SEPTEMBER 2021: Birthday Edition

SEPTEMBER 2021: Birthday Edition
August 30, 2021 leonard slatkin

Birthdays seem to come more frequently these days. And those of the past are getting more difficult to remember. Where was I last year at this time? There were certainly lots of well-wishers, and my inbox was fuller than usual.

77 is a number that conjures up nothing. Okay, there was that TV show (77 Sunset Strip) and song [“Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)] from back in the late Fifties, but as far as anniversaries go, it is just a blip on the birthday radar.

I decided to write something in advance rather than wait to report on anything that occurs. At this point, I only know that Classic 107.3 FM, where I host my Slatkin Shuffle, is planning 24 hours of celebratory programming. I might try doing one of the shows live, which is potentially dangerous, since I don’t really know what tracks my iPads are going to select. It is possible the FCC will be watching closely.

September is going to be a most interesting month. Right in the middle, on the 15th, my third book is released to the world. Classical Crossroads: The Path Forward for Music in the 21st Century will be launched at a discussion/musicale at the St. Louis County Library. I have already recorded a couple of lengthy podcasts and videos to promote the tome.

One problem that I sort of anticipated is that publishing deadlines make it impossible to ensure that the content is completely up to date. The book deals with many of the practical issues that are confronting musicians, students, and audiences today, and these are in flux constantly. The lengthiest section of the book includes my web pieces written during the first year or so of the pandemic. But we had to submit the final manuscript about nine months before the release.

To give you an example of what I mean regarding issues I raise in the book that have evolved in recent months, all I need to do is point you to an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 3rd.  Jeremy Reynolds, the music critic for the paper, wrote that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra currently has 13 vacancies, five of them for principal or titled musicians. And I have learned of at least three other players who are considering stepping down at the end of the coming season.

There are always retirements, maybe two or three a year, but we are talking about a quarter of the orchestra’s personnel. As the pandemic rages on, more and more musicians with the years of service needed for full pension benefits have decided to pack up their instruments. The lengthy layoff has provided many with an opportunity to rethink their goals and even pursue other interests.

Normally, this would not be a problem, but the virus has made it impossible to hold auditions to fill the empty chairs. We will see orchestras with numerous substitute musicians in the 2021-22 season. In the case of my good friends in Pittsburgh, they face the challenge of maintaining the musical direction forged by Manfred Honeck, the orchestra’s music director, despite several vacancies. Imagine what happens when a string quartet loses one of its members. A lengthy search process ensues to find the best fit, sometimes taking more than a year. The newcomer must adjust to every possible nuance of the remaining trio. If 20% of an orchestra leaves, the situation is similar.

In my book, I write about the problems inherent in the audition and tenure process for orchestras. There was no way to anticipate this new complication. Even if someone gains membership in the ensemble, it can take more than a year to receive tenure. And sometimes, things do not work out, and the rigorous procedures start all over again.

I do not really mean to single out the Pittsburghers, but the news article led me to ask some of my fellow musicians what was happening with their orchestras. It is the same story throughout the industry—lots of vacancies, loads of subs, and an insecurity as to what the ensemble is going to look and sound like.

As much as we would like to believe that things might return to normal this upcoming season, that is simply not going to be the case. Hopefully, orchestras are not only gearing up for full- stage performances but also planning for what might happen should we experience further surges. Alternate programs must be put in place, so at least the musicians and audience know what they might be playing and listening to. So far, only one orchestra has asked me to have a contingency.

Another matter has been on my mind since the final edit of the book was approved. I have conducted a few concerts this summer, all with various Covid restrictions in place. For the most part, I have not minded, with one very big exception: wearing a mask on the podium.

Do not get me wrong. Coupled with vaccinations, precautionary measures are the only way to create an environment in which participants can feel moderately secure. Some members of the orchestra can wear masks without an issue, and others experience mild to moderate discomfort, particularly with breathing patterns. However, it is different for the conductor, whose face gives the music a visual component. Those facial gestures are as important as the beat and expression of the arms and hands. I have found it very difficult to have this communication method taken away for most of the performances I have led during the pandemic. How can I convey joy, sorrow, love and all the other emotions if the musicians cannot see these expressions on my face?

The meaning of this has only recently come into focus for me. When my face is covered, the orchestra, and by extension the audience, is not getting the best of what I can be. If I cannot conduct at my own level of competence, should I be out there at all?

Most importantly, am I doing justice to the composers and their music? I had an opportunity to conduct one performance this summer in which I did not have to wear the facial covering, and I was back to feeling comfortable on the podium. That gave me hope for future rehearsals and concerts. But who knows what happens next? This is something I must now take into consideration as the season commences.

Before the pandemic, I fully expected that life would get easier by age 77, and I could concentrate on making the music I love, leading orchestras I enjoy working with, and visiting with friends and colleagues. Hopefully, as the month rolls along, these nagging questions will disappear, unlike the virus, which it seems will hang around for a while longer.

Still, I have made it well past the three-quarters-of-a-century mark. Lots to look forward to and continue to share here, in more books and—even better—in person.

See you next month,