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DSO maestro pays tribute to his parents with new elegy
At about 12 minutes, "Kinah" isn't a particularly long piece.
But it's been a long time coming for Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin.
"Kinah" is the Hebrew word for elegy, and the composition -- which the DSO premieres on Dec. 5 and 6 -- is, in fact, Slatkin's memorial to his late parents, Felix, a violinist, and Eleanor, a cellist. "It's easily the most personal piece I've ever written," says Slatkin, 71, and it's rooted in the particular tragic circumstances of his father's passing.
The Slatkins were slated to play Brahms' "Double" Concerto together on February 9, 1963, with the Glendale Symphony in suburban Los Angeles. "They had never done anything together," remembers Slatkin, although his parents were "regarded as part of the elite of the Hollywood musical establishment" and both members of the Hollywood String Quartet, playing for movie scores and also for recordings by some of the top singers of the time.
The couple rehearsed the piece on February 6, and Slatkin recalls "a great deal of anticipation for this performance." Attending the rehearsal seemed "a chore" for the then 19-year-old, but even he could see that "everyone there was mesmerized by the pair's incredible way with this piece. We all knew that the concert would be an evening to treasure."
Sadly, it wasn't. Felix Slatkin died on February 8, the night before the concert was to take place. His funeral two days later was attended by 1,500 people, including Frank Sinatra, and Leonard Slatkin spent decades grappling with a way to appropriately pay tribute to his legacy.
"I never really felt that I had either properly mourned his loss and certainly hadn't done very much about the family, other than writing about them in (his memoir), to pay homage and respect in the way they deserved," Slatkin acknowledges. With is father's 100th birthday falling December, the time seemed ripe to finally write an elegy.
Slatkin composed "Kinah" for two harps, celeste, piano and tuned percussion, while a flugelhorn and strings that will play off stage. "The chords sounded at the opening take the melody of the slow movement of the Brahms concerto and transform them into harmonic elements," Slatkin writes in the program notes for the performance. "The fulgelhorn intones the elegy itself, followed by a steady build up to the other instruments."
Towards "Kinah's" conclusion, an offstage violin and cello will play passages of the concerto but, Slatkin says, "only fragments of them, never completing them to remind us that they never did play it complete, in person." It's obviously a touch whose fullest emotional impact requires some knowledge of his parents' story, but Slatkin -- who says the inclusion of Mahler`s "Resurrection" on the program is appropriate but not intentional -- is confident that "Kinah" stands up as a piece of music on its own, too.
"Even if one doesn't know that particularly background, musically the piece makes sense," he says. "Other composers have certainly quoted other composers successfully. That's what I'm trying to do here, and obviously the place to put it here was, literally, at the end to symbolize that ending of their lives together.
"So it has a lot of meaning to me, and I think that will be evident to anyone hearing it."
Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, "Kinah" (World Premiere) and Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6.
Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit.
Tickets are $15-$100.
Call 313-576-5111 or visit dso.org.
Note: Sunday's performance will be webcast at dso.org/live.
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