My Musical Career – Part Fifty-Three

The Year 1996- Continued

My last blog post dealt mainly with the events of April 1996 – the experimental recording session at Lommedalen church – and the events leading up to Mariss Jansons’s heart attack near the conclusion of the first of two concert performances of La Boheme. As I mentioned in that post, we were lucky that Mariss received quick and expert treatment when he did. His heart attack was serious enough for the doctors to be considering heart bypass surgery. In the end, he didn’t need that radical a procedure, and with the eventual installation of a stent, and later, a pacemaker, he was able to make a full recovery by late fall. He wound up going to a rehabilitation center in Switzerland, where he spent the summer and early fall months in rehabilitation. It did him a world of good, and he was able to resume his activities in early November. But that is getting ahead of ourselves, and will pick up on that thread later in this post.

The rest of the Spring of 1996

We were fortunate in other respects as well. As I alluded to in previous blog posts, we didn’t have much of the season left. We did have a short tour to Amsterdam and Brussels, and this tour, plus the two preparatory concerts in Oslo were taken over by Sakari Oramo, who did an outstanding job filling at short notice. The concerts in Oslo took place on the 14th and 15th of May, and the program had to be re-worked. The Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 with Truls Mørk as soloist remained on the program, but Richard Strauss’ Don Juan replaced the Rossini overture originally programmed by Mariss, and Strauss’ Alpensinfonie was replaced by the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 by Jean Sibelius – one of the orchestra’s war horses. If I remember correctly, the tour was quite successful , given the circumstances. Sakari Oramo was an up-and-coming young conductor and this was a good opportunity for him to show what he was capable of, and he certainly made the most of it. It was always good to play a concert in the Concertgebouw, and I can tell you it was wonderful to play in a hall with excellent acoustics. The concerts were well-received, especially in Brussels, where the orchestra and Sakari Oramo were given an ovation normally reserved for Mariss Jansons.
The concert series scheduled for the week of our return from this short tour was originally scheduled to be conducted by Mariss, but were conducted by Manfred Honeck, who was also scheduled to conduct our summer festival tours. The program included three works: Johan Svendsen’s Carnival in Paris; Ketil Hvoslef’s Variations for Orchestra; these works were followed by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathetique.” These were well received, and then it was time to go to the Holmenkollen for our annual Sommerkonsert, this year conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. And that ended the spring season.

The Festival Tour – August 1996

With Mariss recuperating in Switzerland, the fall season began with concerts in Oslo and Lillehammer in preparation for the 1996 Festival tour. The program for the concerts in Oslo and Lillehammer were essentially preparation for the festival tour. Manfred Honeck (who was soon to assume the role of principal guest conductor) filled in for Mariss, and he kept Jansons’ program intact – Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, followed by the Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. Mariss was never one to “baby” the orchestra, and Honeck carried out the program more than sufficiently. We played the Thursday night concert in Oslo, and the Friday night concert was presented in Lillehammer. The Bartok is one of the more complex and exposed parts in the repertoire, and the Mahler symphony is just about an hour in length and is a bit of an endurance contest.
I remember thinking (as we played the Mahler in Oslo) , “We’ve played all this music , and there are still two movements to go! We made it through without any mishaps, and we were ready to embark on the 1996 Summer Festival tour. This year, we would be visiting three festivals – the BBC Proms in London, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, and the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. While the Mahler and Bartok were part of the tour program, they would be part of different concert programs. I confess to heaving a sigh of relief. While those two works are among my favorites and was always glad to play them with the OPO, I have to admit that having them on the same program was challenging, to say the least. For the 1996 Proms, we presented two concerts The first took place on Sunday, August, 18, 1996, and featured Barbara Bonney as soloist in five songs of Edvard Grieg. To open the concert, the orchestra and Manfred Honeck performed music of Rossini – his Overture to “L’italiana in Algeri”, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony closed the program. (All concerts were performed at the enormous Royal Albert Hall.) The second concert followed on August 19, 1996, and it opened with Bartok’s Music for Stings, Percussion and Celesta followed by Alfred Janson’s “Mellomspill”. The concert concluded with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “The New World.”
For the tour, I played on our “B” set of Hingers – the 25″ and 28″ drums the orchestra purchased from John Wyre back in 1992, and our 31 inch Hinger from the “A” set. This drum had a calfskin head, while I had installed Premier “hazy” heads” on the “B” drums, and, as I will relate later in this post, it is a good thing that I did.
The concerts at the BBC Proms were extremely well received, even without Mariss on the podium. Manfred Honeck showed himself to be a major conducting talent, as his subsequent career has shown. I found him to be musical and with a lot of enthusiasm. He was more laid-back than Mariss, but then again, Mariss Jansons was a “force of nature” when it came to music and conducting in particular. As I wrote earlier, the second BBC Prom concert concluded with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. In the final movement, twenty bars from the end, on impulse, I inserted a “d” instead of an “e” for two bars (there is a ritard on these two bars before resuming in tempo) . This is something I had learned from my Owensboro Symphony days. My conductor, Leon Gregorian, had asked me to add that. I was skeptical, but did as he asked. It worked, and it made sense dramatically. When one returned to the “e”, it was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud bank. Manfred Honeck did not object, and the concert was well received. While packing up, John Drummond, the head of the BBC Proms and it’s Controller, came up to me and asked what I had done to that passage. I explained my reasoning, and we perused the miniature score he was carrying. After some moments, he acknowledged that while it was different from what he was used to, that it did work musically and dramatically. (Incidentally, that was the only time in my tenure that I did that – in our recording and performances under Mariss, I played it as written. I continue to do so to this day. I was doing a bit of grandstanding that day.)
In addition to music of Bartok, Janson, Mahler, Dvorak, and Grieg, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was added to the tour program, to be played in Edinburgh. The two BBC Prom concerts were followed by one in Edinburgh, and two concerts in Lucerne. The program in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall was essentially the same as the opening concert at the Proms, except that the Beethoven Fifth Symphony replaced the Mahler. And it was at this concert that my decision to take the “B” set with plastic heads was confirmed. The humidity was so high (that “Scottish mist” again) that the 31″ Hinger was sinking in pitch every five minutes. I remembered a similar experience in Chiba, Japan in 1993, so the Beethoven was played on the two inner drums. Mr. Honeck asked me to use wooden sticks, as he preferred that type of sound. Admittedly, the Usher Hall’s acoustics, while very good, had some reverberation, so he felt that would sticks would give him the added clarity. I gave him what he wanted, and playing the symphony on the two inner drums helped a lot in that respect.
The concert was well received, and all was well. As far as I remember, the two concerts in Lucerne were also well received. All in all, this was good preparation for the late fall of 1996, when Mariss Jansons would return and the orchestra would undertake an epic Far East tour that would include Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and ending with a concert in Beijing! More on that in the next blog post!

Manfred Honeck eventually succeeded to the music directorship of the Pittsburgh Symphony, an orchestra that Mariss conducted between 1997 and 2004. Here is a link to his recent recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Enjoy!