Friday, March 20, 2009

Slatkin in Seattle

Last night's Seattle Symphony concert, Leonard Slatkin and Symphonie Fantastique, offered a glimpse at how the orchestra and audience responds to an esteemed visiting maestro. I would imagine that every guest conductor might be a potential candidate during the search for music director, although Seattle Symphony's process remains hush, hush. Slatkin, who served for 27 years as music director for St. Louis Symphony, went on to become music director of National Orchestra in D.C., and is now in the midst of his first season with Detroit Symphony. He is widely respected as an orchestra builder and tireless champion of contemporary American music. Slatkin was born into a distinguished musical family: his father was conductor/violinist Felix Slatkin and his mother Eleanor (Aller) Slatkin was a fabulous cellist. Both his parents were members of the famed Hollywood String Quartet. Leonard Slatkin's brother is cellist Fred Zlotkin, who adopted the original family surname for professional reasons. Both are first cousins to violinist Judith Aller, daughter of distinguished pianist Victor Aller. A personal note: Ms. Aller was my husband's first wife.

I expected opening night to be packed at Benaroya due to Slatkin's renown and the ever popular "Symphonie Fantastique". That was hardly the case. The number of empty parking spaces in Benaroya's garage is a dead giveaway of attendance. Like the previous week, Founders Circle and upper tiers, in particular the nowadays-pricey top level, looked sparse.

"They don't let us sit up there anymore," said one audience member within earshot. "Costs twice as much as here. Anyway, these seats were 20% off the already 20% off ticketed price—" The third tier remained, for a long time, the best kept secret: acoustically, the higher up, the better. The main floor at Benaroya is a chronic dilemma because the brass and percussion can blast the strings into near oblivion.

The program began with Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes. The orchestra sounded apprehensive, perhaps due to opening night nerves, or the inevitable result of having to adjust to out-of-town principal players. I was surprised to find the principal cellist chair, formerly the position of the youthful and exuberant Joshua Roman, now occupied by an older gentleman who elicits an air of clinical routine.

Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, which followed, is a difficult composition to pull off. Chock full of rapid double stops, complex contrapuntal rhythms, and stylistic parodies of the Baroque period combined with jazz elements, the concerto might come across as a dull exercise in the hands of an unimaginative player. However, violinist Julian Rachlin had me at the edge of my seat. From the very first chord described as "the password to the concerto" (the same chord begins each movement) to the very last note, Rachlin tossed off devilishly demanding passages as if they were child's play. He's a compelling, masterful artist with an enviable sound. He had no need to resort to gimmicks; Rachlin is the real deal. Slatkin gave him plenty of leeway.

The concert concluded with a taut performance of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique". In spite of the orchestra sounding a bit sterile, Slatkin coaxed the ensemble to give their best effort. Slatkin offers a sense of polish and refinement but he lacks the highly charged, dripping-with-intensity dynamism of a Gustavo Dudamel or Michael Tilson Thomas. I can't help but wonder what the Seattle Symphony might sound like with a truly charismatic and vitalizing force on the podium.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Making The Rounds

After reading this article and following reports of arts organizations collapsing everywhere due to the economic crisis, I've made a decision to devote the ensuing months to making the rounds in the intensive care unit known as the arts, and charting my observations on this blog. I want to find out just what makes audiences tick, and compare the various strategies employed by marketers during a recession. So, I suppose this is a first installment in a series of critical reviews.

I began with a venture to a former haunt: the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall. The program featured English violinist Tasmin Little in the Elgar Violin Concerto. Little is a charismatic performer who is dedicated to the mission of bringing classical music to the masses. Her album, The Naked Violin, received the Classic FM Award for Audience Innovation at the 2008 Gramophone Awards. Ms. Little embraced the internet and offered up a free down loadable recital of solo violin works on her website; the catchword naked alluding to unaccompanied works of Bach and Ysaye. She has followed up "The Naked Violin" project with "Partners in Time"—a disc of works for violin and piano illustrating the chronological development of composers and their fondness for the two instruments. Ms. Little's photo gallery shows her in beguiling poses, and she definitely falls into the category of eye candy.

One seldom hears a live performance of the Elgar. It's a long song, as they say in the biz; a song that tends to meander. The concerto was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler. The recording of Heifetz is, in my opinion, unparalleled. Paired with Dvorak's rarely performed Symphony #6, I wondered if this particular concert might prove a beneficial sleep aid. Based on the number of empty seats, I'm guessing the program was not a hot sell. I watched as the orchestra musicians strolled on stage, the ensemble as a whole appearing a bit glum. But I was captivated by the guest associate concertmaster, Angela Fuller, who took obvious delight in the music and conveyed a sense of vitality.

Tasmin Little gave a poised account of the Elgar. The broad range of dynamics proved helpful to the lengthy composition. She has a penetrating sound, and communicates a natural ease with the orchestra and audience. I was somewhat distracted by Little's ever-present, wobbly vibrato throughout the work, most noticeable at the beginning of the concerto.

At the intermission, not wishing to leave my seat, I couldn't help but hear the couple from a row behind:
He: Didn't grab me—how about you?
She: Well, it was pretty. Pretty stuff.
He: Was there an actual theme?

The second half of the concert featured the Dvorak Sixth. To paraphrase a past(?) local critic, the orchestra and conductor dispatched a reading of the writing.
photo of Tasmin Little from

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Loop Holy

The other night my family enjoyed watching Bill Maher's Religulous, a satirical documentary about organized religion. I could hardly wait for the film to be out on DVD, as I adore Maher's irreverent wit, and enjoy his HBO show Real Time, especially the New Rules. Did you know Bill Maher is Jewish from his maternal side but was raised Catholic? Perhaps that helps to explain Maher's astute analytical skills, wry humor, and pathological honesty; I consider these a lethal combination of character traits. I don't subscribe to Bill Maher's view of atheism but I'll admit "Religulous" might provide a wake-up call for those who take each word of Scripture literally.

"Religions are the most dangerous threat facing mankind" states Maher, and he travels to numerous religious destinations, such as Jerusalem, Salt Lake City, and even the Vatican, interviewing followers from various faiths to prove his claim. The results are often hilarious but also sobering, especially when one recognizes one's own religion under scrutiny.

Maher quizzes an observant Jew about the pervasive need to find a loophole, by way of circumventing G-d's Law, in order to use elevators, power wheelchairs, telephones, and all things electric on the Sabbath. Since Orthodox Jews rule that it is prohibited to turn on and off electric devices during the Sabbath, as it constitutes work, and would be a violation of the commandment to rest, one can essentially outsmart G-d by setting up a preset timer to perform any task automatically. Sabbath elevators, when preset, will stop on each floor without the need for pressing a button. The term loophole strikes a familiar chord to me, and my bowl of popcorn suddenly falls to the floor. What is it about this expression? Could it be that years ago, at a former workplace of my husband's, he was implored by a man of Jewish faith, to find and extract a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement in order to have a couple of individuals fired? My husband was assured he had the head for it—the intellectual capacity that is, to hook into a legal technicality in a labyrinth of legal jargon, as if he were a Talmudic scholar engaging in pilpul, the study and sharp analysis of Jewish laws. In plain English pilpul means splitting hairs. But if you change the word by one letter to bilbul, you end up with this definition: Confusion. Or use just the last syllable: Bull.

Needless to say, my husband's belief system is not loop-holy and has always been founded on honesty. Following the voice of his conscience, he refused to comply in finding the magic loopholes. And the individuals whose necks had been spared? Well, they had a unique way of showing gratitude.

As Jesus said from the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Remembering Milton

Milton likes ginger-ale. That was what the sign read above Milton's bed at the retirement home. A few days before the legendary conductor's death, in 2006, Ilkka and I went to visit Milton Katims to pay our respects. We found him curled up in bed, asleep like an infant. The retirement home personnel appeared oblivious to the renown of this great individual.

I often drift back to my memories of Milton Katims, as I enjoyed a strong connection to him during his post Seattle Symphony years. I think when Milton said, "I love you, Margie" that he meant it, and I feel honored to this day, for Milton Katims was an esteemed artist and dear friend.

There were the times we'd play chamber music together. Although I had the distinct impression that tennis came first, the duos of Mozart and Rolla, and trios of Beethoven followed a close second. Because Ilkka and I settled in Seattle long after Milton's "long over-due" departure with Seattle Symphony, our relationship was free from baggage. Ilkka and I were the new kids on the block; Milton and Virginia welcomed us with open arms, inviting us into their home, and spoiling us with attention and flattery. I think deep down Milton was always rooting for me. Not just for my playing, which he championed, but I believe he applauded my independent streak for establishing myself in Seattle; creating my own world in the musical community. I had cultivated a life apart from the local symphony, and owed no favors to any single individual.

Ilkka and I understood Milton's reverence for Toscanini. While not just a few colleagues snickered at Milton's musical concepts handed down by the great Master himself, Ilkka and I scratched our heads wondering why more of our violist colleagues hadn't rushed to study with Milton. After all, Milton Katims was violist par-excellence, a legend across the world. At the time we settled in Seattle—in the mid 80's—local violists were scarce commodities, and a fine violist was an oxymoron.

Ilkka and I were not privy to the intense drama that played out during Milton's last years as Music Director of Seattle Symphony. But initially, during Ilkka's role as concertmaster for SSO, musicians from the Katims era insisted on clean, bowed parts, devoid of every bowing Milton Katims had suggested. My husband insisted on seeing Milton's bowed parts before placing his own, and recognized in Milton's markings, the refined musical subtleties of a first class string player. Ilkka took the clean parts and, unbeknown to his colleagues, added Milton's markings, but in his own hand.
"Gosh! These bowings are wonderful!" raved the musicians, unaware that they were the exact bowings they had railed against.

Nobody can dispute that Milton Katims lived a long, productive life. Our friendship lasted over two decades. My conversations with Milton after 2004 grew particularly animated when I revealed to him that Ilkka and I had suffered discrimination from the local SS. "Unbelievable," he said, anger in his voice. "What do you mean they won't let you play, not even as an extra?"
"They won't," I said.
"And Ilkka?"
"Maybe they'd hire him to sweep the floors."
Milton didn't laugh. "They're cutting off their noses to spite their faces," he shouted. "Don't those (and here, he used a colorful word) understand that Seattle is not New York? It's not as if great violinists are a dime a dozen—"
I didn't have an answer.
"Stand up for yourself, Marjorie."
"Yes, Milton—"
"I love you," he said.
Milton Katims, David Tonkonogui and me at Seattle Art Museum