copyright © Markand Thakar, 1998
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, January 12, 1998

An Exciting Day for a Cover Conductor

Tuesday, 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."

My 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.

5:45 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 room.

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.

The scores are on the table, along with a chocolate bar -- someone wants to make sure I have enough energy.

Better 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.

6:15 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?

Hmmm, 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.

6:45 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."

Better 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...

Hey, Hey! focus!

7:00 - Leonard is approaching Newark

Approaching 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.

7:15 pm - and Leonard's just now entering the Holland Tunnel.

Well 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.

I'm 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.

7:37 pm - Executive director Deborah Borda announces my appearance. The musicians look surprised, and amused -- this could be entertaining.

And 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.

The 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 forget.

7:50 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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