By Lawrence B. Johnson
Leonard Slatkin, who is celebrating his 70th birthday this season, took control of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s artistic fortunes in 2008 with two directorships already under his belt – the Saint Louis Symphony (1979-96) and the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. (1996-2008) – and an earful of caution about the economically distressed city and the hard-pressed orchestra to which he was being lured. But it was a challenge that excited him.
“Almost everyone warned me about the impending demise of the orchestra,” the conductor says. “A lot of people said that I should not take it. Perhaps that is what gave me the desire to go there and try to help.”
If Slatkin did not expect a breeze when he accepted the DSO directorship, neither was he exactly buckled up for the unforeseeable turbulence ahead. He recalls his bouncing start with the bemusement of a survivor.
“Although this marks the beginning of my seventh season, in reality it is my fourth,” he says. “The first year I could only conduct five weeks, as my guest schedule was already full. The second year I had a heart attack. And the third? Well, there was no third due to the work stoppage.
“With all that everyone had to endure, each of us — management, board and musicians — had ideas waiting to be implemented when the strike ended. The results of those ideas turned into initiatives that have helped place this orchestra as a leader in the field. We take chances. As a result, audience size has increased, donations are at record levels and we are heard and seen all over the world.”
For Slatkin, who added the directorship of the Orchestre National de Lyon in 2011, the rough patches are just part of life at the artistic helm, and that’s fine with him. He’s where he always knew he would be. Some bright young musicians know early on that they want to be a conductor. Slatkin had a more specific vision. He believed himself born to be a music director.
“First off, it was pretty clear that I would go into conducting once I had the opportunity to actually lead an orchestra,” says Slatkin. “The study process suited my own ethic and, at least for me, I felt relatively comfortable with the technical part of the job. But perhaps more important, I knew that I would also be a music director. Mind you, this is a very different job from just getting on the podium and waving your arms. The decision-making process and the ability to shape a single ensemble into a cohesive whole, including administration, somehow felt natural to me.”
It also could be said that Slatkin was to the manner born. His father, Felix Slatkin, was a conductor and violinist on the Hollywood scene and his mother, Eleanor Aller, was a cellist. The elder Slatkin and Aller founded the highly regarded Hollywood String Quartet.
Still ahead for Slatkin this season are diverse projects including a month with the Lyon orchestra devoted in substantial part to American composers, including Mason Bates, John Adams, and Gunther Schuller. He has turned February into Tchaikovsky month at the Detroit Symphony, where all the symphonies and concertos will be crammed into six programs — 12 concerts — filled out with more Tchaikovsky.
For May and June Slatkin has other big plans for Detroit: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and the Walton Violin Concerto with Midori, May 22-23; a concert version of Puccini’s “Tosca” with Patricia Racette, James Valenti and Eric Owens, May 29-31; and Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) on June 4. (Blanchard is the Detroit orchestra’s jazz director creative chair.)
The visible – perhaps the better word is virtual — emblem that both honors Slatkin’s 70th birthday and epitomizes his evolving legacy with the DSO is a recorded compilation of works mainly by American composers. Names like William Bolcom, John Williams, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Leroy Anderson and Cindy McTee (the conductor’s wife) are representative of Slatkin’s lifelong commitment to the music of American masters.
“I grew up hearing the music from this country and it never left my being,” he says. “There are not many of us left who knew so many of the great composers personally and it remains important for me to keep the heritage alive. I think of almost every living composer I do as an offspring of the earlier generations, whether they intend their music to be interpreted that way or not.”
But the very fact that this “digital” program is literally that, not a CD but available only as an internet download, bespeaks the forward thinking of both Slatkin and DSO management about getting its sound and its brand out to the high-tech world. Slatkin sees online-only digital projects like the DSO’s Beethoven symphony cycle as well as the orchestra’s cutting-edge webcasts as responses to a global opportunity.
“The recording market is diminishing, so we had to find a new way to reach the world-wide public,” he says. “We remain the only orchestra to offer all subscription concerts streamed for free on the Internet. Eventually, we will turn this into a way to achieve some generation of income, but for now, we simply are doing something that no other orchestra can.”
All that said, it also appears that Slatkin’s conceptual reach exceeds the digital grasp of Spotify-type streaming services such as Naxos’ presentation of the conductor’s “greatest hits” compilation. Click on the site and you’ll find a list of pieces opposite fragmentary indications of performers — and no composers at all. The complete information is, however, included in a booklet that’s downloaded with purchased tracks.
Meanwhile, back in the world where orchestra meets public in the concert hall, Slatkin cites a radically different approach to cultivating an audience: the Detroit Symphony’s community concert series, which takes the orchestra away from its home at Orchestra Hall and into the backyards of music lovers throughout Metro Detroit.
When the community concert idea was hatching, some doubters predicted the DSO would simply be giving regional patrons a reason to skip the trek downtown to hear the orchestra in its own setting – an acoustically splendid gem designed by the noted architect C. Howard Crane and built in 1919 at the insistence of music director Ossip Gabrilowitsch. But Slatkin says the series has nourished orchestra and audiences alike.
“We have not lost patrons but have added 3,500 because of these concerts,” he says. “This is the audience that used to come to the symphony and stopped many years ago. Since virtually all the venues are smaller than Orchestra Hall, people will have to come downtown to hear the choral works, big-name soloists and much of the larger repertoire. In the meantime, getting the orchestra out to the areas where the musicians live makes for some very nice partnerships.”
Indeed, Slatkin still thrives on the many challenges of keeping an orchestra not only afloat but purposeful.
“With so much talk about older audiences, diminishing arts education in the schools, and economic woes of all manner of arts institutions, it seemed like most of us were simply not adapting to the changing times,” he says.
“What we changed at the DSO was the old style of just letting things take care of themselves. By completely altering pricing structures, we have seen the audience grow. It has become younger and more diverse without having to compromise anything musically. And instead of relying on schools to do the teaching, we take it on.” The orchestra’s educational programs serve some 10,000 children in both classical and jazz ensembles.
As for achieving his own Op. 70, the maestro muses: “I am officially an old man – ‘venerable’ was actually used in an article. Perhaps it is indeed time to reflect on my musical life.”
Lawrence B. Johnson, former music critic for The Detroit News, is editor of the performing arts web magazine ChicagoOntheAisle.com.