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Steps to Parnassus: Leonard Slatkin talks to Jeremy Siepmann

September 1, 2012

Leonard Slatkin

As the long-esteemed Leonard Slatkin can attest, being born to music (or more literally, to musicians) can be a mixed blessing. His father Felix, the well-known violinist and versatile conductor-arranger was the founder of the famous Hollywood Quartet; his mother, Eleanor, was the quartet’s cellist; her brother was the distinguished pianist Victor Aller. A generation of young musicians grew up on their many acclaimed recordings. When we met, I asked Leonard Slatkin whether he could remember a time when music wasn’t central to his life? I thought the answer was probably predictable. I should have known better. ‘I can, actually. But it wasn’t in my infancy. As it happens, it was in the period immediately following my father’s death. That was in 1963. He was only 47. I was 19. And at that point I truly had no sense of direction, no real sense of what I wanted to do. I did believe, though, that perhaps it was best for me to leave music. At one point I had every intention of becoming an English teacher. But that didn’t last very long. I came back into the fold.’

And who, as he was growing up, were his most formative influences? ‘Aside from my parents, it was primarily the musicians who came to our house to play. And they came from all walks of musical life so it could have been Jascha Heifetz, it could have been the great jazz pianist Art Tatum, it could have been Frank Sinatra—all the people who were involved in the film industry, the pop industry, the classical music industry. As a youngster, almost everybody influenced me!’

But influence cuts two ways: both positive and negative. Witness Slatkin’s chequered career as a child instrumentalist. ‘I started playing the violin when I was three, and around the age of eight I gave it up because I knew I could never be as good as my father. So I took up the piano. After a while I gave that up too, because I realised I could never be as good as my uncle. Finally I took up the viola because nobody else in the family played that (the cello was out of the question. There were already four generations of those!). Then I gravitated into composition for a while. Conducting started when I was around 21, when I was studying it seriously at Juilliard. I’d done some very preliminary conducting when I was younger but it was only when I went to Juilliard that I really got serious. Until that point I really hadn’t thought about it as a career.’

Although he had distinguished teachers and mentors in Walter Susskind and Jean Morel, Slatkin got to that point largely on his own: ‘Mostly it was by listening. And watching. Playing the viola, I was able to participate in various youth orchestras and amateur ensembles, universities that needed violists would hire me, but it was by watching other conductors that I really learned the most. My actual debut as a conductor, though—the event that really could be said, in retrospect, to have turned the tide—was when I was playing the viola in a youth orchestra and the conductor was called away to the telephone in the middle of a rehearsal. He literally looked down at me and he said “You want to conduct? Okay. Conduct.” And he threw down the score of Verdi’s Forza del destino overture, so I got up and conducted it. I think I was about 16. But even after that, as I said, I still wasn’t thinking in terms of a career. I started doing some arranging and conducting for high school musicals and it all seemed very natural, but I still had no sense of direction. And then my father died. And after this period, of trying to figure out what I really wanted to do, I thought to myself “Maybe a path has been opened to me, with my father not around any more.” The competition in the house had been eliminated. It sounds harsh; cruel; but it was the reality. The truth is, life in the Slatkin household was far from easy. When my brother and I were young there was a lot of competition, a lot of antagonism in the house.’

Not the least of music’s powers is its capacity to transcend one’s personal circumstances at any given time. Given the distractions of Slatkin’s early background, I was curious to learn about his core repertoire in his early years as a serious conductor. ‘Actually, I didn’t really have any. I think most conductors probably just take whatever opportunities they can. You sort of know what you may or may not like but at that point you’re so eager to conduct you’ll say yes to anything. I did the world concert premiere of Jesus Christ, Superstar. I worked with rock groups, folk groups, and I did a lot of new music that was stylistically uncomfortable for me—all as part of the opportunity to gain experience. Looking back now, over forty-five years of conducting, my repertoire today is definitely more selective than it was in the early days. I know what I like, I know what I do well. And I know what I don’t do well, which is probably even more important—so I try very much at this point in my life never to do pieces I really don’t think I’m going to enjoy.’

From the beginning, and throughout his career, Slatkin has pledged himself to a double career: as both artist and educator: ‘In the United States anyway, the role of the conductor, and of the Music Director in particular, is to determine much of the cultural taste and ethic for the community which he or she serves. Especially given the paucity of arts education in so many of our schools, I would say that our role to guide people, to educate as well as entertain them, is absolutely critical. For instance, following this conversation we’re doing a 65-minute piece called Final Alice, by David del Tredici, a contemporary composer. Though it was written in 1976, it’s still new: new to this audience, new for Detroit, and a major, major piece. Huge! With any luck, if we do this properly, it’ll open up a whole avenue for people who maybe didn’t formerly see a path for themselves in newer music. It’s a challenge for the audience, but an extremely friendly challenge, if I can put it that way. With standard pieces too, though, I feel the audience needs to be brought into what’s really happening in the music, so I’ll talk to them about it and try to illuminate certain ways of listening.’

For most of us, Slatkin’s powers as a musical illuminator are experienced through his numerous and wide-ranging recordings. In one respect in particular, the scope for illumination in his newest releases for Naxos is nothing less than spectacular. Both Berlioz and Ravel are among the greatest virtuoso orchestrators who ever lived (some might say the greatest of them all). Do they, I wondered—specifically as orchestrators—have individual characteristics (‘orchestrational’ personalities, if you like) that could reveal their identities even in pieces hitherto unknown to us? ‘In the case of Berlioz, probably yes, because there are these absolutely unique sounds—stopped horns, the way he uses trombones…his use of percussion, which was unique in its time. When Berlioz came of age, Beethoven, the greatest and most influential master of the orchestra who’d ever lived, was at his peak, yet there’s hardly anything of the Beethoven sound in Berlioz’s writing. Which I think is quite astonishing. Berlioz, to me, in terms of sheer orchestral invention, anticipates Mahler. If anything, he even surpasses him. So these are some of the things that characterise Berlioz: the extremes, the dynamics, the sound, the colours of the orchestra. Ravel was more about homogenisation. And I mean that in an entirely positive sense, because he’s taking the orchestral palette and really thinking very carefully about the essence of instrumental sonorities and how they go together. One of the best examples of all this is Boléro. People don’t tend to think of this in terms of colour quite as much as we might expect. But he’s always keeping us guessing. And asking: why would he choose to have the muted trumpet playing with the celeste? Why does the saxophone make an appearance in this piece? What’s the trombone solo all about? These are all about the colours that he has available to him, and you can find it almost all the way through his music: this quite incredible palette. It’s almost as though he could take this myriad of colouristic sources and devices, throw them down on the page and they’d somehow all come out wonderfully.’

The Berlioz is one of the most recorded works in the catalogue, but the present performance contains at least one feature which will come to most listeners as a total surprise, though the instrumentation is Berlioz’s own. So what’s the story here? ‘Well, the second movement, called “The Ball”, exists in two versions: the one which we normally hear (but which we abnormally play here with four harps – as Berlioz specified) and an alternate version which includes a cornet solo, most likely written for the great trumpet virtuoso Arban—presumably to show off his virtuosity in the context of a single ad hoc performance of the work. And it certainly lends an interesting colour to the movement, which normally has no trumpets at all. It also makes you rethink the way the movement goes. For instance, the tempo has to be slower than usual, to accommodate all the notes he’s put in for the trumpet. We decided to have the alternate movement to let people decide which they like best and then programme in the version they prefer.’

Slatkin has always been a busy, and an enterprising, man. But not even the busiest and most enterprising can achieve everything. What, then, are his principal unfulfilled ambitions? ‘Mostly, I guess, they’re outside of music. None of us, of course, as you say, can do everything. What’s more, I think it’s a bad idea to try. I’ve belatedly added one word to my vocabulary that seemed not to have existed there before and that’s “no”. And I’m pretty good at it now! I never come off the podium saying “that was tremendous, fantastic—I think I could never do it better”. If I said that it would be time for me to quit. Music-making is a process of continuous growth. It’s never-ending. Try as we may, we’ll never achieve perfection. But that’s okay—because there is no perfect in music. In the most wonderful way, we’re destined to remain unfulfilled.’

And if he had his life to live over again? ‘I’d treasure my past a little sooner. I tended to block out a lot of my early life and all those wonderful artists who came to our house. I don’t know why. And like many musicians, I spent too much of my younger time doing only music. The world around me was a complete mystery. I was unaware of politics, unaware of social problems, blind to it all. I wish now that I had more of an understanding of the world—as young people today seem to have. They seem to be much more tuned into what’s going on than I was. I’d like to have had more of a balance between the world as it is and the world as I believe it should be. Of course to a very large extent this is an occupational hazard. Musicians are naturally very isolated. You exist in a world that very few people have the opportunity to be part of. When I’m working with young people—and I spend a lot of time doing various educational things—I’m always telling them “You’ve got to make the most of this time because it’s possible it won’t happen again for you. Most of you won’t become musicians. You’ll go on to do something else. And you have to look back on the time you spent with music as something totally unique; unforgettable. Something you have to pass on to others. The fact is—we musicians are just unbelievably privileged in what we do. It’s amazing to be a musician! And to do it at a high level. To really work at it. When you’re young you don’t think about it that way. You think about how it takes you away from your friends sometimes, how you have to sacrifice so much to be a musician. But in the long run, believe me, it’s really worth it.”’

Thus spoke the man who once considered being an English teacher. His pupils would have been lucky. But we were luckier. And vastly more numerous.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Leonard Slatkin Biography & Discography

Previous releases by Leonard Slatkin:


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