He conducts himself well through crises
A heart attack on the podium in Rotterdam, an ouster from the Metropolitan Opera, a six-month strike by his Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a diagnosis of breast cancer for his fiancee.
Call it Leonard Slatkin’s most turbulent two years.
“Well, that’s life,” says the native Angeleno, who seems to be a master at deflecting or absorbing adversity, while at the same time serving up heaping doses of candor.
“Look,” he says softly, of the Met scandal last year -- when management asked him to resign from its run of “La Traviata,” based on his bad press notices. “They needed to save the soprano [Angela Gheorghiu], no matter how willfully she distorted the phrasing, moment to moment. The conductor was expendable. My lowest point opening night came at the big ensemble number closing the third act. I cut off and everyone ended on cue, but she just hung on. It finally threw me. Yes, things got very wobbly after that.
“So why would I want to stay on as a traffic cop, when she was running all the red lights, anyway? Bottom line, it’s a blip on the radar.”
And who could blame him? After all, the 68-year-old Slatkin has enough honors under his belt: more than 100 recordings, seven Grammy awards. He’s held top directorships in the United States (most recently as podium chief at the Detroit Symphony since 2008) and abroad; he created good feelings for 17 years at the St. Louis Symphony by bringing that ensemble to prominence from the doldrums; he champions American music everywhere to acclaim.
Days after the Met wipeout he earned plaudits in the New York Times while conducting the Juilliard Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall ("... a keenly executed, blazingly energetic account of William Schuman’s ‘Circus Overture’ showed why he has long been both an important artist and a dependable one with his mix of broad knowledge and compelling advocacy”).
Not looking the part
Yet his physical presence, mild-mannered almost to a fault, does not portend anything heroic. Slatkin is hardly maestro-like, in an image of dashing or electric -- especially at the secluded dining area in Westwood’s Hotel Palomar, where he has stopped off on his way to a one-week stint at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West festival.
Short, with a soft, boyish face, and still a little plump, even after a medically inspired diet, Slatkin wears a polo shirt and baseball cap and talks in a subdued voice, eyes darting from side to side, as he picks at his chopped salad.
The conductor -- who, as a teenager, was turned down for a job as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl -- leads the L.A. Philharmonic at its summer home this week. Several years ago, from its stage, he told the Bowl audience, “For ushers everywhere, you could be standing here!”
He began conducting at the mammoth showplace back in the ‘70s and counts his appearances there “in the hundreds.” This week his two programs feature standard summer repertoire geared to audience and orchestra familiarity, with his personal stamp coming in Thursday’s concert: an overture by American composer Elliott Carter.
As to his onslaught of troubles, Slatkin starts with the heart attack. It struck Nov. 1, 2009, four months before the “Traviata” fiasco. “I was conducting when this great thirst came over me. By concert’s end I was schvitzing like mad and feeling terrible pain in my chest, which seemed like indigestion. Once off stage I collapsed.”
A standby medic immediately came to his dressing room and diagnosed the heart attack, called an ambulance and, within 20 minutes in the hospital, Slatkin underwent a triple-stent procedure. His father died of cardiac arrest at age 47 and his grandfather, the same, at 56. Yet Slatkin did not exercise any vigilance over this hereditary condition because, unlike him, his father “smoked three-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day, was both greatly overweight, an alcoholic and a workaholic.”
By law of averages, Slatkin should have faced a smoother path after that. But, no. Next, his little jewel of a Detroit orchestra went on strike in October 2010, over proposed pay cuts in the new contract. The hard-bitten city -- once the auto-industry hub and, for a decade now, an abandoned shell of its humming self -- faces demolition of 10,000 broken-down, empty buildings and a 25% decline in population.
Finally in April a settlement was reached. Some players accepted salary cuts; others left for greener musical pastures. “I turned back four weeks of my own salary,” he says offhandedly, “and relinquished my title as music director, in addition to taking an overall 34% cut -- in hopes that people would get the message.”
It’s a heavy push. Going back to the ’67 race riots, the Detroit orchestra has seen its subscribers migrate to the suburbs, and now it’s hard to lure them into the city. But Slatkin, who calls himself an “old-fashioned conductor” who belongs to the community, has plans to reinvigorate them.
“For me, there’s no interest in flying in to rehearse, then perform, then fly out” -- the usual routine for peripatetic maestros going from gig to gig. “I live there, I pay taxes there. I go to the ballgames there. I take the garbage out.” He works hard at such projects as developing the youth orchestra, music education and fundraising.
Mark Stryker, music critic for the Detroit Free Press, attests to that: “Leonard does not treat his post here as a port of call. He’s involved in the big and small picture, a very hands-on director. At a time when many orchestras are in trouble, the Slatkin model is very much needed.”
That model, music as a big embrace, was the essence of Slatkin’s childhood. “Although my parents, in their marriage, were always at war,” he says. Otherwise, they were professional musicians -- conductor-violinist Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller founded the illustrious Hollywood String Quartet. (Slatkin graduated from Hollywood High School.) Their home was a magnet for music celebs local and transient.
“But at 14 I resisted music,” he says, adding that he preferred to go out and play baseball, and not feel isolated from other kids. “So my mother locked the piano and said, ‘Go ahead, play ball.’ After two days I learned what meant the most to me and went screaming back to her to open it.”
At school he needed an orchestra instrument and chose the viola. “I knew I could never match my father as a violinist, and there were already four generations of outstanding cellists in the family.” He became “the worst violist in the world,” he says.
As for feeling isolated, that did not last. “Once I was at Juilliard -- for all of us up there at 122nd Street and Claremont -- there was only music.” From then on, some conducting opportunities came along, and when his father died, the path in that direction opened. “I thought, maybe I can do this and give him what he always wanted.”
As a conductor, Slatkin takes a grateful but not self-aggrandizing overview: “It’s a great life. I’ve been able to get up and do something few others have a chance to do. I’ve done it OK, could always do better. In that sense, I’m one of the least egotistical people -- and here I am making an egotistical remark! But no one can ever say or write about you as scathingly as what your inner self believes to be true.
“I dearly love what I do, couldn’t think of doing anything else -- except maybe broadcasting baseball games! I used to drive from Chicago to Milwaukee with [Carlo Maria] Giulini, who told me about the resolution he made after surviving a critical surgery: ‘Now I will make music a part of my life,’ he said, ‘and no longer live my life as part of music.’
“That seems like a reasonable philosophy, for someone coming out of a few crises.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic
With: Conductor Leonard Slatkin
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday
Tickets: $1 to $130
Information: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com