The North American conductor of Slavic descent Leonard Slatkin makes his debut conducting the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra (OFGC) in a concert with pieces by César Franck, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Samuel Barber. As a guest soloist is the also renowned violinist Gidon Kremer.
-What impression has the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra made on you? Has it met your expectations?
-In recent years I have had the opportunity to be in cities where I had never directed. It is very interesting because it has allowed me to meet new musicians, new people in places where I did not always expect to find the best quality. When I got here I didn't know if I would find a good orchestra, a great orchestra... I should, but I didn't really know. And the great surprise, and the great pleasure, has been to discover how as soon as the César Franck symphony that we are going to play begins, I have verified that it is a fantastic orchestra. I immediately thought how much fun it was going to be and hoped they would too. The first impression has been very positive and as the rehearsals have progressed it has become very clear that it is a very serious orchestra when it comes to making music, they have a sense of humor and they listen to each other, which does not always happen. The people who live here and regularly attend their concerts should be aware of this advantage and understand that they have a fantastic orchestra, so that rather than traveling abroad to hear great music, they can do it here, in their own home.
«The people who live in Gran Canaria have to know that they have a fantastic orchestra»
-This year marks the bicentenary of César Franck, what can you tell us about his 'Symphony in D minor'?
-The 'Symphony in D minor' by the Belgian César franck was very popular when I was young and beginning my career, but in the last 25 years it has stopped being in concert halls with such regularity. It was a favorite work of many conductors, who even took it on tour with their orchestras. It is a composition of around 45 minutes that is always well received, demanding for the orchestra and in a certain way fun to play, because everyone has something to do, no one is absent. Why did it stop being a favorite work? In my opinion, we got used to a new repertoire that was not heard so often: works by Mahler, Bruckner, even some Wagner, harmonically and structurally with certain similarities with Franck, who was suddenly compared to those composers. But Franck's symphony doesn't make the same kind of 'big claims' that those composers did, and perhaps that idea of a lighter Mahler or Bruckner led the directors to shelve the work for a while. But I think it deserves to be heard regularly. You really feel that Franck doesn't sound like anyone else, and I consider him to be one of the most underrated songwriters of our time.
-You will also conduct Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 'Violin Concerto' together with Gidon Kremer. Have you already met this violinist in a previous concert and what can you tell us about him?
-I imagine that it is the first performance on the island of the 'Violin Concerto' by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish composer who in fact spent much of his life in the Soviet Union and who was a great friend of Dimitri Shostakovich. This friendship is very clearly perceived in his music, much in this concerto has echoes of his colleague, especially in the treatment of wind instruments, but it is really a concerto composed in 1959 for the great Leonid Kogan. It is the first time that I am going to direct it and we are delighted to have as soloist the enormous Gidon Kremer, who is a strong defender of this work, which lasts around 35 minutes. It is virtuosic but also lyrical, whose writing is also quite reminiscent of Shostakovich but with many moments in which Weinberg's unique and special voice resonates. I'm looking forward to playing her because I've often worked alongside Gidon Kremer, although I haven't seen much of him in recent years. Being with him to exchange stories, anecdotes of colleagues and friends, will be a pleasure for me, not to mention, of course, making music together again.
-It is also included in Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' program, made very popular by the movie 'Platoon'. What can you tell us about this piece and how have the rehearsals with the OFGC string section gone?
-The program does not open with the traditional overture, but with a rather somber work, the 'Adagio for strings' by Samuel Barber. A work written in the 1930s, it is the second movement of his 'String Quartet', which was orchestrated at the request of Arturo Toscanini. This version has been played often, becoming in many respects one of the most popular works written by an American composer, although to tell the truth it doesn't sound quite 'American', as it doesn't have jazz rhythms, there isn't really a sense of rhythmic energy, it is more static, calm and quiet. The work was played at funeral services by Franklin D. Roosevelt and since then it has become for people a kind of anthem associated with tragedies: it was played at Kennedy's funeral and even by me a few days after the tragic events of 9/11. September 2011, when I did it on the last night of the London Proms. Some people know it from its use in movies, advertising, or even electronic versions heard in clubs around the world. But it is the purity of the piece, its simplicity, that makes it so amazing, from the faint sonority of the opening notes to the tension of the full sonority of the orchestra, in this case, as its title suggests, the string section. , playing with all the colors that the entire orchestra can express.
-What motivates you to continue conducting orchestras around the world?
-It will be three years since I stopped exercising as director. For 45 years I was at the head of orchestras in St. Louis, Washington DC, Detroit, London, France, to which other titles and honors from other orchestras must be added. But I decided that it was time to stop as an administrator and focus on the music and on conducting the orchestra itself. So I traveled around the world, seeing wonderful musicians, most of the time conducting the music that I love and visiting cities and going to places that maybe I hadn't spent so much time before, better capturing the sensations and flavors of the world. ..
-How did you experience the year 2020 and much of 2021 with all professional activity paralyzed by the pandemic? What did you do during the lockdown?
-I am going to be 78 years old in a few months, I am no longer a young man, and I want to have free time. And some of that free time has coincided with the pandemic. I am one of those people who has said: “Enjoy the pandemic”, but not for the reasons you might suspect, but because it gave me the opportunity to explore other territories. I wrote a lot, arranged and orchestrated many works, finished and published my third book, and the fourth will be finished in a couple of months, but the most important thing for me was that I have become a real cook. I love being able to reproduce the aromas and flavors that I have been able to enjoy traveling. I am a true 'foodie', I love to eat; you can see in my figure, losing weight is complicated, especially being a guest director. I hope to control it and get rid of those extra kilos that I have accumulated, especially here in Spain. I don't know how people do it every day, maybe it's the afternoon nap. Yes, maybe that's it (he says wryly).
-What is the hallmark or distinctive mark of Leonard Slatkin as a conductor?
-When people think of me, if they ever do, they usually associate me with American music, both contemporary and classic, but my tastes are very broad. I grew up in a house where you heard all kinds of music, film music, jazz, rock and roll, pop folk, blues, a little bit of everything. But I refer to what Duke Ellington said: «There are only two types of music, the good one and the other one». I imagine that people also associate me with Slavic music, Russian music in particular, as well as British and French music. It doesn't mean that I don't do another repertoire, of course, but they have been areas in which I have put special effort. Another aspect that I consider very important is to have a real agenda for the education of young people, particularly in public schools in the United States. We have seen in the last 35 or 40 years a deterioration in the teaching of music and the arts in general, and this is not good for anyone. The arts should be a part of the school curriculum, just as science, math or history are taught. The arts are important and we must remind people of this. In addition to this, I think I have been a good orchestra builder, all the orchestras I was in were better when I left them.
-You have Ukrainian ancestry, how is the war in that country due to the unjustified and atrocious invasion by Russia?
-My own environment is conflictive at the moment, since my mother's family comes from Belarus and my father's from Ukraine. You can imagine, even now, when as far as we know we have no relatives in those parts of the world, how difficult it is to try to understand how the world has come to this point in the 21st century. In the first moments of the conflict some orchestras did not want to say anything about it, others wanted to show their solidarity with the people of Ukraine, but it is interesting to see that nobody wanted to speak against the people of Russia. After all, both areas speak the same language. I know that when my father's family from Ukraine would gather at my grandparents' house, they did not refer to themselves as Ukrainians but as Russians. It is impossible for me to understand how the people of Russia could be fighting against the people of Ukraine. There is clearly a lack of information here and it is not the task of musicians to become politicians, of course not, but we can do some things. I will be wearing a blue and yellow flag that I recently purchased at the concert. When asked about this, all I can say is that at least for the people who are playing the music and for the audience present, when you hear Barber's 'Adagio', the 'Weinberg Concerto' and the 'Symphony' by César Franck you absent yourself from this world and you move to a very special world. And it's not just the current conflict in that part of the world, in the United States we are once again confronted with hate, racial discrimination, sexual and gender discrimination. People say things that just aren't true and a lot of people believe it. It is hard, I insist, understand this, at a time when we can see what is happening. It could be different in a time when people were writing about it and you couldn't really know. But now we can and it is impossible to hide it. Fortunately, we will find someone important, perhaps in the next few days, in the next few weeks. For me, it will be key to find real leaders in the world, people who can do things differently, in what they say and how they act. Right now, I'm disappointed in almost everyone, because this situation should have been avoided completely, absolutely. But it hasn't been like that, everyone is being politically correct, careful... Okay, of course we don't want a nuclear war, or any kind of war, but things have gone too far. As musicians, the only thing we can do is continue to persevere artistically, as we will do in this program on Friday and of which I am very proud.