Leonard Slatkin Exclusive Interview: October 4, 2011
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin
Rel. 26 Jan 2010
On Sunday, September 25, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with celebrated American conductor Leonard Slatkin – as he was beginning his 2011-12 Season duties as Music Director for two top orchestras: the Detroit Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL). In this wide-ranging and insightful discussion, Maestro Slatkin discusses his ambitious duties – both in concert and recordings – as he begins his inaugural year at the helm of the ONL, as well the new-found momentum in Detroit following resolution this past April of a dramatic six month strike. The two also discuss the challenges and opportunities in dealing with the present state of classic music appreciation, especially in the United States, Maestro Slatkin’s forthcoming book on conducting, the influence of his celebrated musical parents, and much more. Our feature also includes an Exclusive pair of videos from the opening concert in Lyon, compliments of our friends at MediciTV, a 1-Click Leonard Slatkin Concert, with full streams for subscribers, and another set of Leonard Slatkin videos. Don’t miss this rich discussion with a most accomplished and vibrant conductor!
“There are many new things in the Detroit Symphony’s future that I believe will be truly spectacular; and I will walk into tomorrow's opening rehearsal as excited as I was when I walked into the first rehearsal of the Orchestre National de Lyon three weeks ago.”
– Leonard Slatkin
Nolan Gasser: Maestro Leonard Slatkin, welcome to Classical Archives. The life of a prominent orchestral conductor is never likely to be dull or uneventful, but it does seem that for you this past year has exceeded even the standard level of drama for a high-profile maestro: there was the long-awaited resolution of the Detroit Symphony’s harrowing strike; the abbreviated resumption of its 2011 season; your long-awaited arrival as Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon; and several other professional and personal adventures [e.g., becoming engaged to composer Cindy McTee], as well as challenges [e.g., Ms. McTee’s June 2011 diagnosis of breast cancer]. So, looking back at your long and distinguished career, is this all just par for the course – or is this a standout year even for you?
Leonard Slatkin: When events are happening to you, they often seem larger than life; but once you’ve passed them, they can be put into the perspective of a lifetime of experience. The fact that so many things happened at the same time was in some cases fortunate, and in some cases not; but you move forward, and you don't really look back – you learn from what happened previously. I must say that emotionally I've been absolutely fine with everything; I have no difficulties either starting work or resuming work after a break. Even more interesting was the revelation that I needed to take more time just for myself: so this past summer, I had six weeks of down time – which is very unusual for me. I really enjoyed it, and thought, “This is exactly what I need to do.” I now look forward to my time off just as much as I look forward to the time when I’m working.
NG: That certainly is a good attitude – life is always full of surprises, that often have their own unforeseen silver linings; and we’ll talk about how you filled those six weeks shortly.
But first, let’s dive a bit more into some of these latest developments, and happy resolutions – starting with your assumption this month as conductor of the Orchestre National de Lyon. You seem to have hit the ground running: not only with a set of vibrant opening concerts, but also laying the seeds for two new CD cycles – the complete orchestral works of both Berlioz and Ravel. From what you’ve written in your quite active blog, you and the orchestra seem to be getting along famously. Can you share a bit more of your initial impressions of this new partnership, and what vision you are forming for the medium and long-term profile of the orchestra?
LS: I have long thought about having a European base in addition to having one here in the United States. For four years [2000-04], I was the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – but that's not exactly the same kind of thing: with the BBC, it was one week here, one week there. In Lyon, I am able to function much more as a traditional music director, in the European sense. One big difference is that I don't have to do private fund raising, since the money is provided primarily from governmental support.
NG: How nice!
LS: Yes, exactly – though I still have to work the room when it comes to the politicians [laughs]. I had enjoyed all of my previous visits with the Orchestre National de Lyon – the ONL, as we refer to it – and when they asked me a few years ago to become the music director, I was more than pleased to accept it; it just took a little while to get the i's dotted and the t's crossed.
Once we began, as you've pointed out, we really did hit the ground strong: we’ve put together a wonderful season that began at the end of August with a set of recordings – and that's actually a great way to start a season; you get to know each other, and you have a bit of time to make adjustments as you go along.
The first disc that we committed, during our first week together, was the start of the Berlioz cycle that you mentioned – it included the Symphonie fantastique and Le corsair [Op.21] overture; normally this wouldn't be enough for a full CD, but we also included the alternate version of the 2nd movement [of the Symphonie fantastique, 2.Un bal: Valse] – for which Berlioz wrote an obbligato cornet part for the famous trumpet pedagogue [Jean-Baptiste] Arban. So that makes the disc already kind of curious and interesting – given the fact that the field is already crowded with loads of “fantastiques”. Lyon has a special relation to Berlioz: he stayed there a bit [his initial association was a series of concerts in July 1845], and there's a major Berlioz Festival in La Côte-Saint-André [Berlioz’ hometown, about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from Lyon], where next year we'll be making a recording of his Requiem Mass [Op.5].
We then launched into a Ravel cycle, something the orchestra had not yet done – which is odd, considering that the orchestra’s auditorium is named for Ravel [the ONL, under the previous conductor Jun Markl, has one recording of Ravel’s music, containing only the complete ballet Daphnis et Chloe and Shéhérazade]. But we decided to do it in a different way; it's a project where the usual suspects are present: we’ll have the orchestral works; the works for orchestra and soloists – of which there are not too many; and of course the ballets and two operas. What is different is that we'll also including some of the early works – the three cantatas that he submitted for the Prix de Rome and never won [Myrrha (1901), Alcyone (1902), and Alyssa (1903)], as well as some other works that are not so well known. In addition, we will be recording works by other composers that Ravel orchestrated, as well as Ravel's works orchestrated by others – such as Gaspard de la nuit, the two movements from Le tombeau de Couperin that he didn’t orchestrate [2.Fugue and 6.Toccata], the three movements from Miroirs that he didn’t orchestrate [1.Nocturelles, 2.Oiseaux tristes, and 5.La vallé des cloches]. In all we’re talking about a four- to five-year project to get it all done. It’s really exciting, and it was a lot of fun to just jump into this repertoire with the orchestra – which they really have in their bones; hopefully I’ll bring something a little bit different – though not too much so – to these great works.
NG: You have been a guest conductor with a good many European orchestras in the past, beyond your tenure with the BBC. Can you say what it was that specifically inspired the Board at Lyon to not just ask you to become the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, but to have you actually take over the reins from [previous music director, German conductor] Jun Märkl?
LS: I actually believe that the request came primarily from members of the orchestra themselves. These days, with so much emphasis on getting younger blood into the conductorial field, it's interesting that they went with someone with more experience. Prior to Jun [Märkl], [American conductor] David Robertson held the post; and in generally, they were leaning toward conductors who were in an early or beginning phase of their conductorial careers. But I think the orchestra felt that it needed someone with more experience – somebody who’s been through all this before, and who isn't first learning the repertoire along with the orchestra; and also, someone, who after several guest appearances, felt very comfortable with them. Those first three weeks [from August 2011] proved to be pretty remarkable: the relationship established itself early, and though we thought that it might diminish by the end of the third week, it actually didn't. Now it's my job – when I return for a few concerts in October – to keep that energy going, to keep the public supportive, and to find new kinds of projects to engage not only the orchestra but also the whole community.
NG: It all sounds quite inspiring – and it does seem that the ONL has aspirations to become a real “major league” orchestra.
LS: Oh yes – and I think artistically they're in the ballpark. The question is how we promote ourselves – and how we market the orchestra, not only within the broader European international community, but also right there in Lyon: it's critical to be a major force in your own home town.
NG: Yes, and we’ll be talking about that same need here in the States as well.
You did a few of concerts with the ONL back in January 2011 – prior to assuming the music director post; and in your blog following these concerts, you made the point that every orchestra should have its own “sound” that identifies it as being unique. You also wrote about some of the sonic predilections of French orchestras – such as for a lighter sound, especially in the double reeds and brass. I’m thus wondering what traits you believe will distinguish this orchestra as you continue to work with them – and how they stand apart from other European orchestras you’ve worked with, such as the Orchestre de Paris?
LS: I grew up with the French sound in my blood, simply because my principal conducting teacher at Juilliard was Jean [Paul] Morel; he ingrained within me this special world of sonority – and even though we weren't hearing this sound at Julliard at the time, he talked about it quite a lot. Part of this world entails a clarity of texture, and part of it entails the actual sound that is produced by the orchestra. In the case of the brass, it's not that dark, Germanic, sound; the instruments that French brass players use tend to be smaller-bored which gives them a lighter tone. The woodwind players also have specific ways that they shape their reeds, so that the sound is more penetrating, and again not as dark as non-French players – although I'll be moving them towards getting a slightly darker edge.
The reason for this is because of the string section: the strings, of course, make the difference between a band and an orchestra. My musical background comes not only from the French tradition, but also from the Russian tradition that was heard in our household day in and day out. Right now, we’re spending a lot of time in Lyon just with string rehearsals – working on where the bow is placed, how to produce the different variety of colors and sounds, how to get the maximum from our dynamic contrasts, and so forth. It became evident during our first few weeks together that the sound of the orchestra had altered, though still keeping its sound individual; as I say, individuality comes from getting homogeneity in the strings, while getting another kind of homogeneity in the winds and percussion – as well as allowing the soloistic characteristics to come through. If one watches the video from the opening night [see attached video from mediciTV.com], you can really hear this individuality in the opening Rhapsodie espagnole [by Ravel]: with the two clarinets and two bassoons expressing themselves gorgeously in this virtuoso passage – so blended, and yet soloistic at the same time; and the strings so engaging and present… So, I think we’re on the right path to achieving that individuality.
NG: Indeed; and I would concur that this performance Rhapsodie espagnol is just spectacular – so shimmering and vibrant. Thanks to the MediciTV video of the opening concert – whereby one can see as well as hear your performances of Ravel [both the Rhapsodie espagnole and the Piano Concerto in G with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet] and Berlioz [the Symphonie fantastique], one gets a sense of the orchestra’s unique sound – almost as if it were playing with a French dialect.
And will these new recordings of Berlioz and Ravel continue to maintain the ONL’s relationship with the Naxos label?
LS: Yes, that will remain; though the orchestra will also be starting its own label.
NG: Yes, I did read that – starting with your recent performance Mahler’s Symphony No.2 [in C- (‘Resurrection’)], right?
LS: Yes, exactly.
NG: Okay, so a few years on Berlioz and four or five years on Ravel; that’s certainly enough to keep you busy, but have you perhaps thought even further as to what repertoire you’d want to continue with? I know, for example, how you recently performed Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony [No.3 in C-, Op.78], and noted how this is a composer who deserves a bit more attention…
LS: I actually proposed that idea to Klaus [Heymann, CEO of Naxos Records]; but he told me that they already have another orchestra doing a Saint-Saëns project.
NG: Ah, okay – competition!
LS: So, we'll see – we certainly have enough to do right now; and I don't want to spend all of my time in Lyon recording.
NG: Of course; and when you do start looking, there’s certainly a great lineage of French composers to choose from – including contemporary composers. One example is my own former composition teacher, Gilbert Amy – who teaches at the Conservatory in Lyon. I also saw that the ONL has had a series of composers-in-residence.
LS: Yes, but in truth, I can’t think about all that right now – I’m still too much in the process of getting to know the orchestra. In fact, one way that we’re getting to know one another is by playing through music by an earlier generation of French composers, currently off the radar: [Jean] Roger-Ducasse [(1873-1954], [André] Caplet [1878-1925], Henri Rabaud [1873-1949], and so forth. I'm also doing a couple pieces by younger French composers within this season and next, but I don't know if I want to go down the composes-in-residence route yet – there’s too much repertoire for the orchestra and me to explore on our own.
NG: That makes perfect sense – and this is indeed a great opportunity to explore some little-known French works, and to find some lost gems – as I'm sure you will.
Finally, with regard to the ONL, beyond the French repertoire, you likewise will be exploring works by such “mainstay” composers as Mahler, Beethoven, Strauss, Britten, and Shostakovich – as well as a fair bit of American music: including by Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein, Barber, and Ives, as well as more recent works by John Corigliano and Cindy McTee. Is this emphasis on American music something the members of the ONL specifically requested?
LS: They are mostly in the context of a festival we’ll be starting in late October, called "Leonard Slatkin's America" – which is not my title, by the way. But I thought this would be a nice way to introduce a bit of me, and my background, to both the orchestra and the audience.
NG: I see – and this includes some less obvious choices like Duke Ellington’s [his Fantasy]…
LS: Yes, we have Ellington in there – as well as Michel Camilo, the great Dominican jazz pianist [his Piano Concerto No.1; even John Williams [music from the film Star Wars] is on the program. The idea is: “here I am, and I want you to learn more about me through music I’m associated with.” But this is just one thing we'll be doing.
Each year we’ll tend to feature one composer as a thread through the season: this particular season is Shostakovich, so you'll lots of his music being done – not only by myself, but also many others; next season it's probably going to be Dvorák. For the first few years, the idea is to have as much variety as possible – so I can get to know the orchestra, and they can get to know me; and the public can get to know us both.
NG: Not long ago I spoke with [American conductor] David Zinman, who as I’m sure you know, is now the principal conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich; he made the point that he doesn’t perform much American music there in Zurich – as he obviously did when he was at Baltimore, and is instead focusing on European composers, including local ones. Do you envision a continued focus on American composers in Lyon – whereby you’ll be able to introduce less-known composers you’ve championed, like William Bolcom?
LS: Sure, American composers will continue to be part of the overall repertoire of a given season – though after this year, there won’t be this kind of immersion into the American repertoire. I just wanted to do this one in the first year; things will be more balanced in the years ahead.
NG: Well, we’ll certainly look forward to the new Berlioz and Ravel recordings as they come out, as well as more videos from MediciTV, hopefully. And again, congratulations on getting started in Lyon!
So, shifting gears now: beyond building up the international status of the ONL, you're back on the path to building up the status of your own American charge, the Detroit Symphony. There’s so much to discuss here – but given all the drama, we should at least touch upon the saga that just ended back in April, and is now come full circle as the Detroit Symphony begins its 2011-12 season next week, with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique of all pieces! So, do you think the dust has settled and grudges have been pacified to make for a spectacular season; and what in general are your hopes – and perhaps concerns – about this coming season?
LS: Well, I can't say that everything is totally behind us – because when you have a six-month strike, you have residue. But I would say that most people are really ready to move on now; we have learned a great deal from the work stoppage, and we have taken many things to heart. For instance, we’ve learned that pricing makes a big difference here in Detroit – so we've adjusted our prices down significantly for most of our concerts; we’ve also issued what's being called a "sound card" where, if you're a student, you can get into any concert during the whole season for just $25 – so long as there are tickets. That’s not $25 per show – it's $25 the whole season!
NG: That’s terrific.
LS: In addition, we are also instituting community initiatives. As you know, Detroit has a troublesome downtown district, where the hall is located. But we have one of the great concert halls in the world [Orchestral Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center], so we will never abandon it. But we also know that we have to reach out to our suburban public; so we'll be going into various surrounding communities – playing in schools, auditoriums, churches, synagogues, etc., in the hopes that the folks who attend these concerts will come to know us, and will then venture forth to the downtown hall. Also, the orchestra members themselves will be more heavily involved in the decision-making processes – and I suspect we're going to reevaluate everything from the ground up. That doesn't mean that we're “reinventing the orchestra” – which is an expression I really hate, because you don't reinvent an orchestra. You simply take what you have and find a way to make it more relevant to your various audiences.
The season itself begins tomorrow [September 26], with five concerts that we’ll play in five different areas within the community: three of them in Detroit itself, and two of them outside. Then the season proper starts [on Sunday, October 2], as you point out, with the Symphonie fantastique – and then we're off and running!
I think the folks who are still a bit bitter about the past months will likely see the positive outcome that the strike produced. Will all of them be “on board” with the direction we’re hoping to take? I don’t know. It would be nice to say “yes”, but it’s doubtful. We have many vacancies to fill in the orchestra – we’ve had several retirements, and several people left to go to other orchestras; so we’ve had to deal with all that, and there's still a lot to do. So, to answer your first question: there are still things that must be taken care of post-strike, but most of us are simply moving on to what we think will be a very exciting season – and a very exciting future for the orchestra.
NG: Yes, I’m sure it will be – and it does seem that those difficult months during the strike gave all parties a chance to re-evaluate how important the orchestra was and should be in the life of the community. I am aware of some of the vacancies – including your concertmaster [that is, the first violinist, a key orchestral post]. Given what you’ve said about the importance of the string section to the individuality of the orchestra, I image this will allow for a big change.
I’m also quite intrigued by the move of the Detroit Symphony into the surrounding community – which I understand the members of the orchestra began initiating on their own during the strike itself, as a way to align themselves with the community.
LS: That's right – and again, we all learned a great deal not only from the orchestra, but also from the community, as to what is necessary to make this institution more valuable for the community. Remember, we're an exportable item as well – and that's why taking ourselves outside downtown is important. It's also why recordings are important; it's why we stream videos of our concerts now – which we can now do under the new contract. There are many new things in the Detroit Symphony’s future that I believe will be truly spectacular; and I will walk into tomorrow's opening rehearsal as excited as I was when I walked into the first rehearsal of the ONL three weeks ago.
NG: That’s terrific; and I imagine that the response from the community – at the high schools, churches, and synagogues – has been pretty positive. I guess we'll have to wait to see how it actually impacts ticket sales.
LS: Yes, we’ll know a bit this week; and we'll know a lot more by the time we get to January, when everything will be up and running full-time.
NG: This saga – including the economic woes that led to the DSO’s tough bargaining position last year – brings to mind the larger issue of the overall state of American symphonies, if not of classical music in general; and not just in the US – as the recent cuts in Holland attest that you recently addressed [see attached video]. I know that this is a topic that you care deeply about, and that you’ve recognized the need for American orchestras to devise at least a new financial structure, if not other types of changes. Can you talk about your sense of what steps are needed, not only in Detroit, but also elsewhere in the US to improve the state of classical music; and perhaps your overall level of confidence that we can keep classical music healthy and growing in the future?
LS: That’s a big question; let’s see what we can do.
The obvious – and the not incorrect – answer is: education. You hear about audiences getting older; but I'm not so sure, as I do see a growing interest in classical music among younger people. In my view, rather than trying to be everything for everybody, arts institutions should instead define who they believe their audience is, and maximize their efforts to reach that target group first. For example, there are 40 million piano students in China – forty million! At a certain point, many of them come to study in the United States. The majority of them do not become musicians, but instead go on to do something else: they become doctors or lawyers or physicists; regardless, a great number of them remain in the US. The point is, however, that they've had this intense musical training in their backgrounds, and music remains a big part of their lives.
My sense is that we should actively go into these communities, as well as into areas of the Latino and other populations where the local education systems places value on music – in a way that we generally seem not to in the broader nation; and to develop these communities as the future audience. This does not mean that we should segregate or specialize, but rather maximize the number of people who already have a musical interest in their backgrounds, and to reach out to them in a constructive way.
What we also have to do is to make sure that the parents of young people actively support arts education in the schools. Kids will go to music right away, that's never a problem for them – but it's the adults. We're forty years into the gradual decline of our various arts educational processes, and so you have to reach the parents. How people choose to do that is an individual matter, but there are ways – and I will be doing many of these here in Detroit. In fact, I'm going to be giving a presentation to TEDx [a locally organized installment of the TED (Technology-Education-Design) conferences to share innovative ideas] in a few days – and it will be exactly about that. So again, education is the big key!
Another thing is never dilute your product – something that I frighteningly see in too many cases; for example, adding constituent elements such as visuals to what should be a purely aural concert. Music is meant to challenge; it is meant to be primarily in the abstract, it is meant for the audience to create its own imagery. But more and more we're moving in a direction where that aspect is being taken away. If you ask a young person about a song they're listening to, chances are that they are only going to talk about the video – and we shouldn't have that. It's fine to educate, to inform, and to entertain; but audiences have to meet the orchestra part way by doing a bit of work themselves – and that comes in the form of listening with your eyes as well as your ears, and creating your own imagery.
Finally, I think that we have to create a much healthier environment for individual and corporate donations. One way to do this is to pursue more specific, targeted giving. Rather than just saying, "We need another five million dollars," you have to say what you need this money for – explain how a company, or an individual, benefits from something making this contribution.
So those are the areas I think we would have to work on, and things we've learned in part from our strike.
NG: I think you managed to tackle that big question pretty handily! Certainly it requires all these great ideas, and more – but I concur that in the final analysis, it always comes back to arts education, which is such a woeful topic, especially here in the US; as we all know, it’s the first thing to be cut when the economy is in trouble.
LS: Yes, but perhaps there are ways to improve the situation.
NG: I hope so, but clearly a great way is just what you’re doing: taking music directly to the community. I’ve spoken with a number of other musicians – soloists and ensembles – who actively gather together in various ways to perform free or cheap concerts at local schools and community centers. And there are also the less conventional ways – like the post-concert “raves” for young people that David Zinman is doing in Zürich. Of course, we’ll have to see how all this translates into actual ticket sales…
LS: I actually don't think that matters. If you start thinking about how these activities translate into something else like tickets sold, then you're off the mark. You just have to be focused on getting people to specific events. What they choose to do after that is their business.
NG: Well, making the tickets more economical for young people is a great start.
LS: Exactly – and that's the sound card idea. We generally run at about 68% of the house being sold, and so there are all these empty seats; why not fill them, and thereby raise your revenue, even if the added revenue isn’t immense? Every $25 above the 68% is another $25!
NG: Gaining more exposure is also key – which you are now apparently able to do as part of the new contract, through the changed rules regarding streaming and downloading your concerts.
Moreover, I must say that given the high profile this strike had – not only in Detroit, but also with the whole symphonic world watching – your self-imposed silence during the strike was quite impressive; I'm sure there were moments when that was difficult.
LS: Some people were not happy that I did it that way; but it was the only possibility I had. To do otherwise would have alienated either people on the Board or people in the orchestra; I'm actually sure I've alienated a few on both sides, but at least not the majority [laughs].
NG: Well, if folks on both sides are mad at you, you know you’ve done something right.
LS: Yes, that's right.
NG: In the time remaining, there are a couple of other topics that I’d love to quickly address. You mentioned early on how you recently had some “down time” – which you filled not only with some guest conducting duties, but also in fulfilling a long-term goal of completing a book on conducting.
LS: Yes, I’ve now finished it; and it will be published in the spring.
NG: Terrific; and can you give us a sense of the book’s contents, and your rationale for writing it?
LS: The idea of the book has been in my head for a long time – though it took a while to figure out how exactly to go about it. The book is called Conducting Business, because it's primarily about the conducting profession itself: how does one get into the business? How does one study for it? What is the role of a music director, or a guest conductor, or a conductor in an opera house? What is the role of the conductor during a labor dispute? How does one hire and fire musicians? What about recording or being on the road? It’s all of these things; but it's also a kind of memoir – with lots of bits and pieces from my own conducting life. I can't speak for other conductors, so I had to write it from a personal perspective.
It's not a book about conducting technique – I think that’s coming. In fact, there are two other books for me to write, and the next one may be a short primer on the technique of conducting. There are plenty of good books like that, and so perhaps I may not do it – we’ll see. Then there’s a third book – which I started forming as I was working on the first one: containing various anecdotes about artists I’ve worked with, even though I did include a few of those in Conducting Business. Who knows – perhaps there’s a whole book to be written just about my work with Isaac Stern and Arthur Rubenstein.
NG: I'm sure that would be well embraced – as I’m sure would be a more directly pedagogical monograph as well. You obviously have spent a lot of time as a conducting teacher – for example, you founded the National Conducting Institute [associated with the National Symphony Orchestra, which Maestro Slatkin led from 1996 to 2008], and you’ve worked with countless young conductors at various festivals and youth orchestras. As such, can you give us a sense of your outlook for the next generation of conductors – can we look forward to a continuing line of strong, individual, and innovative conductors?
LS: I don't know [laughs]! Part of the problem I see is that with our current emphasis on young conductors – of which there are several very talented ones at present – there has always been the risk of trying to do too much too soon. Conducting is something you come to later in your musical education. You can start young, but building a repertoire and taking time to absorb this wealth of music takes many years. My worry is not their ability to have ideas about conducting – that's easy if you're clever and creative; it's the sustaining part that's tough. But we’ll see, I think we're just now in this first phase of looking at the “new kids on the block”, and we’ll have to see how they develop over the course of the next fifteen or twenty years.
NG: I did read you voicing some concern that the current batch of young conductors may be settling for a more generic, homogeneous sonority from their orchestras – and not striving for the kind of individual approach to the repertoire that one would ideally like to hear…
LS: It’s difficult, because when you go too far away from an interpretation of a work that has evolved over decades and years, you're labeled as an eccentric. I tell every conductor that I work with: if you're going to do something – with any phrase, any bar, or any passage – you have to be able to explain why you're doing it this way; and particularly if it goes away from the accepted norm. I've worked with my fair share of artists – not just conductors, but also soloists – who've veered so far away from an expected interpretation, that I couldn't quite figure out what they wanted. Usually I'm good at this sort of thing, but every so often I don't get what they’re trying to do – at which point I’ll say, "Why are you doing it like that?" Sometimes they have a good answer, and sometimes they don't. But just saying, "That's how I feel it" doesn't cut it.
NG: Indeed, that’s part of the process of becoming a good conductor or soloist: to be challenged, and to make sure that you justify a reason for what you’re doing.
LS: Yes, this is true for any performer, but particularly for a conductor – because you have to be able to tell the orchestra exactly why you're doing something. You can’t just stop and say, "Okay, let's do it again," or "I want a ritard [slow down] here," or "Let's play this passage louder"; you have to say why you're asking for this – otherwise you’re not presenting yourself as a particularly subtle or well-thought musician; you're just making it up as you go along.
NG: And as you’ve talked about as well – such decisions really have to come out of the actual architecture of the music; what you're doing has to help recount the actual narrative the music is expressing.
LS: That's right – you need to have a good and strong musical reason for doing it.
NG: Finally, Maestro, I am struck in reading your blog how proud – justifiably – you are of your parents, both prominent string players, and a conductor in your dad’s case [his father was violinist-conductor Felix Slatkin (1915-1963); his mother was cellist Eleanor Aller (1917-1985)]. I’m particularly intrigued with your mom’s friendship with Erich Korngold, a composer who indeed warrants greater attention for his serious works – including premiering his Cello Concerto. Clearly your parents had a major impact on your musical sensibility – and how proud your mom must have been to see how your career blossomed…
LS: Except that she didn't tell me!
NG: Oh – well, I'm sure she must have felt it.
So, can you talk about some of the aesthetic, technical, or other elements in which they had an impact on you as young musician?
LS: The best way to express that is to say that my parents had a three-fold musical existence: first, they were studio musicians – my dad was a concertmaster at 20th Century Fox Studios, and my mom was the first cellist at Warner Brothers; her brother was also a pianist at Warner's; second, they had a string quartet – one half of the Hollywood String Quartet; and third, they had careers in the popular music industry – particularly at Capitol Records. So, our household could see Arnold Schoenberg coming over one night; Erich Korngold the next; Frank Sinatra the next, and Danny Kaye the night after that.
One thing they left me with – perhaps the most important thing – was to respect good music, no matter in what form it comes. It's not a particular genre that’s good; it's what’s in the music itself that makes it good – whether country and western, jazz, folk, or classical; it doesn't matter. They taught me to try to understand the music, and to figure out why it's good; the rest takes care of itself. You could ignore the majority of music in any style – and then concentrate only on the good stuff. So, that aesthetic permeated the household, and I'll always be grateful for it: to have no musical boundaries in my world.
NG: That indeed is a great lesson – one I think is sorely lacking in too many households. Of course, being able to see Schoenberg on one day and Sinatra the next – that's a pretty rarified upbringing, which I'm sure had its own positive impact! And now you have your own 17-year old son – with whom you can share these same insights.
LS: Yes, he's venturing into the music world in his own way; probably not as a professional, but certainly music is one strong area of interest for him. I didn't think he was going to pursue it, but somehow he is. Just yesterday, he asked if I could get him tickets for the Boston Symphony in a couple of weeks; I never expected to hear that from him [laughs]!
NG: Yes, teenagers will surprise you – as a father of one myself, I know.
Well, Maestro, I really appreciate your generous time today; I wish you best of luck with the opening week of concerts in Detroit – and will look forward to speaking with you again.
LS: Yes, anytime, just let me know; it was a pleasure to talk with you.
Leonard Slatkin conducting l’Orchestre National de Lyon
Opening Concert, September 15, 2011
Our collaboration with MediciTV continues with two outstanding videos from the opening concert of l’Orchestre National de Lyon 2011-12 Season, under its new music director Leonard Slatkin – coinciding with our Exclusive Interview with Maestro Slatkin. These outstanding Exclusive video clips feature excerpts from their performance of Berlioz’ epic Symphonie fantastique and Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G, with French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Visit MediciTV for the full performance, and to explore their outstanding collection of concert and film music videos – and look for more direct collaborations between Classical Archives and MediciTV in the near future. Enjoy!
September 15, 2001 – Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, 4.Marche au supplice (Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Orchestre National de Lyon)
September 15, 2001 – Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto in G, 1.Allegramente (Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; Orchestre National de Lyon)