English, Interviews & Portraits

Leonard Slatkin, from Detroit to Lyon

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leonard-slatkin-cybelle-codish-headshot« I’m not into maintenance. I’m into forward thinking. »

is currently Music Director of the and the , having previously held positions with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In this interview, Slatkin reflects on his beginnings in music, his accomplishments, recovering from a protracted musician’s strike in Detroit, and making music in Detroit and Lyon. 

ResMusica: You were born into a musical family; your parents were founding members of the Hollywood String Quartet. Did you always want to become a conductor, or did your instrumental studies develop into this path?
I started playing violin when I was three. I knew I wouldn’t be as good as my father, so I quit. Then I took up piano, at eight. I knew I wouldn’t be as good as my uncle, so I quit. I took up the viola, because no one else in the family did that. Then I composed for a while.

In the meantime, my father began pursuing a career as a conductor. He was director of the Hollywood Bowl; he made several recordings with them. He moved more into arranging, pop stuff at the time.

Even though I was beginning to harbor thoughts about being a conductor, I didn’t want to have to compete with my father.

In 1963 my dad died. He was 47. I got out of music for a little while, thinking I would be a perhaps an English teacher. Gradually, friends kept on saying that I had to get back into music. I realized that sadly, that with my father not around any more, the conducting field was now open to me.

So I would say that from around age 16 I began to think about it, and from age 20 or so I began to pursue it.

RM: Who were your first heroes in conducting?

LS: I’m old enough to have seen Toscanini conduct; he came on tour with the NBC Symphony in 1952, so I was 8 years old. That really impressed me. I’d never heard an orchestra play like that before. He was one.

At that time the LA Philharmonic was not a very good orchestra, but came for two weeks. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe that my home orchestra could sound that good. He’s definitely high up on the hero level.

I think any American conductor has to place Bernstein there simply because he was the first one of us to emerge as an international figure in the conducting world.

I was quite influenced in a very different kind of way by Carlo Maria Guilini. More for the spiritual insight–not religious–spiritual, that he brought into music. And I got to know him quite well. I would go from St. Louis to Chicago, spend two or three days with him, travel with him. Just looking at music from a different point of view than anything I’d ever known.

Obviously my teachers, the two main teachers. Jean Morel at the Juilliard School, and Walter Susskind, first in Aspen and then when he brought me to St. Louis as the assistant.

I would say those are my main influences, and still are.

RM: How are their influences present in the work you do today?
LS: The few times I teach conducting, when I do it in a class situation, I always start out by presenting 10 minutes of video clips of these older conductors–to see the reaction of young conductors. Almost universally, they cannot figure out what made them good. They have no idea, because their techniques were not great. But they brought something.

With Toscanini, it was a clarity. With Reiner, there was this razor-sharp edge to the music. With Bernstein, it was kind of the ability to show, physically, what the music looked like–not just how it sounded. With Giulini, again, you looked entirely past the technique, because it wasn’t spot-on clean. It was vague sometimes. Yet he exuded this personality that came across in a remarkable way.

I don’t know if I’m a combination of all these things–I have no idea. I know that I am not histrionic–I might have been a little more when I was younger, because I could move around a little better. But I like to think that every gesture that I make is indicating to the musicians how I want the music to sound. Sometimes it is very small, sometimes a little more exaggerated. Never planned in advance–my wife always says, « you did something different there than you did last night. » Good! I’m glad! That’s how it should be. It should always be different. There are elements of the past that remain with me.

RM: You are known for your broad repertoire: you are a champion of American composers, both past and present; you have also extensively recorded the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams; you have just recorded a Rachmaninoff symphony cycle in Detroit, and you are presently recording the orchestral works of Ravel and Berlioz with the . Is it possible to describe your approach to repertoire? How do you develop your programs and seasons when you have so much that you are enthusiastic about?
LS: That’s a good question. But one must take into account the both the orchestra and the audience.

In Detroit, my job has been quite complex–more than with other orchestras that I’ve led, simply because we had to come out of horrendous economic peril. And yet, as we’re talking, we are in the forefront of leading the charge towards how orchestras will function in the first quarter of the 21st century.

As a music director, I have to be very broad-based. Yes, there are musics and styles that I don’t do and I let guests do that. I tend to be more concentrated and focused in the weeks that I do. If you were to ask the music critic of the (Detroit) Free Press, he would already say that probably for him, the most exciting thing of this season was the two consecutive weeks of American music, mostly unfamiliar–including Benjamin Lees’ Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, concertos by John Williams, a piece of mine. He just thought that this was amazing, and the audience liked it, primarily because it featured members of the orchestra as soloists.

We had an incredibly successful Tchaikovsky festival. Yeah, everyone goes « Tchaikovsky, how hard can it be? » February in Detroit? You try to get an audience out! But it works. We did it with Beethoven two years ago. This was huge, because in three weeks, we did the six numbered symphonies, all the concertos, there was chamber music, lectures–we had a lot of fun with it. It was hard, but we did it.

I try to have a broad-based kind of programming for my orchestra in Detroit. In Lyon, I would say it is a little less broad–it is an even more conservative public–in fact, Europeans in general, aside from radio orchestras, tend to be more conservative than their American counterparts. I usually let a lot of the standard rep fall to guests, unless they are pieces that I hold onto myself.

The new Lyon season (2015-2016) will be quite a bit more adventurous than we are used to. There will be two full concert operas, there will be a fully-staged production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with all of the incidental music, including members of the orchestra becoming actors–it will be a lot of fun.

We do focus a lot on our French music, of course. The Ravel project is absolutely incredible, because it is the first time every Ravel piece with orchestra will be included. That includes the choral works, the songs, and several of the transcriptions made by other composers or arrangers.

The Berlioz project–Roméo et Juliette is in the can now; we’re going to be wrapping up all of the overtures, some of which will be included with the bigger pieces. The Berlioz project will not include everything–it’s just to get the big pieces in. We’ll see where it goes after that.

RM: During 2010-2011 the stopped playing for six months due to a musician’s strike. Some feared that this would be the end of the DSO, at least as a full-time professional ensemble. Now 4 years later, by most (if not all) accounts, the DSO is flourishing. What would you say have been the keys to this recovery?
LS: Cooperation between the board, management, and the members of the orchestra.

What never got written–and could not have been, because it was covert, was that during the strike, I made it very clear that I was not going to take sides. I was not going to get involved in it, in any way, like some of my colleagues have. I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. I still don’t.

But, it did not prevent me from meeting with people as the strike progressed. It was never about how we were going to settle it; it was about what happens the day we come back.

The implementation of all these initiatives came about simply because we had already been talking about it. The webcasts, pricing structures, playing in the community, all these different things–were in the hopper earlier on than people think.

I think the biggest hurdle that we’ve overcome, and the one that most people feared, was not the disillusion of the orchestra, but would we be able to attract musicians of high caliber. We didn’t lose that many people to other orchestras. We lost a few, but not many. However, a lot of people chose to take retirement–they just didn’t want to go through this.

I confronted a lot of vacancies. We now have a new first oboe, a new principal viola, our new first cellist comes to us from the NY Philharmonic–the point being that people seem to know that something vibrant is happening with the orchestra and the city.

It’s not just about the Detroit Symphony–it’s about what Detroit is. It still has a lot of problems, but if you come to Detroit–if anyone comes to Detroit–they feel a palpable energy in this city. The amount of construction that’s going on, businesses moving in, young people coming to Detroit because they can get property very inexpensively, in particular from the arts community.

My next set of thoughts and ideas about growth here have to do with putting all the resources of the new people coming into the city, merging with the different artistic factions that are there, and really making this a vibrant scene for visual, aural, whatever kinds of arts there are.

I think it is a really exciting time. People who questioned whether I should have gone there in first place–and there were a lot–are now saying, « how did you know to make that decision? » The only answer that I have is: I’m not into maintenance. I’m into forward thinking. St. Louis was like that, Washington was like that–not as successful–and Detroit is certainly like that. And I love it there, I really do.

RM: You are also currently the music director of the ONL, a position you have held since 2011. Artistically and musically, what would you say are the primary differences between the ONL and DSO, and how are you visions for the two ensembles similar? Or different?
LS: The first difference is that the Lyon orchestra is funded entirely by the city of Lyon. Even though we are a national orchestra, the money for the orchestra doesn’t come from the government; it comes from the city. Which means that, as opposed to Detroit, where I have to meet with individual donors, corporations, foundations–in Lyon, all I have to do is stay on good terms with the mayor. And he’s a very good guy. He understands the value of the orchestra for the city of Lyon. In turn, we provide much more outreach than was happening in the past, combining different elements of the city and the Rhône-Alpes region.

Artistically, the Lyon orchestra, in terms of how it rehearses and how it works, has a discipline which more resembles its counterparts in the States. They love to make music, they love to work hard, there’s little disruption on stage. Basically, my Detroit and Lyon orchestras both work with a lot of concentration.

There are very different sonic perspectives between the two orchestras. I would say they are somewhat similar in the strings. The winds in Lyon are distinctive for a couple reasons, not the least of which is that the instruments that they play on are French instruments. That gives them their personality.

Percussion in France in general is extraordinary. There’s just a real incredible school of percussion–really attentive to the sound and the subtlety of the different instruments.

The third factor that comes in is the acoustics of our homes. Fortunately, both orchestras do all their rehearsals in the auditoriums in which they will play. The hall in Detroit is relatively small by American standards. One of the reasons why I went to Detroit was because of the hall–it’s just extraordinary. I build the sound around the hall, which is really rich. There’s an intimacy to the hall.

Lyon is cavernous. It is difficult for the players to hear each other really clearly on the stage, so my technique has to be a little more precise. We’ve learned to play the hall together.

Can I do the same repertoire in both places? I don’t know. If I wanted to do a symphony, could I actually do it in Lyon? Probably, but it would be a different kind of challenge, on a technical level for the orchestra. But, on the other hand, they have no problem with Dutilleux or Messiaen, so clearly it can be done. It’s just that the repertoire itself would be very different than anything they’ve done before. Barber at least usually falls into a category of familiarity–not the music, but the style, the sound.

It’s really interesting when I do a piece in Detroit and then a week later I do the same piece in Lyon. I try to keep my approach to the piece the same, but I make adjustments so each orchestra keeps its personality. I wouldn’t want them to change–I like that. I don’t want the Lyon orchestra to sound like Detroit, or vice-versa.

RM: You have just recently turned 70. As you reflect back on your career to date, what would you say have been your proudest moments?

LS: Certainly staying true to the advocacy of the American composer.

I would say in St. Louis, taking what was a good orchestra and really focusing on making them an important part of the national, if not international scene. It was conscious effort to do that.

Founding a youth orchestra there (in St. Louis), where there hadn’t been one.

In Washington, I really tried to promote an American agenda for an orchestra called the National Symphony! My predecessor, Rostropovich, didn’t really do that. But I felt it was important. Even though it was probably one of the things that caused my departure, I was glad I did it.

In Detroit, it’s really been about making the orchestra part of being in the forefront of the regeneration of the city. This is something very unique–none of us have seen this happen before–when people talk about how the city has come back, they place the orchestra as one of the top reasons. We came out of this horrible time and took the bull by the horns, and simply said, « we’re going to show this city how you can come out of the ashes. »

When I started in Detroit, the subscription attendance at concerts was about 62-63%. Now it’s 91-92.

We still have a ways to go. We want to really clear the financial hurdles to more forward. I’m in the process of rebuilding this orchestra, and we’re close to where I want to be now. If we go on tours–I’m not so certain how necessary it is anymore, but if we do it–people are going to hear an amazing orchestra.

I’ve been very fortunate.

RM: Do you have any clear plans as you move forward?
LS: I’m starting to cut back a bit. I’m taking most of the summers off; taking myself out of the festival circuit, for several reasons. One of which is that I just want the time–I have these books to write; I’m writing music again.

I don’t know if I’ll cut back on the amount of new music that I do. I might, I’m not sure yet. I’m finding myself more drawn into major reexamination of what is usually referred to as the standard repertoire–I’m trying to look at it as if I had never seen it before. It was that way with the Tchaikovsky cycle; already I’m re-thinking Brahms. What is it saying to me now that it didn’t say before?

I may start to tackle some pieces that I’ve never done before.

I’m going to learn to be a better cook; I love cooking. The barbeque is ready!

Photo Credit Leonard Slatkin: Cybelle Codish, Source: Columbia Artists Management Inc

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