Book: ‘Conducting Business,’ by the DSO’s Leonard Slatkin

The DSO’s Leonard Slatkin maintains a brisk tempo in his book about conducting

For the first half of the 20th century, the symphony conductor was virtually synonymous with a dictator. He — and they were all men in those days — fired the musicians he didn’t like, hired those he did (nepotism be damned), and bullied those he thought were under par. Cowed musicians dreaded a withering glower from Arturo Toscanini or Fritz Reiner. To boot, the conductor often commanded a fat salary while his musicians were often paid peanuts.

Times have changed dramatically in this profession. It’s a far more equitable climate at symphony orchestras these days; unions have helped to bump up pay scales and limit rehearsal times, and hiring is done by a committee, which includes select symphony musicians along with the conductor. Auditions are “blind,” meaning the applicant performs behind a screen. And though their numbers are still relatively small, there are several prominent female conductors today.

But the occupation of the conductor remains mysterious. To make matters more inscrutable, his or her face is turned for the vast majority of a concert, so we can’t see the conductor’s expressions of frenzy, anger, or exaltation at how a musical phrase came across. Conductors, by and large, are enigmatic.

But beyond the purely physical questions, there are more abstract considerations, chief among them: What does a conductor do besides flail his or her arms in front of 100 musicians? How, exactly, does he communicate what he’s trying to convey? Is a conducting stick necessary? How does one deal with recalcitrant musicians? Should a conductor ever take a position during a strike? Should one acquiesce to the soloist in matters of tempo?

In Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro (Amadeus Press, $27.99), by Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin, these and other questions are answered, with clarity and occasional wit. Not a musician? It doesn’t matter, because Slatkin’s writing is direct without being patronizing. There are nuggets of information and lively anecdotes, and Slatkin freely offers his opinions.

The conducting bug bit Slatkin early, he tells readers. As a boy, he aimed a lamp’s light to the wall so he could watch his shadow as he conducted. It was all a fantasy then, but his career began in earnest when he accepted the post of assistant conductor at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He later went on to take the reins of that orchestra. Eventually, he became music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (beginning with the 2008-09 season), and has guest-conducted all over the world. If there’s one thing Slatkin has, it’s experience, and it’s taught him wisdom. For instance, he never tries to browbeat his musicians, most of whom have been studying their instruments since they were tots. As Slatkin writes: “It is wise to treat each person with respect. Remember that out of one hundred musicians, eighty of them think that they can conduct better than you and, quite probably, twenty of them can.”

Sometimes, though, musicians aren’t as respectful to their maestro, especially if he’s making his debut with an orchestra. During Slatkin’s first rehearsal in front of the New York Philharmonic, some of the musicians decided to “test” the conductor, interrupting him and calling his judgment into question. Once they were convinced he had the goods, they played well for him in performance.

Slatkin also makes an important point about the uniformity of orchestral dress for a polished, professional look. He also addresses some of the physical woes — namely back and foot pain — that conductors endure as a result of being on their feet for so long and occasionally leaping or jumping in the heat of performance. And while most of us have dinner around 6 or 7, the conductor usually waits until after the concert for chowtime in order to avoid indigestion and torpor.

Curiously, Slatkin omits certain other details, such as when, or if, to include an encore. More confounding, though, is when he offers a personal tidbit, but then doesn’t elaborate. A case in point is when Slatkin writes that he was undergoing a “major shift” in his personal life at the turn of the century. “I found myself searching for companionship away from home. … I engaged in activities that should not have happened, and perhaps would not have happened if I had realized the impact of my actions on my family, friends and orchestra. As a result, everything suffered — relationships, rehearsals and concerts.”

He also reveals that, as a young man, he received therapy because portions of his long-term memory seemed to disappear, leading him to blank out when trying to recall parts of his childhood.

Such dramatic confessions call for more candor. He never tells us how these concerns were resolved. Although this is not an autobiography per se, some personal details are necessary to the book’s structure, and they should be dealt with frankly.

But Slatkin doesn’t pull any punches on other matters, such as pretentious opera producers and directors who try to “modernize” an opera’s story with outlandish effects.

On the topic of opera, Slatkin includes a chapter on the La Traviata mess at the Met in 2010, where he left before the run was over and for which he received savage reviews. Angela Gheorghiu, the temperamental Romanian soprano, mentioned to colleagues that she was unhappy with Slatkin, but never conveyed her displeasure to him. In performance, he says, she held on to notes, disrupting the ensembles, and refused to make eye contact with the conductor. Slatkin concluded that “The conductor was expendable, but the soprano was not.”

Conducting Business is spirited, sometimes enlightening, and frequently entertaining. Slatkin turned 68 last September, but part of the reason he’s such an engaging conductor is that his approach to music is fresh, as though he’s on a new adventure. In the book’s final chapter, “Codetta,” the conductor offers some clear-eyed advice about the dangers inherent in the glamour of youth overshadowing experience.

Slatkin writes: “The ability to look good cannot substitute for substance in the long run. I sincerely wish all the kids on the block well. In time they will become the venerable ones. But that comes later.”

Bravo, maestro!