After stints at the helms of three major orchestras, Leonard Slatkin is enjoying the slower-paced life of a guest conductor.
Slatkin, who celebrates his 75th birthday on Sept. 1, stepped down as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2018. It marked the end of a 39-year run as a music director: first in St. Louis, then the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., and then Detroit, which has named him its music director laureate. (He also has been conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra since he ended his tenure in 1996.) His calendar has far more open weeks now, but he will return to Ravinia to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov on Aug. 7.
“Once you’ve gone through the standard repertoire three times, that’s when people start to go, ‘OK, it’s the same-old, same-old,” Slatkin said, reflecting on knowing when to look to new horizons. Beyond that, a directorship brings with it an expectation to boost the profile of the orchestra in the community and make an impact on arts education. “If you can’t do it in 10 years, you’re ineffective,” Slatkin observed. “And if you can, you have to decide if you can make it grow or step aside.”
At the end of each of his tenures, “I thought I had accomplished all I could accomplish,” he said. “It became about maintenance rather than growth.”
A summer concert, like the one he will lead at Ravinia, with one or two rehearsals, poses different circumstances. “Sometimes that creates an extraordinary performance, because of the edge-of-your-seat aspect,” Slatkin said. He and the orchestra both know Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade well — the CSO has played it both downtown and at Ravinia in recent years — so the first run-through will be to compare their ideas and “meet somewhere in the middle.”
Slatkin’s usual rehearsal procedure is to run a piece through once, making mental notes of problems or desired changes. On the second pass, he will try to conduct in a way that could fix the issue. If that doesn’t work, he’ll stop and make a comment, “and if I get a question or see a look, I’ll explain why. But it’s never appropriate to say, ‘Because I feel it this way.’ If you’re taking a ritard, maybe it’s to give the harmony some space, or to set up the next phrase. There always has to be a reason.”
He’s found that musicians generally prefer minimal discourse from a conductor during rehearsal, but when time allows, Slatkin will provide context for his take on a work. In the time-compressed rehearsals for Sheherazade, however, he will have to save his thoughts about the interest in “exotic” sounds from Asia that overtook many Western composers in the late 19th century, including Rimsky-Korsakov. If a musician raises an eyebrow, “I’ll say I’m doing it for a specific reason,’ he said, “and if you’re curious, ask me later.”
Slatkin made his reputation, in part, as an advocate for American music, but the Russian repertoire of his Ravinia program also is among his specialties. If someone wanted to find a link between the two traditions, it could be that composers from the two nations “jumped around,” he said. The Austro-German tradition that dominates the Western canon can be traced in a fairly straight line from Bach through the Second Viennese School, he noted. But that can’t be said of the Americans, with influences from all directions, or of the Russians, who “moved from the nationalism of Glinka to the symphonic era of Tchaikovsky, then into the exotic of Rimsky. Rachmaninov took a page from the Romantics, avoiding sentiments of countries, both his own and the Eastern influences. So the early part of the 20th century saw a little of everything.”
A year removed from being the music director anywhere, “I never realized how stressful it was,” Slatkin said. Heart bypass surgery in 2018, shortly before his previously announced departure from Detroit, was another reminder to stop and reflect. He and his wife, composer Cindy McTee, recently moved to St. Louis, where he has deep ties and can easily root for the Cardinals. With more time and attention to spare, he said, “I think now orchestras are getting more out of me.”
This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.