As planned, August was a relatively quiet month for music-making. In fact, my only scheduled appearance was in Chicago, where I helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Flute Association at their annual convention. In addition to conducting five works for various flutes and orchestra at Symphony Center, I also gave the conference’s keynote address.
Who doesn’t like the flute? No one, according to the attendees of various recitals, masterclasses, ensemble performances, and other activities related to the instrument. Even though I did not participate in the full range of flute events available, by the time we played the last notes of the concert, I was longing for a contrabassoon.
All the soloists were outstanding, each playing a piece around fifteen-minutes long. A couple of the works were not easy, but the members of the Chicago Philharmonic, an orchestra I knew very little about prior to this engagement, acquitted themselves well, both technically and musically. And of course, the city is only a hop, skip, and quarter tone away from home in St. Louis.
I needed to get back so I could watch the Cardinals take fire and play like potential champions. This season, there are legends to be seen, stars in the making, and some really solid ballplayers. This time of year reminds me of one of the main reasons I returned to St. Louis.
At the end of July, I was asked to replace Bramwell Tovey, who had passed away a few weeks earlier, in two concerts with the NY Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. I was honored to accept and kept Bramwell’s programs intact for this bittersweet appearance.
The repertoire consisted of an all-Tchaikovsky evening followed by a Sondheim celebration, each with only one rehearsal. When there is such limited time to put things together, conductor and orchestra simply must trust each other. I chose the key points I wanted to convey, usually related to phrases that occur several times in a given movement, to establish a set of rules that applied throughout the works.
That strategy worked fine for Tchaikovsky, but with songs from so many different shows, the Sondheim program was a different matter. I was working with very few full scores, and for one song, the lyrics were not included. I am used to conducting from lead sheets with only the melody and chord indications, but without the words, coordinating with the vocalists was a bit tricky.
It was nice to see the Phil again. They were relaxed and in a good mood, having spent almost three weeks in the Colorado Rockies. Everyone is very excited to get into the new Geffen Hall, and perhaps New York will now have an appropriate venue for its prime orchestral tenant.
Just as students look toward September, and sometimes earlier, as the beginning of the year, orchestras are gearing up for a hopefully normal season of rehearsals and concerts. While all our fingers are crossed, a degree of caution remains.
My schedule includes several items to distinguish it from past seasons. One of the more pleasurable aspects of being a freelance conductor is having the opportunity to take on assignments that I never had time for as a music director. I will visit a few orchestras for the first time, in some cases at the request of good friends.
For example, Cindy and I have a residency at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I knew nothing about the school, but the associate director of its music program graduated from the University of North Texas, where Cindy taught for more than 25 years. His invitation certainly seemed worth considering. Upon learning about the school’s emphasis on diversity and general workplace satisfaction, I felt this was a project that would teach me a great deal about the state of music education in our country.
In October, I will begin my three-year tenure as principal guest conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. Last season, much to my delight, I led a program that revealed this ensemble to be one of incredible flexibility and skill. Comprising musicians from all over the world, the orchestra is bringing the highest possible level of music-making to Spain. And it is not a bad place to spend a few weeks a year.
Following our incredible trip to the Peruvian portion of the Amazon, Cindy and I will head off to the Galápagos Islands for the New Year. Nothing like ringing in 2023 with tortoises and other prehistoric animals. Excuse me while I answer the phone: National Geographic is calling.
A few years ago, Tom Hampson and I were having a late dinner. He asked me if I would consider conducting in Spokane, his hometown. In the past, my schedule simply did not permit me the time to go to cities such as this. I look forward to these engagements, as I often find a great attitude among the musicians. They seem to appreciate having a seasoned veteran on the podium.
Each year, I try to go to one school I have never before visited. This time it is Yale at the invitation of Peter Oundjian. Cindy earned her master’s degree there, and the idea of playing one of her works at an alma mater is too good to pass up. I look forward to doing a bit of research while I am there, as well.
In addition, I will spend a week in Warsaw as part of the annual Beethoven Festival. It is not often that I am asked to conduct the Missa Solemnis; in fact, it has never happened. I played it in the viola section when I was a student in LA and led performances as music director of my various orchestras. But the chance to revisit this masterpiece is rare, and I wanted to take advantage of the invitation.
I will also visit Sacramento to conduct another orchestra that probably would not have been on my radar without a personal connection. Alice Sauro, the former orchestra manager of the Detroit Symphony who doubled as my assistant for a while, reached out to me in her capacity as executive director of the Sacramento Philharmonic. After the engagement was booked, she left for a similar position in Las Vegas. I do look forward to spending some time in the state capital, even though Alice no longer can influence the politicos.
Those are some of the more unusual features of the coming season to complement my regular appearances with orchestras and educational institutions I see almost every year. Adding in time for R&R, it should be a very interesting, entertaining, and educational year. Perhaps I will meet some of you who read this column.
See you next month,