Mauceri, Slatkin Mull And Churn Conductor’s Craft

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In ‘Leading Tones,’ Leonard Slatkin writes at length about the audition process for symphony orchestra players.
(Photo: Cindy McTee)

Mauceri, John. Maestros and their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 262 pages.

Slatkin, Leonard. Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry. Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2017. 312 pages.

BOOK REVIEW – These two new books by American senior statesman conductors – Mauceri is 72 and Slatkin, 73 – offer words of wisdom built on highly successful careers on podiums at home and abroad. Leading Tones is Slatkin’s second book – Conducting Business was published by Amadeus Press in 2012 – and he has maintained a personal blog for some years on his website.

While Mauceri, in Maestros and their Music, digs deeper into the theory and practice of conducting, enlivening the narrative with often enlightening and entertaining personal anecdotes, Slatkin tends to be less analytical in Leading Tones, offering pages of lists of works he has premiered in his various conducting posts and works he has most enjoyed conducting in addition to extended discussion of important issues facing today’s orchestras and conductors.

Both conductors take the opportunity in their books to settle old scores with music critics who have savaged them over the years.

John Mauceri was born in New York, studied at Yale, and eventually became music director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. While he has conducted concerts and opera all over the world, he is especially celebrated for his performances of film music and Entartete Musik“degenerate” works banned by the Nazis. He also had a long association with Leonard Bernstein, having met Bernstein at Tanglewood, where Mauceri was one of four conducting fellows in the summer of 1971. Immediately taken with Bernstein the conductor and teacher, Mauceri writes: “What Bernstein had achieved was to cut through five weeks of pettiness and politics and connect us to why we were there that summer and why we were musicians in the first place.” Mauceri later became a Bernstein protégé, an authoritative conductor of his music, and an editor of some of the most important works of Bernstein’s later years.

John Mauceri met Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood in 1971.

Mauceri made his Broadway debut in 1974 conducting Bernstein’s Candide and was instrumental in creating several revised versions of the piece. In one of the more fascinating details in the book, Mauceri explains how he adjusted the orchestration of the triple canon in the Overture to allow the different voices to be more easily heard. Bernstein himself later adopted this change. Throughout Maestros and their Music, Mauceri offers insightful comments about various Bernstein works and makes no secret of his almost unqualified admiration for the composer.

A running theme in Maestros and their Music is the comparison of Bernstein with his great contemporary and rival, Herbert von Karajan, usually to Karajan’s detriment. Mauceri makes it clear that, by any standard, Karajan was a wonderful conductor, but he takes several jabs at his obsessive concern with his image and even suggests that before conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony for the first time late in his career, he copied Bernstein’s markings from his score and parts. (Bernstein had recently conducted the piece with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the orchestra took a suspiciously long time to return the performing materials.)

Mauceri digs deep into the theory and practice of conducting.

Elsewhere in the book, Mauceri recounts an event that took place in August, 1975, at the Karajan residence near Salzburg. Karajan had invited Bernstein and his family to lunch and, according to Bernstein as told to Mauceri, it was “something of a trial for everyone.” Karajan’s wife Eliette apparently flirted with Bernstein, while Karajan politely attempted to show interest in Bernstein’s music. Bernstein suggested Karajan conduct Mass. (For the record, Karajan never conducted even a single Bernstein piece, least of all the politically charged and pop-culture-influenced Mass.) Mauceri suggests that Bernstein was being “subtly cruel” in making such a suggestion. One takeaway from the awkward lunch was Bernstein’s impression that Karajan had never read a book. A bit strong, perhaps, but almost plausible, given Karajan’s self-absorption, relentless conducting, and recording schedule, not to mention his love of skiing, yachting, and flying.

One of the most important features of Maestros and their Music is Mauceri’s careful analysis of scores, in which he reveals often-overlooked points of interest and some serious misunderstandings. Particularly interesting is his analysis of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In preparation for a 2006 recording, Mauceri went back to the original score and, just as importantly, to original parts used in performances under the composer’s direction. According to Mauceri, there are so many issues to be considered and resolved that “As of this writing, there has not been a staged performance of Porgy and Bess that presents the work as the composer left it to us.” Mauceri is equally illuminating on the subject of the Korngold Violin Concerto and Puccini’s Turandot.

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Leonard Slatkin has led, at various times, the St. Louis Symphony, the National Symphony (in Washington, D.C.), the BBC Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, and the Orchestre National de Lyon. With vast experience in a wide repertoire, he is best known as a champion of contemporary American music, both in concert and on recordings. Although he touches on this subject in Leading Tones, he deals mostly with issues facing conductors on and off the podium, writing at length about the audition process for symphony players and making some suggestions for improvement. He also analyses the lockout and strike that overtook the Minnesota Orchestra between 2012 and 2014; unfortunately, he offers few ideas on how to avoid such disasters.

Much of Leading Tones is given over to short articles and program notes written by Slatkin about pieces he was conducting or about issues on which he has strong views. He also takes the opportunity to return fire on some critics who have had unkind things to say about his work over the years. A favorite target is reviewer Philip Kennicott, who berated him in St. Louis and again in Washington. One can’t blame Slatkin for wanting to get back at his tormentors, and he clearly nails Kennicott on some matters of fact; generally speaking, however, when it comes to opinions about the worth of a concert long past and long forgotten, music critics may be unfair, obtuse, or even malicious but there is little a performer can or should do about it, and Slatkin comes off as inevitably thin-skinned. For a man who has achieved so much in his professional life, it may strike many readers as beneath him to be obsessed with reviews written 20 years ago.

Slatkin sets the standard for today’s conductors. (Nico Rodamel)

One of the best chapters in Leading Tones consists of recollections of artists Slatkin has worked with and admired over the years, including Eugene Ormandy, Isaac Stern, and Nathan Milstein. Having suffered the slings and arrows of Milstein’s vanity and mercurial temperament, Slatkin nevertheless held him in high esteem. In my own experience, I found Milstein to be a charming gentleman and a delightful raconteur; perhaps I was fortunate and encountered the great violinist only on his good days.

In sum, Slatkin comes across as a conductor of our times ‒ a man who knows his business both as a musician and someone often entrusted with the myriad non-musical problems facing music directors today. Unlike some of the great maestros of the past, Slatkin knows how to roll up his sleeves and plunge into problems such as flagging ticket sales, sluggish fundraising, and diversity issues with skill and patience. It takes talent, hard work, and love to become a successful conductor; it also takes a lifetime of learning how to deal with people. As a man who has done it all and done most of it pretty well, Slatkin sets the standard for 21st-century conductors.

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Maestros and their Music (Mauceri) and Leading Tones (Slatkin) are very different books about conducting and conductors. While Mauceri’s approach to the subject matter is more rigorous than Slatkin’s, both books are the real deal: articulate and inspiring reflections on conducting careers well earned, and credible commentary on what it means to be a conductor, especially in America.

Finally, given his close association with Leonard Bernstein, might we see a book exclusively about the man and his music from Mauceri in this Bernstein 100th anniversary year?

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.

Mauceri celebrates with the cast of his 2006 recording of Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ (Photo courtesy of Mauceri)

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