The Cliburn Report 16: The Impresario

Leonard Slatkin conducts the

Prokofiev 2nd with Nikita Mndoyants

Photo: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Not all the important events at the Cliburn Competition involve making music; some of them involve talking about it. This morning’s event, for instance, was a free public symposium with Leonard Slatkin, hosted by Fred Child of PRI’s Performance Today (which will broadcast a performance by the gold medal winner on Monday, June 10). Mr. Slatkin is a familiar and much-loved figure in St. Louis, of course, since he led the symphony here for many years. He’s also conducting the Fort Worth Symphony for the final round concerts and had some interesting insights on that process.

Mr. Slatkin has expressed some skepticism about competitions in the past, once noting that he normally avoids “this display of music as sport,” but observed this morning that competitions can still offer opportunities for performers and producers alike by focusing attention of promising artists. In the case of the Cliburn, he was moved to participate in part by a personal appeal from the late Mr. Cliburn himself.

Asked if he has any advice for competitors, Mr. Slatkin said they should always try to satisfy themselves first rather than try to second-guess judges. Ask how you can best grown within yourself, he noted, and everything else will follow.

Mr. Slatkin recounted a number of fascinating and funny anecdotes from his years growing up in a Hollywood musical family. His parents played for film orchestras, his father conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and his uncle provided the piano tracks for many films, including the classic Warner Brothers cartoon sting to “That’s All, Folks”. As my fellow St. Louis residents will recall, Mr. Slatkin is quite the raconteur. I won’t attempt to repeat them here, as I couldn’t do it nearly as well. Fortunately, the Cliburn folks recorded the whole thing and will be streaming it at their web site.

Returning to the competition, Mr. Slatkin noted that conducting for the final round is a somewhat thankless task. He only gets fifty minutes rehearsal with each pianist. Since the concerti themselves are usually over thirty minutes long, this means he’s usually calling out directions to the pianist and orchestra while they’re rehearsing. He see establishing rapport with the orchestra and supporting the soloist (who might not have ever had a chance to hear his or her piece played by a live orchestra) as his primary task. They’re called concertos for piano and orchestra, not orchestra and piano, he noted.

Mr. Child pointed out that in concert last night, Mr. Slatkin’s gestures were economical but that his face spoke volumes and asked why he decided to work without a baton. The answer: he forgot to bring it (a reminder of the influence of chance on art, I think).

This led to a discussion of the changing role of the conductor. Mr. Slatkin feels the end of the era of the conductor as autocrat is a good thing and feels the relationship should be more collaborative, as it generally is now.

Mr. Child put Mr. Slatkin on the spot a bit by asking if he would offer the gold medalist an engagement with one of the orchestras he conducts. His response: no, but there are one or two finalists (whom, of course, he could not name) who might get an offer.

Asked about how he listens to music, Mr. Slatkin said that he always asks why a performer has made a particular decision, as this tells you a great deal about the performer’s intent. He asks the same question of his own decisions. If you can’t answer that question, he said, it suggests you haven’t really thought through the piece you’re performing.

Asked about his attitude towards YouTube, social media, and related phenomena, Mr. Slatkin said that while piracy—making money from someone else’s work without their permission—is always wrong, he doesn’t see any problem with making audio or video recordings of performances available for free. He noted that the Detroit Symphony streams all their concerts live and, rather than reduce their audience, it has actually increased it.

This segued into a discussion of the dire straits in which many orchestras now find themselves and possible remedies. Mr. Slatkin feels strongly that community involvement and musical education are the keys. If a community values its arts institutions, it will find ways to support them. He acknowledged that this is not always easy, but it is nevertheless essential.

Regarding the inclusion of new music on programs, he feels this is a good thing, but also feels that orchestras should not allow this to crowd out the classic American composers of the 20th century such as Ives, Schumann, Harris and the like.

Asked about how he feels conducting works that have already been recorded by their composers, Mr. Slatkin noted that most composers are lousy conductors and not always the best advocates for their own music. Works of music are living things, and there is no one “perfect” performance of anything.

Tomorrow’s morning symposium will be with the competition judges. Expect some interesting questions at that one.

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