Beloved Maestro, Back On Home Ground, Talks Vernacular Americana

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Leonard Slatkin will lead the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in three concerts in January focusing on American composers. (Photo by Nico Rodamel)

ST. LOUIS — While conductor, composer, and author Leonard Slatkin has had a long and distinguished career worldwide, he has been particularly esteemed here since his tenure as assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) from 1968 to 1977 and music director from 1979 to 1996. The orchestra’s profile increased considerably during Slatkin’s time, and local audiences have regarded him with affection ever since.

In 2018, Slatkin and his wife, composer Cindy McTee, moved back to St. Louis, where he makes frequent guest appearances with local ensembles, including the SLSO. His next concerts with the latter will be Jan. 12, 13, and 21, when he conducts a series of programs that explore the intersection of jazz, blues, and ragtime music with traditional classical forms.

George Antheil (Bettman/Corbis)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Slatkin recorded extensively with the orchestra for RCA, EMI, Telarc, and Vox. His work for the last included the complete orchestral works of George Gershwin, making the SLSO the first orchestra to record all of this repertoire. Each of the January concerts will include a major piece by Gershwin, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Gershwin collection.

In a pair of interviews for Chuck’s Culture Channel (my YouTube video blog), I spoke with Slatkin about those upcoming concerts, which will take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. It’s one of two venues (Stifel Theater being the other) where the SLSO is performing while Powell Symphony Hall undergoes extensive renovation and expansion.

We also discussed his ongoing work as an author, composer, and radio host. The following conversation is based on those interviews, as are the other direct quotes in this article.

Chuck Lavazzi: What gave you the idea for this concert series? Where did it start?

Leonard Slatkin: Knowing that the orchestra was going to be displaced for a couple of years, my thought turned to doing something different, something that perhaps I wouldn’t normally do in the regular scheme of traditional subscription concerts in Powell Hall. [The Touhill] is a slightly more intimate setting…reaching an audience perhaps of people who were maybe not used to coming to hear the orchestra.

And the thought turned to this concept of how 20th-century concert music in America evolved. What made it different than anything we had done before. It also turned out that this particular set of concerts fell around the same time that our recordings of Gershwin that we made 50 years ago were remastered and reissued. In fact, they’ve never gone out of print.

Mary Lou Williams (Wikipedia)

So as soon as I thought about that, I thought I’d like to just to explore different ways that composers, not just Americans but others as well, have sought to use vernacular music — which is the word I prefer here because we’re not talking just about jazz per se.

CL: There is in fact a lot of music in these programs that some people are not going to recognize right away. I was looking at the list here, and you’ve got George Antheil, for example.

LS:  Right. Composers that are not known. And George Antheil is one. John Alden Carpenter is another. And Mary Lou Williams is perhaps a name not so familiar. In the case of Antheil, he wrote his Jazz Symphony, which is not a symphony.

CL:  And not really jazz.

LS: And it’s very short. Carpenter was a more traditional composer but ventured into this vernacular world in this little “ballet pantomime,” as he called it, Krazy Kat. Now, Krazy Kat is an actual cartoon figure…very popular, very mischievous. He could do things like take his tail off, make a question mark out of it, and stuff like that. And so this is a ballet that tells a story about him and Ignatz the mouse.

Mary Lou Williams was one of the great jazz pianists of our time, completely overshadowed because there were not many women in jazz in the ’20s through the mid-1940s certainly. She wrote this piece called the Zodiac Suite, which is 12 movements. We’re not playing all 12, but with the Aaron Diehl Quartet we will be doing eight of them. And her language goes hand in hand with another composer that we hear in these programs, Duke Ellington.

Ellington lived a long life, and the last 25 years or so of it he spent writing many works that incorporated larger forces. The one we’re playing is called The Three Black Kings, and it is a work where he depicts Biblical kings as well as Martin Luther King, using jazz elements but placing them more in the context of the symphony orchestra as the “carpeting” for the jazz work that goes on. There are solos for sax and trumpet, whatever, but it’s not a straight-out jazz piece. It’s kind of like three little tone poems. Extraordinary man, extraordinary thinker.

John Alden Carpenter (Greystone)

Slatkin’s appearances in February will include a joint concert by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (which he founded in 1970) and members of the SLSO in a program of Brahms, Copland, and Tchaikovsky. “For me,” he said, “it will be one of those moments where I hope I don’t lose it just because I see people on stage who could be my grandchildren.”

During the three years before founding the Youth Orchestra, Slatkin also hosted The Slatkin Project, a weekly program for the now-defunct public radio station KDNA. Now that he’s back in St. Louis, Slatkin has returned to broadcasting with The Slatkin Shuffle for classical station Classic 107.3.

“It’s based on the simple idea that when I’m on the airplane and I’ve got my headset on and I’ve got to take a long flight,” he said. “I just put the thing on shuffle mode and see where it takes me. Who knows what the transitions are going to be like? You never really know what’s going to come up next, even if I have a theme that runs through the programs.”

Slatkin has also been doing “a lot of writing,” including a journal on his personal web site, posts to social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, and a new book, due out in March, Eight Symphonic Masterworks of the Twentieth Century: A Study Guide for Conductors. It’s the first in a projected series of collections of score-study essays dealing with “what the conductor needs to know before he or she or they step on the podium.”

This involved an “astonishing” amount of research,” he said. “I’ve learned so much about music that I’ve conducted all my life. Things I never, ever knew. It’s remarkable.”

Slatkin served as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1996. (Photo by Lewel Li)

And he continues to compose. During the Covid pandemic he began working on transcriptions of music by Brahms, Mendelssohn, and more recently Scarlatti: “I took five Scarlatti keyboard sonatas and transcribed them for orchestral wind ensemble.” He has also received a commission from the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra for “a piece based along the lines of Schubert as the protagonist of the piece” that’s scheduled for a 2024 premiere by the HSO.

Despite a heart attack in 2009, Slatkin continues to display that same combination of energy, creativity, and intellectual curiosity that earned him a place of honor in the local music community. He also remains a world traveler. A Serengeti photo safari was slated to begin a few days after we did our interview in early December. “Cindy will go out there,” he observed wryly. “I will try to stay safely behind in the Jeep and watch it all with binoculars. Otherwise, there’ll be no festival in January.”