Photo © Niko Rodamel
There has been a lot going on in my head for the past few weeks. Very little of it has to do with turning 70, but clearly something has caused me to think of many things that most likely have been swimming in my brain for decades.
To start with, I was going to revisit, possibly for the last time, certain places that have held special spots in my musical life. Sometimes even I forget that for two seasons, I was the music director at Grant Park. For those of you unfamiliar with this festival, it takes place outdoors in downtown Chicago. For 80 years patrons have been treated to some of the finest music-making, and they do not pay for it directly. Indeed, it is the only city-funded classical music festival in the United States.
Between my music directorship and a few years of guest conducting, there were times when I was certain that a great deal of my growth was due to what transpired at the old band shell. We gave several American premieres and introduced soloists who would go on to have major careers. Oh, and we also had rats, which would pop out from under the stage once in a while.
There are only about five musicians left from my time in the late ’70s, but the one memory that seems to stand out was a performance of Turandot. We used to only have two rehearsals for each program, and most of the members of the orchestra came from the Lyric Opera. The day of the performance saw rather immense thunderstorms move into town, so we packed everything up, went to the Auditorium Theatre, and played the work in one rehearsal.
One could say that the program we did this time around was somewhat typical of what the old days were like. There were some chestnuts, Chabrier’s España and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. But there was also a reprise of Shostakovich’s cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin, a piece we gave the American premiere of in 1979. On that occasion the soloist was my good friend and colleague Arnold Voketaitis. This time it was the outstanding bass-baritone Alfred Walker. In what was a truly touching gesture, Arnie came to listen to the piece some 34 years after we had done it before in the same place.
Well, not exactly the same. The old band shell has been replaced by the Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, a gleaming structure with actual protection from most of the elements. The sound system is excellent and was put to good use in every piece, not the least of which was Michel Camilo’s 2nd Piano Concerto. As usual, we needed neither storms nor fireworks, as Michel provided those and more.
Summer festivals provide challenges that are quite different from the winter season. Many of them utilize musicians from orchestras around the country, and in most cases this is beneficial for those who want a break from the regular routine. But it also means that as a conductor, the best you can do is make them play well but not really with a cohesiveness of collective sound. In other words, these are excellent pick-up orchestras. They enjoy playing with each other, but most will only be together for a few weeks.
Aspen is a somewhat similar animal. Ever since I started as a student there 50 years ago, the orchestra always comprised a combination of professionals and advanced students. There are now fewer of the former but lots of the latter. It is a great opportunity for the young musicians sitting alongside experienced colleagues, but most of the musicians are sharing their stands with other students. This means that the job of the conductor is first and foremost to teach the pieces and not to focus on the approach to the work as much as the technical process of putting it together.
It remains an idyllic place with beauty all around. This can also be a distraction, as hiking, rollerblading and other activities can take away from the job at hand. With at least five orchestras, there is certainly enough to do, but again, this comes with some dangers. In what is becoming an alarming trend, not just in this country but in many places around the world, I notice that if a pianist, for example, plays on the first half of a program, the piano students do not stay for the second half.
What has happened to simple musical curiosity? Is everyone so focused on their instrumental or vocal technique that they limit themselves to matters where only their area of specialty exists?
Not that the concert in Aspen was bad. In fact, quite the contrary, it was one of the best I have done there in my half century of going to the mountains. With the Alpine Symphony on the program, we had a lot of work to do, and everyone threw themselves into this demanding work in a way that was truly a pleasure. It is a piece I have always loved, but I realize it is not for everyone. A little demonstration of musical motives preceded the performance, and this seemed to help many understand where Strauss was going with this journey. The audience rewarded us with quite an ovation, and I was delighted to be part of the mountain-climbing experience.
We opened with Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos, which once again weaved its spell over the audience. Amazingly, Roberto had never been to Aspen, and I suspect that this will not be his last visit. The Chopin 2nd was delivered by Garrick Ohlsson, and we had a ball with it. It must have been quite a sight for the young conductors watching to see the ease with which the two of us played around with the work. This is simply the result of long experience and good friendship. I get the opportunity to work with him twice next season.
But still, when I came out for the Strauss, it was a bit disheartening to see that many had left, mostly students. The opportunity to hear this work is rare, but I guess the kids had better things to do. Perhaps it is the fault of those of us who do some teaching. There must be a way to instill the art of listening into our students. Clearly it is something I will think about over the next few years.
A very rough travel day ensued. I had to get to Tanglewood the day after the Aspen concert, as there was a rehearsal that evening. Cindy and I arrived at the airport, and I used the electronic check-in machine, but they shut her out. My flights went without incident, but Cindy had to take three planes and arrive in Albany at 3:00 in the morning. Not fun.
My relationship to the Berkshires has been sporadic but always welcome. At this point, I am not sure how many times I have conducted at the Shed but for this occasion, there were two concerts. Tanglewood on Parade is an annual event that showcases virtually all facets of the festival and school. I presided over the TMCO for the Robert Russell Bennett Porgy and Bess. It seems almost heresy these days to play this version, but I love it. Catfish Row, put together by Gershwin, is fine, but for concerts you really cannot beat RRB.
The young musicians had been well prepared, so the two rehearsals I had were mostly concerned with getting the style down. It doesn’t help when I reference artists such as Fred Astaire or Billy May when I am looking for a particular style of playing, as all I see are blank stares from the orchestra members. But the performance had great swing and character, and I was proud of how well they did the piece.
John Williams presided over a very beautiful piece taken from his score to The Book Thief. It is very possible to program this on a subscription concert, as it has a seriousness of intent that belies the work’s origin.
I conduct the BSO more or less every two years. The Tanglewood concert seemed to be the place where it was decided that my 70th birthday would kick off. Several patrons of the DSO came out, as did the executive director. Although there was not a lot of hoopla surrounding the big event, it was nice to see some good friends who also made the trip.
It is not so easy to determine what to play for a concert that is supposed to be celebratory in nature. I knew that the BSO had commissioned a short piece from Bill Bolcom. All I asked was that he make it no longer than six minutes and that “Happy Birthday” would not be part of the musical material. He obliged on both counts but snuck in a short phrase from the funeral march movement of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Sonata.
Knowing about this piece, and of course the rich tradition of the orchestra, I decided to make the first half all American. A short piece by the sadly forgotten Wayne Barlow, The Winter’s Passed, played beautifully by oboist John Ferrillo, made a lovely segue into the Barber Violin Concerto. Gil Shaham was soloist and brought his charm, enthusiasm and grace to the piece. I am not sure who had more fun, the audience or us.
After intermission, we played the Enigma Variations. I had absolutely no idea why it seemed appropriate, but it worked well in the program. But imagine my shock when I opened the program book and learned that none other than my conducting teacher, Jean Morel, gave the first Tanglewood performance of this piece! The orchestra played superbly, and I felt a stronger connection with them than usual.
A reception followed at Koussevitzky’s home, Seranak. Various friends came, a cake was brought out, and lots of fond memories were shared.
Not related to any birthday celebrations was a week in LA at the Hollywood Bowl. Of course I have known this place forever, and there is still no place like it. With strong soloists and programs, we had more than 45,000 people in attendance.
After the Barber the week before, Gil Shaham played Prokofiev 2 at the first concert. It must be understood that, at least during this week, all the programs got just one rehearsal. Every conductor who has to go through this understands that time management at rehearsals is critical. With Ruslan and Ludmila as well as Scheherazade, it was the concerto that was probably the least familiar to some of the orchestra members.
But it all went just fine, and there was some outstanding solo playing from the various soloists in the orchestra. Gil was great and brought true individuality to the concerto.
Next up was a program that I was not sure we should have tried with such limited practice. Yo-Yo Ma played the Elgar Concerto, there was a march by Walton, and then pieces by Debussy. So not much that constituted everyday fare. Again, we managed, but I was working very hard just to make sure that all my gestures were clear to all the musicians. La Mer concluded the proceedings, and I was quite impressed with how everyone came together with such a short rehearsal period.
Finally there was an all-Tchaikovsky weekend. This is a tradition at the Bowl and always ends with the 1812, complete with fireworks, cannons and whatever else they can think of. I had invited Alexandra Soumm, who played her American debut with me in Detroit earlier in the season, to perform the violin concerto. She was sensational and even elicited applause after various virtuoso moments in the first movement. It felt like we were in a gigantic jazz club, where the audience claps after a solo while another instrument takes over.
Although my relatives from childhood are no longer with us, I did have some good times to share with my son. He is at USC, and it was purely coincidental that their marching band played in the 1812. And as it turned out, earlier in the season, he worked as a score reader for the video projection at the Bowl. That meant that three generations of Slatkins have worked in the giant shell.
After a few days off, it was on to the final stop on the summer circuit. This time it was as a favor to a longtime friend, the violinist Cho-Liang Lin, or as most of us know him, Jimmy. He has directed the chamber music festival in La Jolla for 10 years and has built it to one of the loveliest and most respected in the country.
A few years ago, they began putting together a chamber orchestra comprising many of the leading musicians around the country. For this concert, we performed the widest possible variety of music, ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to Glazunov, Ginastera and Assad. The Assad work was the premiere of a piece for two guitars and orchestra called Scare Crow. The Ginastera Variaciones concertantes made a most effective closer, showcasing all the orchestra principals.
Jimmy played the early Mozart D Major, and a Beethoven overture got it all started. Since I knew that I would have first-class principals, I decided to bring back a piece I premiered about 18 years ago. It is a transcription of Glazunov’s Five Novelettes, a work my parents often played in the original string quartet version. Mine is more like a concerto grosso with the solo quartet alternating with the string orchestra, bass parts added. Highest praise goes to not only the soloists but also the entire orchestra for a wonderful experience.
So it is goodbye to the festival circuit for a while. With 70 years just around the corner, I figure that a break is not a bad idea at all. Cindy and I will use this time to enjoy ourselves and work on special projects.
This month’s recording selection is the compilation of the complete (almost) output of the most incredible vocal group to have ever graced the studio. The set is called Magic Voices, and all the songs are performed by the Singers Unlimited. No one ever heard them live as virtually all the tracks are overdubbed, sometimes eight or nine times. The great arranger Gene Puerling was the genius behind this, and lead female singer Bonnie Herman is amazing throughout.
Three of the discs contain a cappella arrangements, and others feature collaborations with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Art van Damme and other jazz greats. It is on the Polygram label but can be tricky to find. The only disappointment is that the set does not include the magical Christmas album the group made. Still, this is a most worthwhile hunt, and every musician in the world can learn something from what these four musicians accomplished.
Conducting Business is available on Amazon.
To read my notes from previous months, click here.
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