Geoffrey Newman in conversation with conductor Leonard Slatkin

Distinguished American conductor Leonard Slatkin talks to Geoffrey Newman

Leonard Slatkin © Nico Rodamel

Leonard Slatkin has been a force in the American classical music scene for almost fifty years and will celebrate his eightieth birthday in 2024. Born into a distinguished musical family and trained at Aspen and Juilliard, Slatkin has been Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony (1979-1996), the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington (1996-2008), the BBC Symphony (2000-2004), the Detroit Symphony (2008-2018) and Orchestre National de Lyon (2011-2017). He has served as Principal Guest Conductor for a variety of English and American orchestras and holds honorary emeritus positions with the St. Louis, Detroit and Lyon orchestras. His recordings for Vox, Telarc, EMI, RCA and Naxos number in the hundreds, and he has won six Grammy awards with 35 nominations. All his Sony/RCA recordings will be re-issued this year as part of the birthday celebrations.

Slatkin has made a strong contribution to perpetuating American music and is one of the few American conductors to illuminate British music. This interview traces his development from his rich musical beginnings through successive orchestral appointments and recording ventures. It reveals his assessment of key moments in the development of American classical music, and the ingredients essential to keeping classical music healthy. The interview was undertaken to celebrate Slatkin’s first appearance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, where he gave a distinguished concert of Richard Strauss and Mason Bates (review click here).

Geoffrey Newman: You come from an illustrious musical family: your parents, Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller, were founding members of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet, and both have footprints in the world of popular music. I’ve heard that you had an amazing variety of famous musicians and composers visit your Los Angeles home when you were young.

Leonard Slatkin: Yes, in addition to the string quartet, my father was concertmaster of the 20th Century Fox Orchestra and my mother was Principal Cello at Warner Brothers. Capitol Records was the linking force – it recorded the Hollywood Quartet in classical repertoire alongside film scores and many of the most famous popular music stars. We were always entertaining artists from this label who would come over to prepare for recordings: Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and the great film composers Korngold and Max Steiner. On the popular side, Nat King Cole, George Shearing and, in particular, Frank Sinatra, became close with my parents. Sinatra often chose my father to be first chair of the orchestra in his recordings, and he recorded a few albums with the quartet alone. I also remember the great Art Tatum at our home, working long hours. So, I grew up with all this music and artistry around me. Of course, I was just a kid, absorbing things I could not understand, trying to absorb it anyway. But I certainly came away with the idea that there were no boundaries in music!

GN: How did this lead to an interest in conducting?

LS: I actually slanted more towards jazz when I was young. Gradually I took up violin, then piano, then composition and, finally, conducting. But the conducting really didn’t happen until after my father passed away at 47 in 1963. That sort of changed my life. I was then 19. One factor is that we were a very competitive household. I knew I would not be a violinist because my father was too good. I knew I wouldn’t be a cellist because my mother and brother Fred were too good. And I knew I would not be as good a pianist as my uncle Victor [Aller]. Perhaps conducting does come back to my father, since at the time of his passing he had started a successful career as a conductor and  made many well-received popular music recordings with both the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the pickup Concert Arts Orchestra.

In any case, I eventually saw conducting as something I could feel good about doing, and so I spent four years studying at the Aspen Music School mentored by Walter Susskind, and then at Juilliard under Jean Morel. In my last year, Susskind invited me to join him as assistant conductor when he became Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony. That was in 1968.

GN: Your tenure with the St. Louis Symphony was a long one, and you increased the performance standards and profile of the ensemble dramatically as soon as you took over as Principal Conductor in 1979. How would you explain this?

LS: My association was 27 years total and, as it turns out, I was one of the few conductors to ever move from Assistant Conductor to Principal Conductor of the same orchestra. A big factor in our success was that I was blessed with a new executive director and artistic administrator, two people I thought were perfect and I could move forward with. We set out a five-year plan. We said here is where we are today, and here is where we want to be in five years, and that included being able to record, do some touring, build the audience at home and work on the endowment. And every time we accomplished one goal, we simply added another one.

There were already a lot of fine players in the orchestra, and we made new appointments, but the big thing was we had assembled an all-star wind section, which probably was the finest of any orchestra in America. That was one of the great pleasures of conducting the ensemble. I rarely had to say anything to these players: they just knew what to do. On many nights, I felt the orchestra could play with the very best. At the same time, we were the beneficiaries of an extraordinary period for recording in the United States. It was crazy: we were doing a total of five or six discs a year – for Vox, Telarc and EMI, then a massive amount for RCA later.

GN: The orchestra’s focus on American music was also distinctive. That must have been a key part of the plan.

LS: Absolutely a central part! Back in the 1970s, there were still many music directors and orchestras that made the Austro-Germanic repertoire the dominant core of their programming, and programs started to look quite alike from orchestra to orchestra. We tried to put an additional focus on both American and Russian music. I would say that our annual trips to New York cemented the orchestra’s reputation for new music because we would come in with pieces that nobody else was playing. Fortunately, we played to full houses and received a strong reception from audiences as well as the press. For example, we might play William Bolcom’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as a core part of a concert. Our appearances turned out as an adventure, an ‘event’ for everyone.

GN: I remember many of your early recordings with the orchestra. Of the EMI releases, one of your most memorable was the Barber Concerto you did with violinist Elmar Oliveira, coupled with Hanson’s Second Symphony. I certainly remember the character of the wind playing, right from a resolute little clarinet march in the opening movement.

LS: Yes, Oliveira was so good, and the clarinetist you refer to was George Silfies. And then there was the oboe in the slow movement – the story just goes on. They were all great wind players, and people would come from all over to hear them play or study with them. For that EMI series, we did Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein discs as well. Then RCA came into the picture, and we did a huge American series with them. This extended all the way from Copland and Barber to Corigliano and Ives. That is where I was able to cement the idea that we, along with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, were the two orchestras really committed to bringing historical American classical music to the public.

GN: In assessing this history, we can identify the important American ‘tonal’ composers in the neo-romantic and neoclassical traditions from the 1930s to the 50s: Barber, Copland, Hanson, Harris, Diamond, Piston, Mennin and Schuman. Then we have all the variants of the atonal/minimalist tradition, starting in the 1950s and continuing in some form through Sessions and Carter. Yet not long after that, the dominating names became Glass, Corigliano and Adams – and much of the previous history is forgotten. Where do you think the big turning point was?

LS: For me, the work that triggered the change was David del Tredici’s Final Alice, which premiered with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti in 1976. I did not know David’s music, but the executive director said you just have to come up to Chicago and hear this piece. And I sat there: the work ran a full 60 minutes and was amazing! Soprano Barbara Hendricks was unbelievable. At the end, the audience responded with a wonderful ovation. Usually, they don’t respond to contemporary pieces, but here they were cheering and doing all kinds of stuff for a big new piece of music.

I think this was the revolutionary composition of the twentieth century for American music. In many ways, it is a crazy, outlandish, almost-retro piece, yet it stands as a thoroughly individual modern work that is tonal in design, totally communicative and fully accessible for an audience. While del Tredici was a committed serialist to begin, what he was essentially saying with this work is: ‘Here you go academic composers. Here you go Roger Sessions, Elliot Carter and company. You are out of the picture now. We have moved from atonal compositions back to tonal ones’. And all the other composers I’ve talked to – John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, Steve Stucky – said the same thing: that David paved the way for their music because he showed that thoughtful, intellectual music could still reach an audience on first hearing. I have championed David’s music since the first day I heard it, and I have performed it many times in both St. Louis and Detroit.

GN: How would you assess the music of Leonard Bernstein in this development?

LS: Bernstein had an individual voice from his earliest days, always identifiable no matter how much he borrowed from Copland, jazz and other things. I have always loved performing him, and I don’t see a time when his music will go out of favour. At the same time, I doubt that his musical style could invite others to follow. It is simply too personal: what Bernstein was doing was essentially writing his autobiography in music. You have to see all his ‘big pieces’ this way. You can’t separate his life from his music.

GN: Your subsequent appointments were with the National Symphony in 1996 and the Detroit Symphony in 2008. How different were the experiences?

LS: I went to Washington to succeed Mstislav Rostropovich. He was, of course, larger than life, and it was a tough act to follow. I would say Rostropovich was probably not the best music director nor the best conductor, but he was so powerful as a musician and had this incredible gift of being able to communicate in so many ways. My objective in Washington was to extend what I did in St. Louis – to give greater prominence to American music. What better place to do this than the nation’s capital, I thought. I had an enjoyable and rewarding time over the 12 years building this orchestra, but the board of the Kennedy Center eventually got tired of the focus and wanted something more standard, so we had to go in different directions.

The Detroit Symphony was a very different animal because of its financial troubles. When I accepted the appointment in 2008, everybody warned me that there was probably going to be a strike in my third year. And, sure enough, there was a strike and it lasted six months. The year before that, I had a heart attack, so I did not conduct very much. The year before that I was still a guest conductor, and I only did five weeks. My role in Detroit really didn’t start until my fourth year as a music director. At that point, the overriding concern was about finding ways to recover from the strike and, most important, to reverse a dwindling attendance by increasing public accessibility to our concerts.

GN: But Detroit was a fantastic place for you to record with Naxos?

LS: It sure was. Naxos became sort of my home label in the 2000s. We had a good arrangement with them since we were able to make our recordings from live concerts. We recorded the Copland ballets and the Rachmaninoff symphonies among many other things, including some of my own compositions. Earlier releases on this label, such as my Leroy Anderson series, date from the period just after I was Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Later Naxos releases feature the Ravel series I did with the Orchestre National de Lyon, where I was Music Director from 2011 to 2017. That appointment really reignited my love for the French repertoire, and I also recorded Berlioz.

GN: One thing that stands out about your career is your commitment to the English repertoire. You played English works consistently and recorded both the Elgar symphonies and a complete Vaughan Williams cycle for RCA in the 1990s. Was this an acquired taste or something that had been with you for a long time?

LS: No, my love for this repertoire dates from the beginning.  Even when I was six or seven, I found myself attracted to this music. I was not sure why back then – now I know. William Walton, in fact, came to our house in preparation for the Hollywood Quartet’s premiere recording of his String Quartet. Early in my conducting career, I would frequently program Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony, and I debuted in both Chicago and London with the work.

My most important inspiration for carrying on with British music was André Previn, who I regarded as a ‘ferocious young lion’. I admired him tremendously – even going to his jazz club performances in LA when I was a kid. We became close friends and shared the mission of showing that we Americans could conduct British music too. Not that we were trying to show the British how their music should be played – just give them a slightly different spin on it. The result is that almost every English orchestra that I worked with wanted me to come and do British music.

Leonard Slatkin © Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

GN: Let’s move to the present. After your tenures as Music Director with many orchestras, you are now only doing guest conducting?

LS: Six years ago, I decided it was enough: I didn’t want to do administration anymore. The musical world has changed a lot in recent years, and my way of running an orchestra doesn’t really jibe with the way orchestras do business today. Quite different marketing and other strategies tend to govern things. I can now focus on some guest conducting, composing and writing books. My fourth book, Eight Symphonic Masterworks of the Twentieth Century: A Study Guide for Conductors will be published by Rowman and Littlefield this year. I still enjoy traveling, both to the places where I conduct and, as a tourist, usually to exotic places. Later this year, I will also return to conduct the St. Louis and Detroit orchestras, as well as the National Symphony in Washington, and make a trip to Japan. In March 2025, I will conduct the New York Philharmonic, featuring the New York premiere of John Corigliano’s Triathlon.

I do not focus much on recording any more. From my perspective, the CD in today’s world serves principally as a ‘business card’ for classical artists and is mainly about establishing personal credentials. With the proliferation of recordings already out there, no one really expects that a new recording of Beethoven’s Seventh by anyone will break new ground. I have been asked to record some other pieces more recently but declined. I am not going to do the piece any better or worse than somebody else, so you why would you need it from me?

GN: In your prior book, Classical Crossroads, you discuss problems that must be overcome to sustain classical music for the future. I know it is a broad question, but what do you think are the biggest problems to solve right now.

LS: I wish I had a crystal ball mentality, but the most basic issue is: where are the audiences of this century going to come from? After four decades of phasing out music education in schools in the US, we have lost a vital group of homegrown concertgoers who might replace the current older attendees. Those who have no familiarity with classical music when young, or have never played an instrument, will not generally be concertgoers later. Fortunately, this has not been true over the same period for Asian cultures or for Asian Americans, where most children do receive musical training whether they choose to go into music or not. They have been very competitive achievers: just look at the proliferation of soloists and orchestral players – and the audience participation – from this group. So, increased participation of diverse cultures seems to be a critical part of the solution.

Obviously, attracting today’s youth to concerts has been an issue for many years. Access to concerts is one component. I remember in Detroit after the strike, we offered students a ‘sound card’ for just $25 which allowed them access for the full season of concerts. Suddenly, the audience started to look bigger and very different than before, younger and more diverse. This is a standard strategy now but essential. Perhaps a more fundamental issue is addressing the wide gulf between young listeners and the legacy of classical performance as we know it. Today’s young really don’t know much about those you and I might regard as legendary performers. Nor will they automatically find out, given the bewildering mass of material on the web. There is room for additional education here.

Another concern is restoring a sense of ‘occasion’ to classical concerts. Decades ago, a symphony’s season might build to a much-awaited finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s Second, but performing those works now seems commonplace. Even doing a Mahler symphony cycle seems routine, since so many conductors want to set these works down. There is much room for innovation in providing musical themes and concert designs that can build the momentum of an orchestra’s season and draw concertgoers in for the longer term.

One of the most basic issues is how well the media communicates classical music happenings to the public. For example, we had two fine newspapers in Detroit and two of the best critics. They were wonderful: knowledgeable and they wrote well, but both newspapers let the critics go more or less at the same time and have not replaced them. It is horrible, but there is nothing stopping this tendency now. It is up to websites like your own to redress the balance and, fortunately, there seems to be increasing progress on this front.

With respect to American classical music in particular, there does not seem to be much historical interest from today’s music directors. I can almost guarantee that you will not hear a symphony by Walter Piston, William Schuman or David Diamond in next year’s concert seasons, as important and individual as their works are. These are now America’s ‘forgotten composers’. I am currently trying to reverse this trend by introducing a number of projects under the banner of the ‘American Sound Initiative’, which will inspire more performances of these composers and bring forth more American conductors too.

GN: As a concluding question, how hopeful are you about classical music’s future?

LS: I am still very hopeful and, just like in other difficult periods for the arts, we must have faith in the many clever people in our society – and donors – to figure out inventive ways to keep classical music and its audiences going. There is no doubt we are going to have to have new and different ways of communicating to audiences, and a different attitude from musicians too. Musicians must recognize that it is not just about playing their instruments, it’s about how they communicate musical experiences to their listeners and interact with their community. These dictates are now part of our profession, and we have to do this.

For myself, I will continue to write books, teach, guest conduct and visit music schools around the country. I always do two weeks at the Manhattan School in New York and then visit two or three other schools just because I want to get a feeling of where we are with our training of the musicians who are about to enter the professional workforce. A truly hopeful sign is the stunning amount of talent I observe every time. Our role is to ensure there is an audience for it.

For a fuller version of this interview on Vancouver Classical Music click here.

Geoffrey Newman

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