Batons, Bowings, Beats: A Maestro’s New Guide To Modern Masterworks

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Leonard Slatkin’s new book is directed at young conductors, but anyone interested in music can get a lot out of it. (Photo by Lewis Li)

Leonard Slatkin: Eight Symphonic Masterworks of the Twentieth Century: A Study Guide for Conductors. Rowman & Littlefield, 2024. 191 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — In this age of globe-trotting maestros, Klaus Mäkelä (Chicago Symphony music director, as of the 2027-28 season), Esa-Pekka Salonen (San Francisco Symphony, until the end of the 2024-25 season), and Gustavo Dudamel (New York Philharmonic, as of the 2027-28 season) are grabbing the headlines.

But 79-year-old American conductor Leonard Slatkin is every bit as talented and productive. His date book is filled for years to come with guest conducting all over the world. He composes, he teaches, he writes one of the best personal blogs (leonardslatkin.com) available on the internet, and he writes books, too — four so far. The latest is directed at young conductors, but anyone interested in music can get a lot out of it. As Slatkin himself put it in his March 2024 Journal, “Don’t be put off by the title – this can be absorbed by anyone who is a musician or has a working knowledge of how to read music.”

Over the years, I have learned a lot from a variety of books by well-known conductors. Anecdotal memoirs by celebrated maestros are often interesting; the most entertaining might be Andre Previn’s No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood, but the better ones are analytical in nature and provide insight into how these conductors got the quality results they did. We can go all the way back to Wagner and what he wrote about conducting in 1869 in prose that is heavy and graceless. Richard Strauss came next with both humor and insight.

But not until we arrive at the 20th century do we get enough detail to be useful in the training of young conductors. Felix Weingartner (On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies) had a lot to say that is still useful today, and Hermann Scherchen (Handbook of Conducting) was equally lucid and practical in discussing Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky. However, the books that I found most illuminating were Erich Leinsdorf’s The Composer’s Advocate, Norman Del Mar’s Anatomy of the Orchestra and Orchestral Variations, and, most recently, Gunther Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor.

These four books should be on every serious conductor’s shelf, and they should be well-thumbed and annotated. These are also books that sophisticated music lovers — a basic knowledge of score reading is required — can use to enhance their music appreciation.

Slatkin’s new book belongs in this distinguished tradition. Like the others, it reflects a lifetime of study and podium experience at the highest level. It is wonderful to be able to see and hear these fine musicians conduct works from the basic repertoire. I find it just about as rewarding to read about why they conducted them the way they did and how they did what they did. Much of what makes a great performance is hard to put into words and harder still to emulate. That is part of what makes a great conductor different from the rest of us. But that still leaves an enormous amount of information that can be discussed.

In his new book, Slatkin concentrates on 20th-century classics. He promises a second installment devoted to 19th-century works with a publication date of fall 2024. One of the best chapters is devoted to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In each chapter, Slatkin starts with background information on the composition of the piece and useful information about the various published editions available. In the case of the Barber, Slatkin notes that anyone can go to the New York Philharmonic digital archive and get a copy of the score used by Leonard Bernstein with Bernstein’s own markings.

Like many conductors, Slatkin has his own scores of the pieces he conducts but also a set of parts for most of these pieces with his own markings. This saves an enormous amount of rehearsal time. Markings? Surely, one might argue, the scores themselves give the conductor and players enough information. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. The further back one goes in music history, the more likely it is that performers will have to add markings for dynamics, tempo changes, bowings, and fingering. Mahler was notorious for adding hundreds of markings for every score he conducted, and he often changed the notes, too.

Most conductors today will say that their top priority is to try to play what the composer intended. But that motherhood statement still leaves plenty of room for adding markings and for other matters to be considered by conductors. For Slatkin, the first decisions to be made by conductors of Barber’s Adagio for Strings are 1) whether to use a baton, and 2) whether to beat time in four or eight. Why? Because the beginning of the piece and much that follows “should not convey a feeling of pulse…the sound should emerge from nowhere.” Using hands instead of a baton allows for a smoother flow, and beating in four also avoids unnecessary accents.

But Slatkin goes further in order to create “a more seamless sound.” It is usually desirable for strings to bow in the same way — i.e., all playing upbow or downbow at the same time. When a more seamless flow is wanted, why not either encourage the players to bow as they wish or put markings in their parts to make sure they do exactly that? Slatkin accomplishes that by having outside players on each stand bow one way and inside players bow another. Stokowski was a master of this sort of thing, and conductors like Slatkin wisely carry on that kind of proactive intervention where it might make for a better realization of the composer’s intentions.

One of the primary conductorial functions is beating time, and it has often been said that this part of the job can be taught in about half an hour. Basically, so the theory goes, if you can beat a two-, three-, or four-beat pattern, you are well on your way. Well, the truth is that real-world conducting is much more complicated than that. However, in a piece like Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, if the conductor cannot beat time, the inevitable result will be complete chaos. In many pages of the score, the composer changes meters almost every bar, and often in unexpected ways. Slatkin tells us that as a young conductor he was frightened by the piece: “By the time I first opened the score, I feared the day that I would have to study and lead this piece. Somehow, the complexities of the rhythms, the sheer number of musicians required, and the task of deciphering everything on the page seemed impossible.”

Even well-established conductors like Serge Koussevitsky found Le sacre beyond them. Koussevitsky went so far as to have Nicolas Slonimsky re-bar the difficult sections to make them easier to conduct. And Koussevitsky’s protégé Leonard Bernstein used the same Slonimsky re-barring in his performances. We know this, Slatkin tells us, because there is a copy of Bernstein’s score in the New York Philharmonic archive. Slatkin conducts Le sacre as originally written and urges his readers to do the same. The chapter on Le sacre in Slatkin’s book is full of useful advice about how to overcome the rhythmic complexities in the score.

Leonard Slatkin (Photo by Donald Dietz)

Slatkin is a very experienced conductor of Gershwin’s An American in Paris and offers young conductors one insight after another about the piece and how to play it well. His discussion starts with the question of what edition to use. The original 1930 edition was widely thought to be too complex and the orchestration too cumbersome, and in the 1940s Frank Campbell-Watson produced a second edition. In 2000, Jack Gibbons created yet a third edition, which included an additional 120 bars of music. Finally, in 2013, the University of Michigan in collaboration with the Gershwin estate published a new scholarly edition that drew on Gershwin’s own score and a 1929 recording in which the composer participated.

Slatkin opts for the Campbell-Watson edition because it is the most widely available. In opening the score, one of the first problems the young conductor faces is deciding on the correct pitch of the taxi horns. Gershwin himself selected four taxi horns in Paris, but Slatkin doubts that the composer expected they would be available for every performance. He thinks that the specific pitches of the taxi horns are less important than the order in which they are played. Then there is the question of saxophones. There were eight in Gershwin’s original score but reduced to a more practical three in Campbell-Watson’s version.

Later on, there is the famous trumpet solo with its wonderful bluesy, late-night feel. Gershwin stated in the score that he wanted a “felt crown” used to soften the sound of the trumpet. What does that mean? Probably Gershwin meant the crown of a fedora hat somehow fastened to the end of the trumpet bell. But in performances today, you will see trumpeters using all kinds of custom mutes to get the appropriate sound. Slatkin’s view is that it doesn’t really matter what is used — fedora, beret, bandana, etc. — as long as the sound approximates the 1920s jazzy sound that Gershwin would have known. These are some of the most obvious issues which arise in An American in Paris. But Slatkin goes far deeper into the piece with bar-by-bar analysis and advice.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the most popular pieces in the 20th-century orchestral literature. It was premiered in 1937 and is in the repertoire of nearly every major conductor. And yet lots of questions remain about how it is to be played, especially concerning the correct tempo for the coda at the end of the last movement. Slatkin notes that at the premiere Yevgeny Mravinsky took a tempo much slower than the composer’s metronome marking. Eugene Ormandy, in his 1950s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, took a much faster tempo and one closer to the metronome marking. Bernstein conducted the symphony with the New York Philharmonic in Moscow in 1958, with the composer in the audience, with an even faster tempo in the coda. Then came Rostropovich, a close friend of the composer, and he conducted the coda at much the same slow tempo Mravinsky had used at the premiere. Shostakovich seemed to enjoy all these performances and never gave a definitive opinion as to his preferred tempo. Slatkin discusses the matter at length and wonders whether the problem might be a mistake on the part of the publisher as well as an oversight by the composer.

Slatkin goes on to discuss Debussy’s La mer, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. He has something interesting and a great deal that is eminently practical to offer about conducting each of these pieces. And once again, while young conductors will benefit most from these analyses, anyone who can read a score and loves music will learn a lot from this book. However, I must emphasize that this book offers only text; there are no musical examples, not even one. That will make the book tough going for many readers. They won’t get a lot out of it without having the scores close by. All the other analytical conducting volumes I mentioned earlier have dozens of musical examples, and their inclusion makes them much easier to read and understand. I would strongly suggest that the publisher Rowman & Littlefield allow Slatkin to include musical examples in Volume Two.