Leonard Slatkin: How can we play Haydn with distanced strings

Leonard Slatkin: How can we play Haydn with distanced strings


norman lebrecht

June 01, 2020

From a new essay by the former Detroit Symphony music director:

… Almost every time I have conducted a Haydn symphony, for example, when we get to the repeat in the first movement, there is inevitably a page turn immediately followed by a continuation of the violin part and sometimes all the other instruments. That is why we have two people on a stand in the string section, a practice that has been in place for a couple centuries. One has to stop playing and then quickly and adroitly negotiate turning the page so all will go smoothly.

But without stand partners to perform this action, the music will simply have to stop. There is no way around that, is there? Well, maybe there is. …

Read on here.

This is the first caveat from a leading conductor on the new normal. Your views?


  • David K. Nelson says:

    Maestro Slatkin sets forth the practical and aesthetic issues pretty thoroughly.

    For the page turning issue, in an ideal world there are measures of rest at the bottom of the page, and I can think of a few pieces where depending on the publisher it turns out that way at least now and then. Ironically the solo part of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is one of them! It’s almost as if Ferdinand David told Felix, OK I need some measures of rests here ….. But yes Haydn does not often give you those measures. I don’t think it was in Haydn, but I have recollections of a prior Milwaukee Symphony music director, perhaps Zdenek Macal, who while busily conducting would reach over and turn the first desk violin’s pages for them.

    Often there is a measure or two of rest in the middle of a page and some creative Xeroxing could create new page turns where those measures reside. You could go further and create inside desk/outside desk versions of a part where the page turns are staggered (the page-turn equivalent of Stokowski’s staggered bow changes?) so at least somebody is playing all the time.

    If the ideal orchestral playing takes its cue from chamber music, then it is certainly true that the nearly mystical way good musicians can sense what the others around them are about to do is a function of physical proximity, whether you are reacting to a glance, a subtle sniff, or the movement of head or arm. There is a reason chamber ensembles sit as they do even when there is plenty of room to spread out. Something will be lost.

    Some of the photos I have seen of widely spaced seating for audiences (and now I see similar photos of church services) look so strange to me. I think back to some pathetically attended concerts I’ve been to and how strange and unsatisfying it was. The better the concert the stranger and more unsatisfying. Some of the photos remind me of stagings of the final cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

    • Edward says:

      Yes! There is spot in Also Sprach (figure #35, I think), where both players on the front stand are playing solos, requiring a conductor page turn!

  • Kumi says:

    Have the string players play with masks so they can sit next to each other, then the whole orchestra fits on stage again. Also the audience can wear face masks and sit next to each other again, just like in the airplanes.

  • Couperin says:

    The same Leonard Slatkin booted from the Met for not knowing Traviata?

    I think the strings can use iPads with foot pedals if page turns are really that much of a problem, or for luddites like myself, the old trick of making a copy of the page and taping it to the music to avoid a tricky page turn. (I know, this goes way over the heads of many string players who prefer to whine about bad page turns.) People in the contemporary music game have for decades come up with ways to get around those pesky page turns. In the end, may be so bold to say, it’s Haydn, who needs a bloody conductor… especially if it’s the wrong Lenny?

    • John Kelly says:

      Dear Monsieur Couperin: Maestro Slatkin (yes it’s the same one) did “know” Traviata! Angela Gheorghiu and he were not “on the same page” about the music. I don’t know the exact specifics but it would seem appropriate for you to show a heck of lot more respect for someone who has had as stellar a career as Mr. Slatkin. I heard him do a wonderful Fanciulla del West at the Met and my former friend in the cellos said the orchestra very much enjoyed working with him. Your comments indicate that you have some axe to grind (“wrong Lenny”), but the fact that you shelter behind the name of this composer indicates that you fall into the tedious community of anonymous carpers on SD. Basta!

      • Couperin says:

        Thanks for the link. Simply put, and of course it’s only their opinion, but a couple of friends in the orchestra were the ones who told me he didn’t know the piece well enough, before any news came out about it.

    • Music Librarian says:

      I encourage you to actually read what Slatkin wrote. You only picked at the man from the blurb.

    • Peter says:

      Other than being gratuitously discourteous, I don’t understand what Couperin is trying to say.

    • Bruce says:

      I’ve heard the “right” Lenny conduct Haydn and would rather hear the “wrong” one.

  • Mayflower says:

    As an amateur violinist who plays in a community orchestra, I’m so happy and pleased to see the practical solutions laid out in this column. It gives me hope that I will be able to play again soon!

  • CA says:

    E-stand was an electronic music stand that did all of this. I remember hearing about it more than 15 years ago. Whatever happened to it?

  • Alex says:


  • barry guerrero says:

    I-Pads with foot pedals is the most workable solution. Many printed parts don’t have rests where the page turns happen. That may or may not make it difficult for players with vision challenges.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    It is a well thought out landscape covering the many obstacles. Many music directors have a master class in Maestro Slatkin’s essay. As a soloist, I have already started thinking about concerto repertoire for the immediate future.

  • Julien says:

    The VPO has recently had a medicine professor conduct an experiment that showed that distancing within an orchestra is useless. An 80 cm distance is enough (see on their website, in german : https://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at/orchester/philharmonisches-tagebuch/year/2020/month/4/blogitemid/1423/page/1/pagesize/20). It’s serious stuff, not trumpesque bluster.
    Other orchestras should take note and stop this distancing madness.
    Airplanes are full and the French government has just allowed to sell train tickets to capacity, provided passengers wear a mask. If people can safely sit for 4 hours in a train carriage, they can probably do the same for 90 minutes in a concert hall. At some point, hysteria about concert halls has to stop.

  • Freddynyc says:

    First world problems. How do we negotiate those darn page turns…..

    • Bruce says:

      Brahms’s struggles to complete his First Symphony was also a “first world problem.” He should have put that effort into something important.


      Clearly it’s a part of human nature to belittle anyone else’s problems, since it happens so constantly and predictably; but I don’t understand it. Yes, perspective is important, but not every problem has to involve avoiding immediate death in order to be worth paying attention to.

  • Leonard Slatkin’s remarks are well thought out, well presented and practical, characteristics we have long known and admired in him.
    In may be instructive to know that, since the formation of the Tokyo Sinfonia a decade and a half ago, our 19 string players play from 19 separate music stands. The special arrangements we perform are printed so that the players do indeed have strategic places to turn the pages without stopping their playing.
    This month, when we resume public concerts, our players will be separated by 1.5 meters, following the example of the Berlin Philharmonic. Fortunately we perform in a great little concert hall, and I believe we’ll hear each other just fine.
    Thanks, Leonard.

  • Fiddlist says:

    Seven words: iPad and Bluetooth foot pedal page turner.

    • Bruce says:

      That’s brilliant.

      If only Mr. Slatkin had thought of this, the second sentence of the 7th paragraph of his article would have been a perfect place to mention it.

  • Edward says:

    With all due respect to Maestro Slatkin, a wonderful conductor with whom I worked in Pittsburgh, and with whom I studied at Aspen (a fine teacher, too — extremely practical), I wonder if he has ever marked a string part during his long and brilliant career? iPads with pedal page turner is fine for those with the resources to acquire them, but every bad page turn has a solution. Just look at the many orchestras whose first violins flip their pages madly and noisily during the quietist portion of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony (finale reprise) — so unnecessary, if only orchestral librarians knew what to do to fix the problem.

  • Upon reading his essay I feel it is over-engineered solutions to minor problems.

    How much of a copyright violation would it be to photocopy the needed portion of the next page to place after the end of the page before it?

    For most of the orchestral repertoire it would be zero problem since the music and the printed editions are public domain.

    I’ve done it and I’ve seen it being done in top-tier symphonies even before anyone had to cover their mouths.

    As far as the distance between players, everyone was already that distance or more from other players in the ensemble, other than their stand partner or next-in-section members.

    There was already a fair amount of distancing in ensembles because of hearing protection considerations.

    Use this new distance requirement as a challenge to listen across the ensemble ever-more carefully and a challenge to conductors that the vague flopping gestures that are passed off as tempo now need to actually indicate that.

    • Bruce says:

      “…the vague flopping gestures that are passed off as tempo” HAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      Thank you. It will never ever ever happen, but it was fun to see the problem acknowledged.

      Distancing in orchestras has been addressed due to hearing protection considerations, but only a little bit. There’s often some empty stage space between the brass and the violas*, but for large-orchestra rep, everyone else is packed in pretty tight.

      *(unless you’re using one of the “wrong” string seatings, in which case it may be the cellos; but that’s a different conversation)

  • Bruce says:

    Mr. Slatkin has some really interesting suggestions for how to address questions of repertoire/ soloists/ guest conductors in case a piece can’t be performed safely (e.g. Mahler 2), or a conductor or soloist decides not to travel. Ditto for his ideas on how to address the audience-distancing problem.

    Orchestras have been using photocopies and sticky tape to solve page-turn problems for a long time. Not uncharacteristically, N.L. ignores some of the more interesting and thought-provoking aspects of the problem (and the solutions proposed) in favor of something that makes the entire situation look silly.