Slatkin versus the storm at the Aspen Music Festival

Written by Andrew Druckenbrod on .


Benedict Music Tent exteriorOK, I finished this, and I hope you re-read it from the beginning.

On the occasion of Leonard Slatkin's first concerts as principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony last weekend, I thought I would share a story involving an unusual concert he conducted two years ago.

I was in Aspen, Co., in the summer of 2006 for a panel on music criticism on a weekend that Slatkin happened to be conducting. On the afternoon of July 30, we filed in to the main music tent (literally past Alan Fletcher, who runs the festival now and is so hands-on he stood by the main ticket entrance) to hear him lead the Aspen Festival Orchestra (a student and faculty ensemble).

On the program was a raucous percussion-heavy piece by Christopher Rouse called "Gorgon" and a Mozart double piano concerto performed by the young pianists, Peng Peng and Conrad Tao. After intermission, Slatkin returned for a Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 I will never forget...

Leonard Slatkin

Just before Slatkin took the podium, a powerful gust of wind flew through the tent (which is a permanent structure and very sturdy). We had heard that a storm was on the way, but looking out, you could see some seriously mean-looking clouds advancing on us. But Slatkin started the Fifth as if nothing were amiss.

His was an intriguing reading of the work, taking the first theme of the opening movement very deliberately, as if to draw out the composer's pain. But soon, still in the exposition, raindrops began to fall. Then came a sheet of rain as the transition arrived, and a thunderclap just before the second theme. I may be embellishing this slightly -- it was a while ago and my notes are only so good -- but I actually wrote in my tablet that it was as if nature was joining in, enhancing the "stormy" program of the symphony.

Well, that didn't last for long. With another ear-splitting thunderclap in the recapitulation, the sky just opened. Big raindrops and small hail cascaded from miles above us onto the tent roof. Soon the sound became so deafening that you couldn't talk to someone next to you, and certainly you could not hear orchestra. It was as if you were watching them on TV with the mute button hit -- and someone shaking a can of marbles right next to your head. Eventually, Slatkin just put his hands down, and after a few more minutes in which the noise increased, he just sat down on the edge of the stage, resigned to defeat.

"There was no point [continuing]," Slatkin told me a year later. "This was just so unrelenting. Usually a mountain storm is 10-15 minutes and it is gone, not this one."

Some locals told me it was the worst storm they had ever had during a concert. Eventually, Slatkin just got a microphone and announced that when the rain died down, the orchestra would resume the symphony, but only the last movement. The storm was still going when he began, and I swear there was another thunderclap during the return of the Fate theme. The orchestra, which is quite good with some of the best principal players in the country -- including Pittsburgh Symphony musicians Gretchen Van Hoesen (harp) and Jim Gorton (oboe) -- sitting next to student prodigies, finished in grand form, determined not to be drowned out at the end.

Benedict Music TentAfter Slatkin took his bow and exited, another curious thing happened. While the loud hail had passed, it was still raining rather hard and no one was in a hurry to leave. As we were just milling about, John Zirbel, the horn player who was to have played the big solo in the second movement, decided he had done too much work preparing it to not be heard. He started to play his part from the beginning, and before you knew it, a crowd had formed around him on stage in admiration. I made it up there in time to hear the bulk of it -- it was stunning to hear the solo played so close.

When we talked later, Slatkin expressed concern that the students didn't get to show off what they had been doing in rehearsal. I understand his perspective, but for me this was a special occasion. I still call it the best performance of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 I never heard, and the whole affair was a experience I will never forget. 

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