Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Prayers for Leonard Slatkin

(One of the world's mourner's in chief in the days after 9/11. Slatkin performs Barber's Adagio in London with the BBC Symphony four days after the 9/11 attacks. A performance that will never be forgotten.)

Former National Symphony director Leonard Slatkin had a heart attack yesterday while conducting a concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He is expected to make a full recovery. He even finished the concert after experiencing the attack - rather badass IMHO.

Now 65, it is within my living memory that Slatkin was regarded as the most promising young conductor in America. His time with the NSO is generally regarded as a relative disappointment. But just this year he took the reins of the Detroit Symphony, one of America's historically great orchestras that has the unfortunate luck of being located in Detroit. Slatkin is ripe for a rebirth and should he come out of this ordeal in one piece, he may soon find himself the Dean of American conductors.

(Conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic beginning of Gershwin's Piano Concerto. Marc-Andre Hamelin is the soloist.)

Here is a piece I wrote about Slatkin a few years ago when the appointment to Detroit was announced. I was not overly complementary, but the last two years have improved things for him. He seems re-energized by the challenge of bringing musical greatness to a city as forgotten by America as he's been:

Not quite surprising news from Detroit yesterday. After five years of the Detroit Symphony searching for a replacement as music director for Neeme Jarvi, Leonard Slatkin has signed on to replace.

"(Esa Pekka) Salonen's tenure in California should be exciting, but once again a big American post has gone to a European with little feel for American music or culture. And for every (Simon) Rattle, who stays where he is by choice, there are half a dozen (Leonard) Slatkins, who ought to be considered for top jobs but are often overlooked because of either their youth or their American accent."
Michael Walsh - Time Magazine October 30th, 1989.
(Some quotes just strike you as amazing in retrospect. Those who follow the classical music world know the Esa Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been one of the great the success stories of our time and that no other orchestra has done more for American music in the eighteen years since Salonen's appointment. But what he said about Slatkin two decades ago still holds true today.)

(Beating the Britons at their own game. LS conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in the final movement of Vaughan Williams's 4th Symphony. Few British conductors champion RVW, one of the truly great 20th century composers, with this kind of zeal.)

Poor Leonard Slatkin. He's 63 now but it's even within my living memory that he was regarded as America's most promising young conductor. To this day he has a technique that is the envy of the world, he has a mind for interesting programming that few conductors can approach; an ability to choose new music that audiences love, and was willing to turn towards the audience to speak to them about the music long before that was expected of conductors. And yet these gifts seem to bring him diminishing returns. James Levine and Michael Tilson Thomas are his contemporaries but they started at the very top of their profession, and Slatkin was fully expected to join them. He made no secret of his ambitions, constantly laying out the terms with which he would accept jobs like music director of the Chicago Symphony as if it was owed to him. But time after time, the most prestigious orchestras appointed traditionally conservative and prestigious Europeans like Kurt Masur, Daniel Barenboim, Wolfgang Sawallisch and now Bernard Haitink. All the while they ignored a homegrown boy who had every right to expect that one day he would get his crack at the big time the way Bernstein, Maazel, Levine, Thomas and Alan Gilbert have.

Slatkin has watched as a new generation of American conductors overtook him in prestige and employability. His abilities that were once considered revolutionary when he was a young man are now considered merely what is expected of an American conductor. His basic shortcoming, a perceived glibness and superficiality in the basic repertoire, is ever more apparent as he matures.

(At his peak. Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony, which he made into a Great American Orchestra in the last movement of Copland's Third Symphony. Back in the 80's was supposed to be our greatest since Bernstein. This might explain why.)

He has good cause to feel the pressure. Rather than move up to the big time after St. Louis, he was forced to make a sideways move to the National Symphony in Washington and no doubt at least hoped that he could do for Washington DC what he did for St. Louis. That didn't happen. So he took an appointment with the BBC Symphony, hoping that he could make a splash in London. But in London he was run out of town on railroad tracks, failing to court favor with either the orchestra, the audience, or the critics. Recently he has been gobbling up appointments like a man truly desperate to be remembered: Principal Guest Condutor of Salonen's Los Angeles Philharmonic, a similar second-in-command post at the Pittsburgh Symphony to fill in the holes of the ultra-traditional Manfred Honeck, and trying again to get the right audience in London as principal guest of the Royal Philharmonic. But now he gets to make another sideways move to the Detroit Symphony. Maybe he'll finally grow into the Maestro he was supposed to be. But who will be there to hear him anymore?

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