Written by: Leonard Slatkin
To paraphrase the Gershwins, “Summertime, and the concerts are easy”. Not really!
In fact, they can be much more demanding. Whereas the average winter subscription concert here in the US will get four or five rehearsals, summer music-making can include up to three concerts a week for many orchestras: Boston in Tanglewood, Chicago in Ravinia or Philadelphia in Saratoga, for example. At the BBC Proms, there is usually enough time to prepare for the single event in a given week. Once in a while, when a premiere is scheduled, this does not work out. You can never know how difficult the new piece will be. I remember such a concert with Christoper Rouse’s Seeing, a piano concerto for Manny Ax, which was followed by Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Neither work received the best performance that night.
Since leaving the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I have taken a somewhat different path with summer music-making. A position was created for me at the Hollywood Bowl, that icon of movies, cartoons and, yes, high performance art. As a youngster in Los Angeles, I would go the three miles or so from our house, pay about a dollar, and sit in the highest of the Bowl’s 19,000 seats. No amplification back then and you had to strain a bit to hear the soft passages. But a dollar to hear Ormandy, Solti, Bernstein, Heifetz and so many others? Life was good.
Now it is my turn to walk on that stage. If you look at a brochure, you will see that there are four orchestra-concerts a week. So how is that any better than what other ensembles have to do? Well, there are actually two separate orchestras: The Los Angeles Philharmonic on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra on the weekends. I get three rehearsals per program, sometimes four. We open in a week with Beethoven 8 and 9, which the orchestra played a few months ago. Then comes an evening of serenades by Richard Strauss, Mozart and Brahms. An all-Dvořák program follows the next week and then a presentation of Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus”. This has been re-worked by the author so that we can perform more substantial excerpts between the scenes. Michael York is Salieri.
My other activities are based in Aspen, Colorado, where I got my conducting jump-start. This summer I will be doing two weeks. The first has already occurred. There are at least five orchestras at the Festival, mostly comprised of the students that make up the population of the ski-resort in the summer. The two that combine the youngsters with the faculty are the Chamber Orchestra and the Festival Orchestra. It is easy to get distracted in the idyllic surroundings of the Rockies. It is also difficult to breathe for the first couple of days. After all, it is 9,000 feet above sea level. How the wind players and singers manage is beyond me.
One of the pleasures is the opportunity to teach. There are 20 young conductors from all over the world. They get to work with a student orchestra and usually there is one concert every week. In recent years, I have enjoyed this part a great deal. I suspect I learn a lot more than the budding maestros! There is also teaching when it comes to the orchestras. After all, these are comprised of mostly students. When I go back, my program on July 30 includes the 5th Symphony of Tchaikovsky, Mozart’s two-piano concerto with two Chinese pianists, aged 12 and 13, and Gorgon by the above-mentioned Christopher Rouse. The composer describes this piece as the loudest orchestral work ever written. I don’t know if we will achieve the decibel level called for, but I do know that I have a lot more time to put this together than I did his Seeing.
Two more things need to be mentioned: heat and humidity. Notice that I am going to places where the former is not so bad because the latter does not exist. Even the Royal Albert Hall, air conditioning and all, can be a stifling place for the performer as well as the listener. But when you get a cool, light breeze between the San Fernando Valley and the ocean, life IS good.