To read my notes from previous months, click here.
Unveiling the Mystery Behind Leonard Slatkin. About Conducting Business [view video larger]
Conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Rehearsing the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra
[ more photos ]
From Motown to Manhattan. That was the slogan in Detroit for May.
For the first time in 17 years, the DSO was headed for Carnegie Hall, part of the Spring for Music Festival. The basic concept was that orchestras were to present program ideas and those with the most intriguing would be invited to participate, six in total each season.
Our offering was to present the four numbered symphonies of Charles Ives. This had never been done, as far as we knew, and the idea resonated with the presenters. We planned the last part of our regular season in Detroit accordingly, raised the necessary funds and thought we were good to go.
Then, in October, the Oregon Symphony, one of the other scheduled ensembles, found themselves in a cash bind and had to withdraw. Other orchestras were asked to jump in but their seasons and finances were already planned. So the DSO was asked, as this concert was the night before our own. It meant an additional night of expenses but the board was willing to cover this.
Clearly we would not play the same music as the Portland based group, but Carnegie insisted that one piece be kept: Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins.” This featured a singer unknown to me at the time, one Storm Large. A quick perusal of the web showed a woman who at one time was an indie rocker, heavy drug user and, as she describes it, “sexually omnivorous.” Storm then turned much of her life around and now is one of the singers for Pink Martini. She has also ventured into the world of cabaret, so the Weill made perfect sense.
Oregon also had scheduled Ravel’s “La Valse,” so I thought we could keep that as well. Now it was just a matter of coming up with a solid first half. It had to be music we were familiar with, as there would not be a lot of rehearsal time for anything new. We decided that two Rachmaninov works would be appropriate, especially since our new recording of the third symphony was going to be released around the same time as the NY concerts.
However this did throw a monkey wrench into our plans. Originally we were going to perform the four symphonies on one concert in Detroit, just before we departed. The additional concert meant that we had to play the other program as well. So the Ives pieces were dispersed into three different presentations. We never knew how all four would feel until the concert at Carnegie was over.
Rehearsal plans also became complex, as there would be a full week between performances of 2 and 4, and later 1 and 3. Fortunately, we appeared to have enough time to thoroughly prepare everything. Keep in mind; this is not exactly standard rep for any orchestra.
On paper, the idea of presenting the Ives looked like a stunt, something being done simply because it had never before been attempted. That was about as far away from the truth as you could get. My thought was that the journey from 1 to 4 was an astonishing way to understand how much one composer could evolve and listening to them this way showed exactly that evolution.
They were written just a little over 18 years apart, with the first symphony being more or less a student thesis. Little trace of the Ives most of us would come to know. The second begins to show the composer moving in a different direction. The Europeanisms are still present, with echoes of Brahms, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky but now the infusion of hymn tunes, popular ditties and patriotic melodies coming to the fore.
After the turn of the 19th century, Ives worked on his third symphony, somewhat smaller scaled in every respect other than a new direction harmonically. All of a sudden, hidden melodies and dissonances crept in and one could sense change was in the air. This work won a Pulitzer Prize but not until more than forty years had passed since its creation.
It took fifty years for the fourth symphony to receive a complete performance. I was in attendance at Carnegie when Leopold Stokowski played it with the American Symphony. At the time, I disliked the piece intensely. Three conductors, four keyboards, a quartertone piano, chorus, six and seven lines going on at the same time. It seemed like chaos. As is the case when I really don’t understand a piece of music, I got a copy of the score and studied it.
After many years I finally understood the genius of this and so many works by Ives. What he managed to create in only 25 years or so was a body of works that helped define what American music could be. And no piece was more crucial than this fourth symphony.
The DSO played 2 and 4 separately, on programs that began with La Valse and continued with the master cellist Lynn Harrell playing the Dvořák Concerto. Janos Starker had died the morning of our final performance and Lynn, clearly moved, played a Bach Sarabande in his memory. I delivered a little demonstration of some of the techniques Ives uses in the final symphony, and we all thought that we should do this in Carnegie.
There was a week between these concerts and the next set of Ives plus Weill. I headed to New York and worked with the Juilliard Orchestra. It was not an easy program, with Strauss’ “Don Quixote” and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The young musicians did these piece proud and the concert at Alice Tully Hall was truly wonderful, a reminder that the talent pool has not diminished in these trying economic times.
It was also a chance to catch up with good friends. Michel Camilo was at the Blue Note with his trio. Cindy and I caught the first set on a Thursday night and decided to stay for the second one as well. There was a lovely dinner with Gil Kaplan, who was actually the one who suggested the Ives project, and I even saw my brother, who was working across the street in his role as first cellist of the City Ballet Orchestra.
Now it was time to head back to Detroit to prepare the remaining works for the Carnegie appearance. The first symphony is not easy, as the composer really is not a particularly good orchestrator yet. I had to change certain passages just to maintain clarity. The third is another matter altogether. Beautifully constructed, all that is needed is to decide how large the string section should be.
Storm turned out to be fabulous. Her voice, appearance and overall style suited the Weill to a tee. It will be most interesting to see where her musical adventures take her next. There were four wonderful men to sing the family members and the orchestra seemed to throw themselves into the unusual style required for this piece.
Spring for Music wants each city to participate by bringing as many hometown folks as possible and Detroit complied, sending almost 850 people to New York. Sponsorship was obtained from the Davidson Foundation and General Motors. We will never embark on a tour unless the funding is guaranteed. Several events were arranged for the patrons and many of the orchestra also participated.
Rehearsal for the first program proceeded without incident, and the musicians were clearly excited to be on the Carnegie Hall stage. There were no signs of nerves and we were able to play through the whole program. There was electricity in the air when we began the concert and the DSO was superb. All the pieces sparkled and the audience rewarded Storm and us with vociferous roars of approval.
Of course it was impossible to play through the four Ives works in a two-hour rehearsal, but we did cover most of the places where balance could be a problem. The five violins and harp played distantly from a balcony. The off-stage percussion was placed so they were audible but just barely. The chorus stood behind the trombones and tuba.
Still, we did not know how all this would work for the concert. What we did know is that the presentation would be about three hours long. The first symphony went well, the second even better. It was at some point in the slow movement of the latter that I realized this was going to be a stunning evening.
Vivian Perlis, an Ives scholar, gave a presentation between the first two symphonies. That gave us all a little breather. The third symphony came after a normal intermission. I felt that this went much better than our performance at home and that the orchestra, rather than seeming tired, was feeding off the energy of the audience.
The lecture-demonstration of the fourth was very well received and the performance was simply spectacular! Everything worked. At the end, the audience exploded. Six curtain calls later, we left the stage, knowing that something special had been accomplished. The Detroit Symphony was back on the national stage, and for all the right reasons. We had come bringing the news that there were positive forces at work in Motor City. I know that the musicians were proud of what they had done and I hope they realize how proud I am of them.
Cindy and I had a day off in the Big Apple. We went to see “Lucky Guy” the last play by Nora Ephron. What an amazing, virtuoso work it is. A great cast, headed by Tom Hanks, who we got to spend some time with. Lovely dinner followed and then it was time to get back to work.
The memories of these three weeks will linger for a long time. My good friend David Hyslop told me, “It’s okay to pat yourself on the back once in a while.” I did that for a few hours and then realized that there is so much more to accomplish.
See you in a few weeks.
“Conducting Business” is available on Amazon.