The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's performances at the 2013 Spring for Music festival represent a dramatic reversal of fortunes, and one that can only happen among modern-day American orchestras.
The DSO was scheduled to play one concert at this, the third annual festival of offbeat and interesting programming at Carnegie Hall. But it was pressed into service for a second concert when the Oregon Symphony suddenly announced in October that it was pulling out of the festival because of financial problems. Detroit, an orchestra with a recent history of financial troubles of its own, agreed to take Oregon's place, adopting half of its program along with its flamboyant soloist.
In an interview with WQXR's Elliott Forrest, Detroit music director Leonard Slatkin explained how he built a coherent program by keeping Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, featuring the Portland-based part-time Pink Martini singer Storm Large, and Ravel's La Valse. "Now it was a question of coming up with what we had comfortably in the repertoire that we thought demonstrated an aspect of Detroit," Slatkin said. Two lesser-known Rachmaninov pieces were slotted in: the symphonic poems Isle of the Dead and the Caprice bohémien, both recorded by the DSO last fall.
"For me the tie-in thematically has to do with composers whose hearts and souls seemed more comfortable with an aesthetic from the late 19th century and they had to cross that divide to be a20th-century composer as well," Slatkin said. NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast the first of the DSO performances live Thursday May 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Oregon's cancellation this year was a particular "bummer," as one Portland blogger put it, given that the orchestra was a hit at the 2011 Spring for Music festival. Meanwhile, Detroit's arrival comes two years after a grueling musicians' strike resulted in the cancellation of most of the 2011-12 season, the departure of some key musicians and public ill-will towards all parties involved.
The orchestra's near-collapse was staved off after it dramatically restructured its finances, enacted a new labor contract (musicians are paid an average of 22 percent less than before the strike) and retuned its philosophy: The DSO has since greatly expanded its community outreach and increased its web presence, including 22 free webcasts last season. Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes recently wrote that the shift "offers persuasive evidence that the titanic clash of lofty artistic tradition with hard financial reality can begin to chart a sustainable path forward."
For its second night of Spring for Music, the Detroit Symphony acknowledges its long history of highlighting American composers by performing all four of Charles Ives' lush and idiosyncratic symphonies. But it starts with a theme of transition – a particularly apt metaphor for the orchestra at the moment.
Slatkin noted how Weill was preparing to leave his native Germany for the U.S. in advance of war as he composed the Seven Deadly Sins (sung by Large in an English translation). Ravel was saying goodbye to the cherished waltz traditions of 19th century Vienna in La Valse. And Rachmaninoff was charting a new, colorful and 20th century version of high romanticism. "We don't think of Rachmaninov so much in the same way as Ravel in terms of orchestral skill," said Slatkin. "But Rachmaninov knew exactly what he was doing. All the sounds, all the colors are perfect for what he's trying to express."
- Rachmaninoff: Caprice Bohemian
- Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead
- Kurt Weill: Seven Deadly Sins (Storm Large, vocalist)
- Maurice Ravel: La valse