Symphony Preview: 'I try only to do the good stuff,' a conversation with Leonard Slatkin
- Written by Chuck Lavazzi
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin has been a favorite of local audiences since his tenure as music director from 1979 to 1996. His time with the SLSO marked the ensemble's peak of international visibility and he left behind a significant recorded legacy.
Maestro Slatkin has made many appearances with the orchestra over the decades. Having left his post at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he has now returned to live in St. Louis and will conduct two sets of concerts with the orchestra this weekend and next (April 27-28 and May 3-4). I had an opportunity to chat with him between rehearsals. Here's our conversation, with some minor edits for clarity.
Leonard Slatkin (LS): That's exactly right. When I was the assistant conductor in 1968 the orchestra was on strike--hopefully not because I was the assistant conductor! I can't remember exactly how it happened but somebody contacted me and asked me if I'd come down to the station and do an interview. I didn't know anything about it and I was a bit surprised when I pulled up to what was basically the only building left standing in Gaslight Square.
We talked for about an hour and then I asked them if I could look at their classical music library. I looked through it and it was horribly out of order with no organization whatsoever. I offered to put it in some sort of order and they asked me if I'd be interested in doing a show. It had never occurred to me at all because I was quite shy back then but I thought "this could be interesting and could fill up some time," so I embarked on what became, for the next three years, a show called "The Slatkin Project" on Thursdays from 2 to 6 pm.
Back then you were the programmer, the producer, and the engineer for your show--one person doing everything in the little tiny room. We could do interviews, we could hook up four or five phone lines together and people could call in and talk on the air. There was a guy called "The Weatherbird" would call in every day at 5:30 pm to give a rather elaborate weather forecast. We used to tease him mercilessly.
I loved my time there because there was a lot of camaraderie at the station, not to mention a lot of drug busts, and it gave me an understanding of what the power of radio was, how--perhaps more than any other medium at the time--it had the power to spur on people's imaginations, to make their own images instead of having them put up on a screen for you.
So even though I could only do it for three years simply because I got too busy to devote any time to it, I always kept that radio stuff in the back of my head. Now I'm sort of resurrecting it in a way with another station in town. It will be sort of similar to the old show in that it's a mix of all kinds of stuff but the difference now is that I have adapted it to the 21st century. So I have ten thousand tracks on my iPad and I'm just going to hit the shuffle button and that's what I'll talk about and play.
|Composer Loren Loiacono
Photo by Kenneth Kato
CL: That should be fun; I look forward to hearing that. Well, welcome back to St. Louis. You're conducting two concerts here over the next two weeks. I'd like to start out talking about what you're doing the first weekend, particularly two pieces that are very intriguing, beginning with the one you're going to open with, which is the local premiere of Loren Loiacono's "Smothered by Sky."
LS: Right. In my final season in Detroit, which was last season and which concluded a little too abruptly due to heart bypass surgery, I decided to do something a little different and I asked many composers, most of whom had associations with me here in St. Louis, to recommend either current or former students to write opening pieces for concerts. I picked seven of them and Loren was one. I found her work to be very attractive and very colorful for the orchestra.
The title, like most titles, was just something to create a starting point so she could create something that illustrated what the words mean to her. We have a feeling of air moving and currents, maybe in some cases a bit wildly and in others a bit calmly. I look at her as one of the bright lights in the composing firmament in the coming years.
There's so much emphasis now on inclusion of female composers and conductors so I thought that would be appropriate. We did many during my years in St. Louis, like Joan Tower and the person who is my wife, Cindy McTee. I've never chose to work with anybody on the basis of how they look or who they are, none of that, so I've never had to think about bias on my own part, but I certainly understand how it occurs in the industry, and I'm very happy that first piece I will do is by a female composer.
CL: I had a chance to watch the video of "Smothered by Sky" that you did with the Detroit Symphony and it stuck me as an extraordinarily fun piece. It also struck me as a bit like movie music in that it's so descriptive and so visual.
LS: I would say it's like music that creates imagery in your head, so you get to choose what movie it's going to be.
CL: Yes, it's very visual, and the visions you get are going to depend very much on who you are and what you bring to it.
CL: It also sounded like a big playground for the orchestra. It's a huge ensemble and the percussion battery has some instruments you don't normally see there.
LS: Yeah, there are some different uses of traditional instruments. She has them quite busy. She's an expert colorist and orchestrator. That's one of the hallmarks of so many composers today, probably because they can get a better idea of the orchestra from the way they compose on computers and various devices. They create sound libraries with makes orchestration--I don't want to say "easier"--but you're able to hear on playback an approximation of what it's going to sound like in the orchestra. And that wasn't really available so much 25 years ago.
CL: I guess it makes it easier to be more adventurous because of that immediate feedback.
LS: Yes, but it also makes it a little more possible to be facile in a quicker way because of the immediate response. You don't have to think in the same way. It's like, you have the music in front of you and you play it, and you say "yes, I like that" or "no, I don't like that, gonna change it." And you can put the changes in and you can hear them right away. That's what composers couldn't do before. It was a different skill set.
|Leonard Bernstein in 1955|
CL: The other big work on the program is also a piece that might not be familiar to a lot of audience members: the Symphony No. 3, the "Kaddish" symphony by Leonard Bernstein. He began work on this in 1955, completed it in 1963 shortly after President Kennedy was killed, and then the St. Louis Symphony performed it in 1965. He revised it in 1977. Would I be safe in assuming it's the 1977 version that you're doing?
LS: Yes. The revisions are more about the text than about the music. This is a very personal piece, as many of Bernstein's works are. In this, he's challenging God over faith. "How can you do these kinds of things to me and to the world and still call yourself a God?" It's a dilemma that so many people go through.
This is not so much a Jewish work. It's similar to Bernstein's "Mass," which is not a Catholic work. These are works that deal with, more generally, how people perceive faith in its many directions, not necessarily religious. The religious part might be: how do you define (or not) your relationship with God if you believe in one. Or if you don't. That's what Bernstein was about, looking at angst in society in so many different ways.
It's written for a huge orchestra, chorus, soloists, and children's chorus--it's a big mélange. And also stylistically, he weaves in and out of mid-20th century atonality and serialism but then reverts to customary Bernstein melody and harmony.
We're now in the point in Bernstein's life where he's very well known both as a composer and conductor. "West Side Story" was already out of the way, but that's what people wanted, they wanted "West Side Story" again in whatever he wrote, and he couldn't do that. He desperately wanted to be accepted by music critics and the academic establishment. In works from around the period, he tried, but ultimately even he realized that this was not his forte.
About midway through the piece, when we actually get to the prayer, he reverts to a more songlike texture and then never really leaves it. So he doesn't return much the kind of aggressive music that he set up for the first 20 minutes of the piece. It's as if he has consoled himself in realizing that he knows where his own gifts lie.
CL: I was listening to Bernstein's recording of this with the Israel Philharmonic a couple of days ago. In the "Kaddish 2" section the soprano solo sings a kind of lullaby to God that's beautiful and heartbreaking.
LS: It's gorgeous, and he brings that back again at the end. He has more or less resigned himself that he has to reach the public first, that it shouldn't be about the critics and the academics, it should be about what he feels deeply inside.
CL: On the Leonardbernstain.dot com web site , Jack Gottlieb and some comments about the piece. One of the things she says is that this somewhat adversarial relationship between humanity and God is part of a uniquely Jewish view of God.
LS: It's not just a Jewish view, it's a view we see all over the place in the world today and even in Bernstein's time. He was someone who was really involved with the social aspects of society. He was involved with the Black Panthers, for example. So the conflict is not just about Man and God, it's about Man and how he functions in society itself. You can take the religious part as part of the Jewish tradition because the prayer is in Hebrew, but remember that the original narrator was a woman and in the Jewish faith a woman is not supposed to recite the Kaddish.
CL: And, in fact, it's going to be a woman this time.
|Charlotte Blake Alston
Photo by Deborah Boardman
LS: Yes, we hunted high and low for a speaker. I did it two years ago with Jeremy Irons in New York and that was really quite spectacular, and now we have a young woman [Charlotte Blake Alston] who's actually a real storyteller. She has done it with the Philadelphia Orchestra and I am truly looking forward to this collaboration.
CL: What is it about this piece that really made you want to do it? What is it that really spoke to you?
LS: Well, here we are at the tail end of the Bernstein 100th anniversary celebration. We started recording Bernstein here in St. Louis under my tenure. Bernstein was always surprised that we were doing so much and I just kept telling him that I really loved the music, the orchestra loved to play it. But this was one of the few Bernstein pieces that we did not do when I was conductor, so I thought it would be nice this year to add one of the major pieces for the first time for me with the St. Louis Symphony.
CL: It seems to me that Bernstein's symphonies are a bit neglected compared with his other works.
LS: Well, the Second Symphony, "The Age of Anxiety," comes up a little more frequently. The First Symphony, "Jeremiah," by the way, was recorded for the first time by Leonard Bernstein and the St. Louis Symphony [in 1945]. This piece is also getting a little more attention than usual. It's still to early to know what his place will be in what we call the traditional classical canon. I don't think it will supplant the success of "West Side Story" or "Candide," but certainly works like the "Chichester Psalms," his Serenade for Violin and Orchestra, and a couple of other pieces have been played often enough to recognize him as an important force on the concert hall stage.
CL: Back in 2013, during a symposium at The Van Cliburn Competition, you were talking about your feelings conducting works that had already been recorded by their own composers. You noted at the time that not all composers were great conductors. How to you feel about doing a work where the composer was a great conductor, like Bernstein?
LS: Well, it's interesting, I didn't meet Bernstein until five years before he died. We always tried to get together but it never worked out. And finally we did because I was conducting the Boston Symphony in Tanglewood and I saw that Bernstein was conducting the next night, so I figured if I programmed a piece of his, he would show up and I would have to meet him.
And that's exactly what happened. I did a work that we had recorded here called "Facsimile"--very rarely played. And I knew it wasn't the best performance I had ever given--it just somehow didn't hang together in my head--and in walks Bernstein, cape and all, and I was prepared for the worst. And he looked at me and he said, "you know, that wasn't what I intended when I wrote it, but I understand how you came to your interpretive decisions."
And that actually changed the way I looked at conducting any composer's music, much less ones who were also good conductors. It told me that they realized, in order for their works to survive into the future, that they must undergo some sort of transformation in other interpreters' hands, in the very same way that those conductors had done Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Shostakovich--whatever it was. A composer cannot be locked in to one way of having his or her piece played. It needs to be subject to different people looking at it in different ways.
CL: And the composers who were also conductors understood that most deeply, because they did that themselves.
LS: Yes. Bernstein did, Benjamin Britten did. I'm not sure if [Pierre] Boulez did. But the few who I considered to be outstanding conductors realized that they had to separate themselves from being the creators of the piece. They realized that they were now just the composers.
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
CL: There is one other piece on the program this weekend: the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Rachmaninoff with Olga Kern. You've worked with her before, yes?
LS: Yes, we work together all the time. I adore her playing. She's so wonderful and expressive, especially in this Russian Romantic music. She has a wide variety and range of skills and styles. She'll just tear the house down with this--we've done it a couple of time before. She's a delight and a commanding stage presence.
One quick word about the following week's program (May 3-5). This one has a premiere that's written in honor or my 50-year association with the St. Louis Symphony, but it's not a likely choice. The composer's name is Jeff Beal. He's known mostly for writing the music for "House of Cards." He's been active in television and film, but mostly in the concert hall. I wanted to do something a little bit different and he wanted to write a song cycle based on letters from his great-grandmother. And our soprano, also new to St. Louis but just mind-droppingly good, is Israeli-born singer Hila Plitmann. With her range, her virtuosity, and her acting ability, audiences are in for a real treat.
The piece is really beautiful. I think it's one of those pieces that will catch on very quickly. It's melodic and simple in its way. Keep looking out for Jeff Beal's name. He's going to be a force in concert hall composition and one of these composers to bridge the gap between popular culture and what we unfortunately call "sophisticated" culture. Although there shouldn't be a difference. It's like [Duke] Ellington said, there's only two kinds, good music and the other stuff. I try only to do the good stuff.
CL: That weekend you're also doing Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1.
LS: Yes, a piece we recorded and which won a Grammy. And then the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique," the Symphony No. 6, his final work. It's another piece that we recorded. It's a performance that will perhaps remind audiences, sonically, of what that collaboration was like in the earlier days when I was music director. It has changed over the years, but for the next couple of weeks we old timers will show the kids how we used to play.
CL: And you have moved back to St. Louis now.
LS: Yes, my wife and I live in Clayton now. We're loving it. We went to a Cards game yesterday. I've got the barbecue ready to go. If I wasn't preparing to go to Europe in two weeks I'd be sitting on the porch for the entire summer.
CL: Welcome back, and I hope we see more of you in Powell Hall in the future.
LS: Oh, you will. I'll be around quite often.
The Essentials: Leonard Slatkin returns to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, April 27 and 28. The program consists of Loren Loiacono's "Smothered by the Sky," Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Olga Kern, and Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish") with narrator Charlotte Blake Alston. He conducts the orchestra and soprano soloist Hila Plitmann Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, May 3 and 4, in Barber's Symphony No. 1, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") and the world premiere of "The Paper Lined Shack" by Jeff Beal. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand. Center.