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[ adapted from Stereophile article, March 1998 ]
America’s premiere conductor on Ives, Ellington, and musical life on the Potomac.
What am I talking about?” Leonard Slatkin asks National Symphony Orchestra publicist Patricia O’Kelly as he hunts through an enormous trunk for a tie.
“No set topic,” she says. “You can just take questions.”
It’s the final leg of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Arizona Residency — Slatkin’s first with the orchestra he officially took over in 1996. About to head onstage at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall in Tucson for a pre concert lecture, he is neither prepared nor concerned. He knows the rap.
He straightens his tie, steps into the hallway, greets congressman Jim Kolbe, then heads out before the crowd. Poised, confident and in control, he delivers his lecture in the manner of an informal chat speckled with wry, understated humor.
One of the works he and the NSO are performing that evening is Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. He candidly discusses his mixed feelings about the composer, who is revered as a genius.
“There are two schools of thought regarding Charles Ives,” he confides to the crowd. “There are those who think that he was the most advanced American musician of his time — essentially the turn of the century. That what he produced was outrageous and outlandish and completely out of step with his own time. That he was a bold and aggressive pioneer who knew completely what he was doing.
“The opposite school says Ives was essentially a talented amateur who in some works was lucky. I actually tend to fall in the second category.”
He drew guffaws when he spoke of the mixed messages he sends when performing certain Ives works.
“I’ve had, in the past couple of months, a chance to do the Fourth Symphony, and even though you’re supposed to be 100% committed to every note you conduct, you can’t help wondering sometimes, ‘Did he really know what he was doing?’
“Part of the challenge, at least in conducting his work, is to say, ‘Yes, he did,’ and then leave the stage thinking, ‘No, he didn’t.’”
At 53, Slatkin is a seasoned, opinionated, and highly influential performer, considered by many to be the most important figure in American music today. In demand throughout the world, he is a prolific recording artist with over 100 discs to his credit, a Grammy under his belt (for John Corigliano’s Of Rage and Remembrance), and over 50 nominations.
Slatkin plainly enjoys his new post and the flurry of activity it brings. He is busy surveying the direction the National Symphony will take, presiding over the reconstruction of its musical home, and making new connections to Washington, DC and the nation.
“It’s been a very exciting time for a lot of reasons,” he says backstage before the show. “Getting to know the orchestra, instilling a new repertoire for them, and for me, getting used to what they do. Of all the major American orchestras, it’s actually the one I knew the least, which is part of the reason I took the position. I thought it would be nice to go to a place that was fresh and new. And also a place that seemed ripe for a whole new set of ideas and changes. It’s been a very good start.”
While his predecessor, Mstislav Rostropovich, had strengthened the orchestra’s European standard repertoire, Slatkin is grafting the American branches to that solid trunk. He feels a strong bond with American fare.
“I’ve grown up with the tradition, especially of symphonic and chamber music,” said this son of conductor/violinist Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, founding members of the famed Hollywood String Quartet. “When I was a kid in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s it was heard all the time.
Surprisingly, most American music was introduced in this country not by Americans, but by Europeans Koussevitzky, Ormandy, and Stokowski.
“I always knew this music. It was second nature. It surprised me as the years went on that more people didn’t continue to program American music because they believed in its ultimate merit and worth. They did it because it was a novelty.
“I guess part of the long-range goal is to look at a core American repertoire for this orchestra so that they become associated with it, as well as a good continuity with the standard repertoire. It’s kind of like a restaurant— it can have its specials of the house, but if you want a good steak, you should have a good steak. That’s where the performance of the standard material comes in.
“Now is certainly the time to want to look back and see what the history is of original concert music for the past 100 years, plus peer into the crystal ball to the future to see what we might be doing.”
So, as we head into the next millennium, which American composers does the man who likely has done more to promote American music than any other living conductor consider to be our best and brightest?
“I think John Adams is there certainly, along with John Corigliano,” Slatkin says. “I think Joe Schwantner continues to stay in the forefront of what’s going on. Chris Rouse is another one who I think we can look at into the next century very comfortably. Probably Stephen Hartke will emerge, along with Aaron Jay Kernis. A lot of people are talking about Richard Danielpour as well, as one who is going to emerge quite strongly.
“They all have their own styles and individual sense of sound. After a minute, you know who’s written it. That is the important thing, whether you like the pieces or not:
They have their individual identities.”
Beyond the contemporary American fare that put him on the map during his tenure with the St. Louis Symphony, Slatkin plans to extend his American assaults on both con temporary and historical fronts, examining the music of the current crop along with that of Carpenter, Chadwick, MacDowell, Ives, and other American pioneers.
Washington, DC is a very different spot from St. Louis, where he spent 1968 to 1996, acting as music director from 1979 on.
“First of all, you’re in a city where there’s competition,” he notes of DC. “Other orchestras and artists come in on a regular and frequent basis. We never had that in St. Louis. Washington is a city which, although the cultural aspects may not be well known nationally, has a high priority for such offerings. There’s an amazing number of museums, chamber-music series, and benefits that go on—much more activity than I’m used to.”
Slatkin hopes to tap into that energy, and into some of the city’s cultural treasures, starting with the Library of Congress.
“The union with the Library of Congress is going to be really beneficial, because they have one of the world’s largest collections of manuscripts and instruments,” he says.
“Our concerts will feature at least one piece that exists in manuscript form at the Library. The manuscripts will be on display. At some concerts we’ll be projecting them the way some people do surtitles. People then can see what the composer worked on while we’re playing it.”
Slatkin also plans to make connections with the city’s favorite sons as well—John Philip Sousa and Edward K. “Duke” Ellington.
“We’ve been trying to track down the body of what would constitute Ellington’s works with orchestra,” Slatkin says. “Since music is probably 35 to 40 percent research, it’s nice to have this resource avail able so readily.”
Another big priority has been the renovation of the NSO’s hall in the Kennedy Center.
“It will definitely change the way the orchestra sounds,” Slatkin predicted before the $14 million, 10-month project was completed in October.
“There was little bottom to the hall before. The high end was shrill. It was hard to hear each other or the stage, and a lot of the sound—because of the high ceiling—was not get ting out to the audience. If you sat in one seat and moved four seats to your right, you heard another concert entirely.”
After his first rehearsal in the renovated hall, Slatkin sent a one-word note to the Kennedy Center’s president: “Yes!”
Asked if orchestras around the country are dropping the ball with contemporary music, Slatkin pauses for a moment and stares off.
“I don’t know if the orchestras have,” he says, turning back. “I think we’ve become a little too reliant on letting the public lead us, as opposed to leading the public. Perhaps it will turn around as more composers are more accessible to an audience listening now.
“More music is relying, as it had in past centuries, on the popular culture of the time. It doesn’t mean we’re playing pops concerts. But the rhythms and the language of the world in general has always entered into the world of music. But it didn’t in, say, the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“Now, as we get to the end of the century, we see more and more of it coming into the concert hall. Some of the composers have no problem drawing upon popular idioms and integrating them into their works. So it has a broader appeal.
“It’s not playing down in any way, but trying to elevate other elements of music, as Mozart did, as Schubert did, as Brahms did, as Mahler did. It always takes a while for the public and marketing to catch up.”
In addition to his duties with the NSO, Slatkin last season became the chief guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra.
“It has been in the works for four or five years,” he says. “We don’t know exactly what direction it’s going to take at this point. We’re working on many projects. I hope that some of them might be dual projects, with the NSO per haps going to England and the Philharmonia coming to Washington. We’ll do American music in Europe and English music in the United States.
“Philharmonia is just focusing on thematic concepts, at least for the weeks I was there in the past season. Each one contained a major work of Elgar. The year after I want to focus on Dvorak’s London and American years. So we’re going to be more project- oriented in my times with them.”
He says that, while his enthusiasm for new music remains, what excites him now is returning to the old scores.
“The new ones, in a way, are easier to deal with because you don’t have a given set of performing traditions. I get just as much satisfaction producing a fine performance of a Brahms symphony as I do from presenting something new to an audience.”
Asked what he hopes his tenure with St. Louis will be known for Slatkin focuses on community rather than personal accomplishment.
“I think that we became a model for other orchestras in how we related to our own public,” he says. “That we did not put national and international exposure over our local expo sure. We became a real fixture in the community. People who didn’t ever go to the concerts knew about the orchestra. We were kind of like a sports team. They knew who the orchestra was, and they knew the individuals. Our outreach pro grams were high. I think we were able to prove that you can be noted not just for how you play, but for what you play.
More at Slatkin's web site.
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