NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO COMMENTARY
copyright © Markand Thakar, 1998
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, January 12, 1998
An Exciting Day for a Cover Conductor
May 6, 1997
5:15 pm - I return to my hotel; there are three messages from the New
York Philharmonic: "Please call ASAP; we're not sure if Leonard
is going to make it tonight."
heart begins racing. I am the cover conductor for the Philharmonic
this week, and I always knew I might get such a call. But I've never
stepped in before, and there was not even a hint that it might happen
tonight. Of course I studied the music, and I attended all the rehearsals
this week and the three previous performances. But this is an unusual
program and I've never conducted any of these pieces with any orchestra,
let alone with the Philharmonic, on no rehearsal. Okay, you've
got a job to do. Gather your wits; get to the hall.
pm - I arrive at the hall and get the lowdown from artistic administrator
Welz Kauffman: tornadoes have virtually shut down Amtrak's Northeastern
routes. Leonard Slatkin bailed out of the train in Philadelphia at
5:00 and is on his way in a cab. Welz deposits me in the conference
Okay, now what? First - get your head straight. What are the odds Slatkin
won't make it? Slim. But if he doesn't? Whoa, this is the New York
Philharmonic. Sure, I've conducted a lot of concerts, but -- jeez,
this is the big time -- one of history's great orchestras. It doesn't
get any bigger than this. Okay. Get it together. You've studied these
pieces, and you've always come through under pressure. You'll do fine.
scores are on the table, along with a chocolate bar -- someone wants
to make sure I have enough energy.
get to work. I won't worry about the second half of the program until
intermission -- if Slatkin still hasn't shown by then I'll have plenty
of time in the break. First up is a tricky new work by John Adams,
called Slonimsky's Earbox. It's got some mixed meters, a couple of
dramatic tempo changes, and a succession of unpredictable starts and
stops -- a real conductor's minefield. I work through the Adams again
page by page. Nervous? No, I'm just 100% concentrated.
pm - Welz knocks. He's a bit animated. "Leonard called on his
cell phone; he's near New Brunswick but traffic is bad. We're holding
till 7:45. Is everything okay? Is your tux here? Do you need anything?" Fine,
yes, and maybe a Diet Coke?
New Brunswick, New Jersey already. Whew! That's only fifty miles away,
and he's got an hour and half -- plenty of time to get here and get
dressed. He'll make it, no problem. What a relief! Part of me thinks
it might have been interesting, but it's a tremendous pressure to conduct
this orchestra in concert for the first time, especially in a tricky
piece, with no rehearsal to make sure things are comfortable. The stakes
are enormous. If the concert falls apart, I've humiliated myself and
let the organization down in front of 2,500 people in the capital of
the music world. On the other hand, if I were to pull it off... Well,
it ain't gonna happen.
pm - Welz again. Now he's speaking slowly and with utmost serenity.
It's a dead giveaway -- he's really nervous, so I know there's a chance
I'll be on. "We can only hold until 7:35 or else we'll run into
overtime for the musicians," he says. "How're you doing?" Fine,
Welz, I can do this. "Don't worry."
call my wife and tell her to come down. Boy am I glad she's in town.
After that strenuous workout this afternoon at the Museum of Modern
Art and the 2-mile walk to Zabar's to pick up some dinner, we were
just dragging back to the hotel expecting a nap and a leisurely evening
at Avery Fisher. Instead I get a chocolate bar and...
- Leonard is approaching Newark
Newark? He really might not make it. Better go over the second piece
too: Ives' Third Symphony. It has a few complications. But you can
do this. You've conducted this orchestra before -- at the audition,
remember -- and they asked you back. Okay, you'll be fine.
pm - and Leonard's just now entering the Holland Tunnel.
that seals it. No way he can get here in time. I'm on. Better go get
dressed. Good thing I left that set of tails upstairs.
deep in concentration. I'm about to conduct the New York Philharmonic.
Tux shirt, lucky cuff links; oops, don't forget the safety pins to
keep your shirt tucked in; at least you should look collected.
pm - Executive director Deborah Borda announces my appearance. The
musicians look surprised, and amused -- this could be entertaining.
we begin. Off to a good start, but I'm a little tense. Loosen up, kid.
You're conducting the New York Philharmonic. Try to enjoy this. I relax.
They sound great. Hey, this is actually fun. And it's going well. We
sail through the mixed meters without a hitch. Concentrate now: here's
the stop-start section; ooh, nailed it. Sudden slowdown, and... got
it. It's all downhill from here. Now for the big finish -- we're done.
And -- it went great.
audience of course is enthusiastic, and -- oh my, the orchestra isn't
standing, so I'll have my own bow. That's a touching gesture I'll never
pm - I leave the stage thrilled and exhausted, and to my great relief
see Leonard Slatkin, dressed and ready to go. I'm a bit concerned for
him -- after his ordeal now the poor man has to conduct a concert --
but I'm very much looking forward to conducting the Philharmonic again.
I just hope the next time I'll have more than 2 hours notice.
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