The series of symposia look great on paper: press, conductor and jury. These are three important, and completely different, views of the Cliburn Competition. The reality of the first two has surpassed any expectations and the McDavid Studio space has been filled with an overflow crowd. The third, with the members of the jury, is tomorrow. It should be the most controversial of the three.
The question of contestants’ teachers, both past and present, serving on the jury has hung in the air. This was exacerbated by the Cliburn’s initial decision to exclude this information from the official program. The subject came up in an interview with CEO Jacques Marquis when TJ’s Jan Farrington spoke with him. He dismissed it as a non-issue. Maybe for him, but not for others. We do love a scandal in this country and can easily extrapolate anything into one when such a vacuum exists. Add to this the fact that everyone’s favorite contestant—and we all have one or two—didn’t make the final rounds and someone we thought should advance was sent home, dejected. The jury symposia should be fascinating unless it is turned into a bland, institutional forum.
But, on to the report from Friday’s conductor symposium.
Leonard Slatkin is one of the foremost American born conductors working today, and he is American through and through. Born in Los Angeles to musical parents, he grew up around the cream of the crop of composer and performers—both in the classical and pop worlds. Frank Sinatra sang him to sleep as a child. As a conductor, he made his initial reputation by turning the St. Louis Symphony into an internationally recognized orchestra. He is now tasked with the difficult job of keeping the Detroit Symphony alive in an unfathomably difficult economic situation for the city. He is working this miracle by sheer hard work and by example: he voluntarily reduced his salary. Of course, if the orchestra folded his salary would be moot; still, it was a generous gesture and went a long way towards the orchestra’s salvation.
He is also a raconteur who more than held the attention of the audience at the symposia. He charmed everyone. He also impressed with his naturalness, but more so with his common sense approach to conducting. Despite the fact that he is one of our best conductors, there is nothing of the Great and August Maestro about him at all.
“The greatest conductors use body language, and especially their eyes, to convey what they want. We don’t plan that we will do this gesture here and another one over here. Of course, we know where the difficult parts are, where we know that the players need attention and where we can help, but we react to the music going on at the moment.”
It is not as simple as that, as he later explained. “When I am in bar 96, I am already thinking about bar 97 or what important phrase is coming up. The conductor has to be ready to fix things when they go wrong, and something always goes wrong no matter how minor. To me, there is no perfect performance. If that ever happens, then we should quit right there and then.”
He bemoaned the lack of rehearsal time with the finalists. This is not only because of the challenge of the music. Each of the pianists is completely different in temperament and that affects how they plan repertoire. Even though he has conducted these concerti many times before, and with a long list of soloists, it is always different. No two pianists, hopefully, will ever play it the same way. If so, we wouldn’t need one of them. There is also the added challenge of switching composers so radically. Last night, for example, had works by Beethoven and Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. Here is a trip, starting with a concerto that represents the transition from classical to romanticism, then moving to a modernist chef-d'oeuvre and a masterpiece of the over-ripe romanticism that was the inevitable result of Beethoven’s revolution.
“We have a 10 minute conversation,” he said, about his interaction with the contestants. “I know where all the tricky parts are and we go over them first. Some of these competitors are playing the concerto for the first time with an orchestra. Even if they have played it before, how many times could that have been? They are so young.”
He sees his job as a conductor in concerti as supporting the soloist. After all, it is their statement about the concerto the audience has come to see and hear. We all talk about hearing a great performance by this or that pianist without mentioning who conducted, unless it was that very rare occurrence—a very special musical melding of the minds.
The entire session was filled with amusing statements and funny stories about the famous and infamous. But the biggest big laugh came when moderator Fred Child, of National Public Radio’s Performance Today fame, asked Slatkin why he was conducting without a baton. The expected theoretical discussion of the ins and outs of baton use didn’t arrive.
“I forgot them,” he said.
And that sums up his aw-shucks attitude better than all of the above words.