Change is in the Air

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

A reflection by Leonard Slatkin, kick-started by the hostile reception that greeted the first night of Luc Bondy’s production of Tosca for Metropolitan Opera, New York

Harsh booing at the gala opening night of the Metropolitan Opera — where strong negative reactions are rarely heard, at least in comparison with European opera houses — was still ringing in the ears of the opera world on Tuesday.
– New York Times, 23 September 2009

Leonard Slatkin. ©Steve J. Sherman
The Detroit Symphony (of which Leonard Slatkin is Music Director) has announced plans for a completely revamped season, starting with its concerts this week. The programs will not be changed, at least the ones advertised, but the manner in which the works are performed will be altered.

To begin, the orchestra will be seated with their backs to the audience. Music Director Leonard Slatkin said at a press conference yesterday, “I feel that the listeners are distracted by seeing the faces of the musicians. By turning around, people will tire of looking at backsides and focus purely on the music.”

But that is only the beginning of the new era. For the final work on the program, Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony, the conductor is not only going to reinstate the cuts sanctioned by the composer, but will add some additional ones as well. All in all the total performing time will be about 12 minutes.

“The piece is so long and repetitive. Once you have heard the main tunes, well, they are so memorable that they do not have to be played again”.

Slatkin went on to say, “It is my hope to perform a Bruckner cycle using this philosophy. In that way, we can get through all of them in one concert, perhaps with time for the two that have no number as well”.

Beethoven’s 5th will get a trimming, but with a different rationale.

“Many years ago, I did a production of Tosca in Hamburg. The director told me that since everyone knows the opera, he wanted to eliminate many of the traditions that have bogged the work down. So there was no church in the first act. The heroine did not leap to her death at the end. Yes, we were roundly booed, but I started wondering whether the same rationale could be applied to symphonic music.”

So for these performances of the overly familiar Beethoven score, the opening five bars will not be played, since everyone knows how they go. It will be straight into the 6th measure. In fact, every time the four-note motto comes in and is played loudly, the passage will either disappear or be performed softly.

Most of the soloists will be surprised to learn that the tuttis that usually herald the first entrance will go away. So no more three-minute intro for either the Brahms 1st Piano Concerto or Violin Concerto.

Slatkin has a reason for this as well.

“We are not paying them to sit or stand around.”

Other emendations include orchestration changes. The opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, played by the bassoon in a high register, will now be intoned on the tuba, two octaves lower than printed.

“Tubists at the beginning of the 20th-Century were not as facile as today’s artists. Bassoonists have plenty of solos. Why not let someone else have a chance at it?”

There will also be a chamber version of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Sometimes referred to as the “Symphony of a Thousand”, Slatkin hopes to get it down to 46.

“There are fine chamber versions of the 4th Symphony and “Das Lied”, so precedent is on our side”.

Another of Slatkin’s projects is to present the complete organ works of César Franck, transcribed for accordion. These will be played at the orchestra’s pre-concert recitals.

Then there is the “Pictures Project”, a round-the-clock set of performances including the 33 known orchestrations of the Mussorgsky classic. Long an advocate of alternate versions of the Ravel, Slatkin said, “It is impractical to include one on each of our subscription concerts. So we will start on a Friday, and keep playing until we get through all of them. If we lose a member of the orchestra along the way, so be it.”

Finally, in keeping with the new seating arrangement, the orchestra will perform in street clothes, but the audience is requested to come in formal attire.

“Let them learn how long it takes to put on white tie and tails”.

Season tickets, subscription renewals and cancellations can be taken care of directly with the DSO box office.

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