see old friends, although with not as much time as I would have liked. And there really was no chance to walk or drive around. On the day of the concert, storm clouds were surrounding the valley. For three of my past five visits, there have been severe weather situations during my performances. Once, we actually had to stop playing, as the pounding of the rain on the tent was louder than any sound we could make on the stage.
This time, we got through the first half unscathed. Cindy had a big success with her piece, and Joyce was brilliant. The Domestica started off well, but just when the Strauss family settles down for the evening, and the lullaby is being sung, Mother Nature decided to let loose. We kept going, but for about 10 minutes, it was more like the battle scene in Ein Heldenleben. But all ended well and there was a nice, prolonged ovation from everyone.
Back in Santa Fe, there were still three performances of Life Is a Dream to give. The weather cooperated beautifully for the first one, with temperatures warm enough to allow the orchestra and me to shed our jackets. It was also good for the cast to have a week off between shows, and everyone sounded fresh.
The day of our next performance also marked “Feast Day” for the tribe of the Santa Clara Pueblo. Every year, each of the reservations in the area has a celebration of their village, culture and food. I was fortunate enough to be invited, otherwise I would not have known it was taking place. No photographs or recording devices, including cell phones, are allowed, so I cannot share any pictures.
The natives are dressed in ceremonial attire and dances are performed throughout the day, almost nonstop. These usually celebrate the corn, but there are also other traditional ones. It was a hot, dry day, so many spectators had brought umbrellas to shield themselves from the oppressive sun. One of the tribe members asked everyone to close them, as it is bad luck to keep them open when seeking moisture. A rain dance was performed and lo and behold, IT RAINED!!! I am not an overly religious person by nature, but whatever force of nature did this, it was pretty impressive.
Over the weekend, an article appeared in the LA Times basically asking the question, “Are conductors necessary?” The piece is well written and has comments from me, Lionel Brugunier, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sir Colin Davis. The latter has contributed what might be the best quote from a conductor ever: “The wonderful thing about being a conductor is that you never know anything really. You’re always on the verge of your own ignorance.”
The fifth and final performance of LIAD took place around the middle of the month, and in retrospect, the project turned out to be quite successful. Despite some early reservations I had about the work, and in particular the musical language, a great deal was learned from the experience. To start with, I find that most composers who use the twelve-tone method in vocal writing sometimes struggle to make the text clearly audible. Perhaps because it goes against the nature of the spoken word, but more likely each singer possesses strengths and weaknesses in various registers. To be equally comfortable in the low and high range is almost impossible. In this opera there are enormous demands placed on almost all the soloists. Everyone acquitted himself or herself nobly and it was a pleasure to work with the entire cast.
Not enough can be said about the orchestra’s diligence and ultimate proficiency with the score. The writing is challenging on every level. Throughout the entire run, no one ever let down. It can safely be said that we fulfilled the dream of composer Lewis Spratlan. He proved to be a fine gentleman and we were all very happy for him.
The Santa Fe stage has no prompter’s box. The conductor is left with the huge task of not only coordinating the entire proceeding, but giving the vocal cues as well. This provoked a nice quip from one of the cast members. At one point in the second act of the fourth performance, things started to go a little awry on stage. Entrances were missed and some of the text was forgotten. I had to work very hard to keep it all going.
“You made more saves tonight than a hockey goalie” was the comment during our bows at the end.
The last stop before vacation was in LA, at the Hollywood Bowl. The former stomping ground of my youth, and where my parents first met, remains a very special place. I used to have the single longest title of any conductor during my three years as “Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.” Since Bramwell Tovey now has that distinction, I suppose they should attach “Emeritus” to my name, just so I retain the record.
Summer music making can be an adventure. For the Bowl, I had just one rehearsal for each of the two programs. The first, an all-Shostakovich concert, included the Fifth Symphony and First Violin Concerto. Our soloist was Sarah Chang, and not coincidentally, we had done the piece in LA on two other occasions. Not that anyone in the orchestra really remembered but it gave some security to at least two of us.
She plays this difficult work with extraordinary confidence and virtuosity. The audience applauded at the end of the lengthy cadenza, which occurs between the third and fourth movements. Unfortunately, the orchestra was playing at the time. It felt more like an appreciation of a jazz drum solo. Still, this somehow seemed appropriate for the Bowl. Almost 10,000 people showed up to listen to this concert.
Two nights later, Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway joined us for what amounted to a “flute fest.” Cleverly, but somewhat obviously, I had put three pieces on the first half that seemed to reflect different virtues of the instrument. Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture opened the proceedings and was followed by Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. Then came the surprisingly rarely played Suite from Piston’s Incredible Flutist. Why this delightful piece is not performed more often is truly a puzzle. It has great tunes, spicy orchestration and one place where the orchestra imitates the sounds and sights of a street celebration. In this case, one member trotted out that World Cup standby, the vuvuzela. It worked out for him as he was preparing the three Hindemith Sonatas for Vuvuzela and piano.
Sir James played Mozart, Doppler, Bach, Meredith Willson and Mancini. There remains no one else who has his particular sound. In addition, he has a fabulous personality on stage and everyone simply adores him. It was a nice way to end the summer performance calendar.
Now it is on to a couple weeks off, spent mostly driving up the West Coast and back across the country.
See you next month,