Photo © Niko Rodamel
When they decided to call it “New Year,” perhaps they were referring to my conducting schedule. With four pieces that I had never performed, all of them substantial works, it was a good thing I had three weeks off beforehand so I could wrap my brain around these creations.
In Detroit, we have been priding ourselves on presenting varied programs with interesting combinations of music. January is the start of our Neighborhood Series, where we go out to seven different locations and perform to audiences that traditionally do not come downtown. With four programs in each venue, it takes a lot of planning to figure out what programs go where. Sometimes, certainly in this case, we also take the concert to Orchestra Hall for one performance.
The first new work was a cello concerto by Mohammed Fairouz. He is a fast-rising star in the compositional field, undoubtedly helped by his background as an Arab-American. Who would have thought that the ethnic origin of a person would really matter so much when it comes to the world of music? But we live in strange and difficult times. All this is a prelude to an idea that came to me when I was first approached about giving the piece its world premiere.
I did not really know much about Momo, as he is called by his friends, but in conversations prior to his writing the concerto, it was clear that he intended to utilize his multicultural heritage to create a work teeming with Middle Eastern influence as well as the music of his home in America. Since one of the places we play each year is the synagogue Shaarey Zedek, I wondered if giving the very first performance in that space would send a strong message as to the inclusionary nature of the music world.
At thirty minutes, this was a big piece, featuring cellist Maya Beiser, an Israeli-born musician who has resided in New York for most of her career. The two of them had collaborated on other projects, and it was she who brought the composer to the attention of one of our patrons, Peter Cummings. In turn, he decided that it might be interesting to commission a concerto, and when I was told about the idea, I immediately accepted.
When I saw the piece, about six weeks prior to the first rehearsal, I realized that a change in the order of the program was necessary. Originally, as part of the Neighborhood Series, I thought that the work would utilize reduced instrumentation. What I had before me was a full-scale concerto, with our regular complement of brass and percussion. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony was to have closed the program, but now it was clear that the concerto needed to be played last.
The piece is certainly haunting, with evocative moments abounding. With a repetitious and joyously rhythmic last movement, we clearly had a hit on our hands with the audience. How thrilling to watch the full house in the temple respond with a standing ovation and numerous bows for composer and soloists. In the wake of recent comments by certain politicians, we had made a case for inclusion rather than exception.
The remainder of the program was a pleasure to conduct as well. I don’t get to do the Dvorák Wind Serenade very often, as it only calls for 13 musicians. But here it worked very well as an opener and featured the musicians in a chamber-music-like atmosphere. Following it with the String Serenade by Elgar made sense, and one could hear both the similarities and differences between these two composers and their approach to form that dates back to Haydn. The Mozart gave us a chance to warm up for next season’s festival, during which the final six symphonies will be performed, as well as all the wind concerti plus a couple of the multi-instrument works for strings.
Not much respite followed, as we had another world premiere as well as the John Williams Trumpet Concerto the following week. Flutist Marina Piccinini, who had performed with the DSO on two other occasions, had commissioned a piece from Aaron Kernis. This composer is multi-stylistic, and you never know what kind of work will show up. In this case, it was a somewhat dense and thorny piece, almost Bergian in its musical language. The flute was showcased in pretty much all its variety, and Marina certainly had the measure of the piece. We will play it together again next season at the Peabody Conservatory, where Marina teaches.
The Williams is part of our ongoing series presenting the works in this form by the Jedi Master. John’s concert works are quite different from his film compositions, and it gives us a real understanding of how he sees compositional structure when working in an abstract medium. At 20 minutes, this colorful and showy work is a virtuoso romp for the soloist, in this case our principal trumpeter Hunter Eberly. We all had a great time putting it together and recording it for release later on Naxos.
When I am asked about programing, usually I try to say that it is a matter of balance, not only for the orchestra but for the audience as well. Alan Gilbert has said that some programs have “the Bolero effect,” where challenging pieces are offset by often-played works in order to help sell tickets. He is not wrong, and in this case, with two new pieces, we needed to play both the Ravel and the Suite from Carmen. With solo turns from so many DSO musicians in these two chestnuts, it actually wound up making musical sense as well. Full houses for all three performances.
At this point in my life, there are not too many certified masterpieces that I have not conducted. The first week in Lyon rectified one of the rare omissions, with a concert presentation of Bartók’s masterful Bluebeard’s Castle. Having done Salomé a couple months earlier, this would be the second opera of the season. It was not my idea but rather that of our artistic advisor, Christian Thompson. I jumped at the opportunity, as this is a piece I have loved for a long time.
Written two years before Le sacre du printemps, the psychological drama plays out as an incredible piece of storytelling as well as a virtuoso fling for singers and orchestra. We had two exceptional Hungarian soloists, unknown to me until this week—Ildikó Komlósi, mezzo-soprano, and Bálint Szabó, bass. They brought the piece to life with the authentic cadences of the language and lent incredible expressive power to this very disturbing work. The orchestra reveled in the chance to show off a different skill set, and when the organ came in at the opening of the fifth door, you would have thought that the kingdom of the Duke was placed right in your lap.
This marvel of orchestral wizardry was a real treat for me, and one of the best ways to get the New Year in Lyon off to a great start. It did not hurt that Gil Shaham was soloist in the first half, playing the Barber Concerto. We had last performed this together at my 70th birthday concert in Tanglewood, and clearly the audience must have figured out that we both were having great much fun in France. Gil is a most serious musician, but his demeanor onstage is one of collaboration and encouragement, in terms of both his body language and his infectious smile.
Opening the program were three excerpts from the incidental music to Much Ado about Nothing, part of our Shakespeare theme this season. Korngold was writing for small, almost cabaret-size orchestra, including a harmonium. Maybe he was a bit of a throwback in his musical style, but his originality and persona dot every measure of this piece. And even the most diehard academic would shed a tear at the poignant and simple Intermezzo.
Which brings us to the late addition to the program. A few weeks prior, Pierre Boulez passed away. Controversial, outspoken, and politically driven, he was of unquestionable importance in the world of music. History will judge how his music will survive, but for almost half a century, he dominated musical thinking as very few musicians ever have. There was not enough time or money to present one of his original orchestral works as a tribute, so we opted for Boulez’s orchestration of a really obscure piece by Ravel, Frontispiece. At just two minutes and only 15 measures long, it is Ravel in a harmonic world quite different from the ones we know. The colors summoned up by Boulez emphasize almost pointillist gestures, and in the end, the performance was appropriate to the occasion.
The DSO announced its 2016-17 season. Late January and February are the times when American orchestras put their offerings on the table, giving the public plenty of time to decide if they wish to hear a particular program that will be presented a year and a half later. Every other season, I have been presenting a “theme” that runs through several concerts over the course of the entire set of subscription programs. In addition, we also now have an annual festival in the winter, featuring works by a single composer. You can read about the concerts in the DSO brochure, available here.
In the meantime, here is a little essay I wrote about the thread that will run through much of the season.
Gershwin and His Children:
The Influence of Popular Culture on Classical Music
February 24, 1924. World War I was over. The stock market had not yet collapsed. Americans were looking for something different. On this day, they got it.
The history of Rhapsody in Blue is well documented. Written quickly and somewhat improvised on the spot, George Gershwin’s contribution to “An Experiment in Modern Music” changed the very nature of how classical music was perceived. Aeolian Hall was the scene of a very long program, featuring no less than 26 separate musical selections. It was Paul Whiteman’s idea to find a way to make jazz, and other vernacular music of the time, part of the collective conscience of the listener.
Although the Rhapsody was not well received by the critics, over a period of three years the work was performed by Whiteman 84 times, and its recording had sold more than a million copies. This was not just an isolated, one-off experience. That original concert opened a floodgate of new compositional thought. It was the time of Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovich and so many others. Each of those composers, and many more, took to the new craze and tried to find ways to incorporate music in popular idioms into their own compositions.
Over the course of the 2016-17 season, the DSO will feature many of the groundbreaking pieces that took the mainstream of the popular culture and changed the way all of us perceive classical music. We will see how other cultures reacted and incorporated their own brand of local music into the concert hall. There will be premieres that promise to be exciting and bold. And we will learn that Gershwin was not really the first composer to utilize these elements.
During the season we will try to understand why the “jazz age” existed and will consider its lasting impact on society today. Long before the term “crossover” came into use in music, composers were taking their audiences on new paths, combining various aesthetics to produce a new genre in music. I have been looking forward to presenting this trip for quite some time and hope that you will join me. It promises to be a journey well worth taking.
Rather than my usual recording recommendation, I took part of January to catch up on some television and film viewing. Among the shows I watched, Mozart in the Jungle caught my attention for obvious reasons. Right after the end of the first season, I quickly jotted down my own version of a spin-off. Here it is:
Recently, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave a television show about the underbelly of classical music several accolades and trophies. Competition is now rampant among cable, network and streaming services to cash in on this success. The following is the outline for one such pilot episode.
Tchaikovsky on the Threshold
It was 9:55 on a wet Tuesday morning and things were not looking good for the Culpepper Phil.
The previous day, Maestro P (he prefers not to use either his first or last name) had changed the opening night program, feeling that the orchestra was not prepared properly for the originally listed all-Stockhausen evening. The fact that no musicians got the music in advance did not help the situation, allowing the marketing department to breathe a sigh of relief.
This was supposed to be the debut of the orchestra’s new music director, and all of the musical cognoscenti were waiting in anticipation of the first downbeat. But first they would have to find the conductor. He was not answering his cell phone, home number or any texts. His personal limo driver assured the general manager that Maestro P had been dropped off at at the hall two hours earlier.
The President of the Representatives for Institutional and Cultural Heritage, (RICH), was pacing nervously at the stage door.
“I don’t understand it,” said Rita Moneyworth. “He was right there when I turned over—er—stopped over—for coffee at 7.”
Meanwhile, the orchestra was busying itself, trying to figure out what they were supposed to play in a few minutes. No music had been put on the stands, and the library staff had been augmented in case someone had to run over to a publishing house and fetch a set of parts. The head of the orchestra committee was shouting that this was against every rule in the contract and that the musicians had every right to protest. Most of this was ignored, as a number of the players were too busy paying off the 2nd clarinet for beta blockers and other substances.
At 10:00, magically, a billowy cloud mysteriously appeared around the podium. When the smoke cleared, there stood the tall, graceful and elegantly tailored Maestro. He was greeted with a polite round of apathy. The personnel manager looked at the first oboe and signaled for the “A” to be sounded. But the conductor waved him off and spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “It is my great honor to be your new music director. In order for us to collaborate together, it is important for you to know some things about me. This is the only way we will be able to fully comprehend my approach to any of the repertoire we are going to play.
I come from a distinguished lineage of Hispanic, Asian, and Slovakian musicians, but I was born in a small village in Lichtenstein.”
One of the violinists whispered, “I’ll bet he wants to start with a little country music.”
P countered, “I have an acute sense of hearing so none of you are going to get away with terrible jokes ever again. I also speak 38 languages, enough to encompass the entire makeup of this orchestra.”
It got very quiet.
“But I am a fair and equal opportunity music director. Each of you will be ignored in exactly the same way. Today, we will not play any music, only sit and think about it. And while we are doing that, I will attempt to communicate with each of you spiritually. I will also be doing this with our board members, in particular by trying to reach into the souls of their accountants.”
“But Maestro,” a bewildered concertmaster inquired, “what about the music for this week’s program?”
“Do not worry about that. I will ask the librarians to put out the same music that you played last week with my predecessor. Even with no rehearsal, it is bound to be better with me leading.”
With the orchestra, staff and board waiting for some indication of what to do next, the Maestro made one final pronouncement.
“When I leave the podium today, I shall be headed to a special clinic, where not only will I shave my hair off, but I will also start the process of becoming gender neutral. I strongly encourage all of you to do the same, so we may become both the most diverse and non-diverse orchestra in the world.”
And with that, another puff of smoke appeared around the podium and P was gone.
That afternoon the Culpepper Philharmonic was abolished and replaced by a virtual orchestra, which played the Pachelbel Kanon, 24/7. The Culpepper Recreational Auditorium and Penitentiary (CRAP) made millions in wedding rentals alone. Most of the former members of the ensemble got jobs playing in touring productions of “Les Miz,” and the staff found gainful employment as “consultants.”
As for the former Maestro P, he was nowhere to be found, but several banks suddenly discovered that they were a few million dollars shorter in funds.
February is no less busy, with a full week of concerts with the ONL, including a performance in Paris. Back in Detroit we will have a three-week Brahms Festival, playing all the works by that composer written for orchestra without voice. Look out for the Red Hedgehog!
See you next month.
Conducting Business is available on Amazon.
To read my notes from previous months, click here.
Mr. Slatkin is represented by:
Columbia Artists Management Inc.
R. Douglas Sheldon, general manager responsible for the Americas and Asia
Julia Albrecht, manager responsible for Europe