Made to Measure

In bringing Leonard Slatkin on board as its new music director, the DSO found a harmonious fit: a solid conductor who can also drum up support for the orchestra
leonard slatkin at orchestra hall
In a box at Orchestra Hall, Leonard Slatkin looks over his domain. Portrait by Marvin Shaouni

At 64, when most people are primed for the kicked-back life of retirement, Leonard Slatkin is poised to plunge into his duties as new music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with the glee of a schoolboy on the cusp of summer break.

Conductors are like that; they don’t think of their careers as finite. They don’t retire — not because they have to keep working, but because they must. There’s something so invigorating, so unabashedly joyous, so life-affirming about making music, that a final coda just isn’t an option when they reach 65. Or 75, or beyond. As long as they can lift a baton and wave their arms, conductors will continue to cajole an expressive passage from the woodwinds, coax a feathery pianissimo from the strings, or demand a crashing climax from the brass. Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Antal Dorati, their white manes flying behind them, their postures bent, nevertheless soaked up the elixir of music until they virtually drew their last breaths. Like Dorian Gray in reverse, their bodies aged while their souls remained eternally young.

So it isn’t surprising to find Slatkin, dressed casually in slacks and a cardigan and sipping a Diet Coke, talking animatedly about his plans for the orchestra on a fine September afternoon in a rehearsal room backstage at Orchestra Hall. His eagerness is almost palpable. “If I could start tomorrow, I would,” he says. Thwarting him is his jam-packed schedule, which also prevented him from making his debut as the DSO’s 12th music director at the conventional beginning of the season in September.

Slatkin’s datebook fills up faster than a pretty girl’s prom card. In addition to his duties here, he’s the principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, music adviser to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London. When he agreed to take the reins here, his other conducting dates were long since agreed upon, so he’ll make his debut this month on Dec. 11, with Orff’s perennial favorite Carmina Burana, Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino, and the world premiere of James Lee III’s A Different Soldier’s Tale on the program. The concert will be repeated Dec. 12-14.

Good Timing

Like the insistent tick-tock of a metronome, timing is paramount in music. And so it is with choosing a music director. After Neeme Järvi left the DSO for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2004-05 season, the orchestra needed a leader. To keep things cohesive, the DSO named Peter Oundjian as music adviser in 2006. But filling the music director slot isn’t merely a case of finding whoever’s available, however talented he or she may be. That person also has to click with the musicians and the board of directors.

“First and foremost, we were looking for someone who could inspire the orchestra and the audience at the very highest level,” says Anne Parsons, the DSO’s president and executive director. “The second thing is chemistry. We all know that there are good leaders who can run companies, but they’re not always successful. They can be very good at what they do and still not be a good fit.”

There was a parade of contenders for the post, but no one leaped out. After Slatkin guest-conducted the DSO in the spring of 2007 for the first time in 20 years, the buzz spread throughout the orchestra. Could he be the one?

“When I came then, I wasn’t even looking for a job,” Slatkin recalls. “But I reassessed my life at that point. I thought, this hall is terrific, and Orchestra Hall was a very important factor in my decision, because to an orchestra, the hall is their instrument. And it was clear that the orchestra had tremendous pride and integrity. I don’t know how they maintained their level of musicality and technical expertise without a music director, but they did. So I arranged a second date.”

The wheels quickly started turning with the search committee. If Slatkin was a hit with the orchestra and the board — well, what was holding them back? Plus, in a serendipitous turn, Slatkin’s tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in Washington, D.C., would end after the 2007-08 season.

Then, too, there was the name recognition. Anyone remotely acquainted with classical music knew Slatkin’s name, either through his more than 100 recordings or his long stints with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (17 years as music director and several years before that as assistant and associate conductor), and a dozen years with the NSO.

“It really wasn’t the name,” Parsons insists. “It was the experience of having him come and work with the orchestra that spring. It started onstage, and immediately turned into conversations behind the scenes.”

In October 2007, the DSO announced it had hired Slatkin for a three-year contract, followed by a two-year option. Two additional sets of concerts conducted by him in the spring and summer of 2008 merely cemented what DSO Concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert felt from the beginning.

“We knew almost instantly that this was the person we wanted as our music director,” she says. “The response the orchestra can give to Slatkin is immediate. With him, we know a bar in advance — from the first reading, without rehearsing — what he wants to achieve. Nothing is left to guessing. I know which dynamic he wants to end up at, what tempo, how the ritard will be, where he’s going with the phrase, where the climax will be, all without having to talk about it.”

Slatkin conducting students at Indiana University. Music education is a priority with him. Photograph courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Slatkin also sensed that connective spark with the musicians. “Even in this very short time, we somehow found a common ground. Onstage, I felt more like a collaborator than a conductor.”

A non-musical talent undoubtedly also played a role in Slatkin’s hiring: his deftness at fundraising, a task some music directors, such as Daniel Barenboim, who served at the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, loathe. But erasing the deficit and turning red ink into black is a vital quality, one that Slatkin relishes as the orchestra’s ambassador.

“I like going out and explaining who we are, what we stand for, why they should be considering financial support, and what it means to the community,” he says. “It’s my orchestra, so I’m going to do everything I can to ensure not just its survival, but its artistic health.”

Those words are like music to Parsons’ ears. “The fact that Leonard is so comfortable talking to donors is just a joy for me. Fundraising isn’t like conducting a concert, where you have automatic satisfaction. It’s a process; it’s time-consuming. It’s about cultivating relationships, and Leonard is good at it.”

Grand Plans & Musical Chairs

So, when he’s not waving his baton, Slatkin will be out pressing the flesh and schmoozing the area’s movers and shakers. In fact, the conductor plans to be so hands-on in Detroit that his fingerprints will be not only all over Orchestra Hall, but on the entire community. Already, he’s been filming a 12-part PBS series with the orchestra, the first installment of which was to air on Channel 56 in November.

Music education has always been a priority with Slatkin, and he’s going to be active in the Young People’s Concerts, as well as working closely with the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra for young musicians. He made his own arrangement of Christmas carols for piano, which will be performed by area student pianists, with Slatkin at the helm of the Civic Orchestra, at 11 a.m. on Dec. 13. In January, banjo player Béla Fleck and double bassist Edgar Meyer will perform with Slatkin in a Young People’s Concert. Slatkin would like to lure other big-name artists, such as Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma, to play for young folks, too.

“You’re actually selling tickets to parents, because the kids love it,” he says. “We’re providing a framework for young people that will see results 20 years from now as the next generation of concertgoers.”

Slatkin vows to make CDs to get the DSO’s name back out in the global marketplace. “Oh, we will be recording,” he says. “I would say that by the time I arrive in December, we should be able to announce an actual CD recording.”

It’s hard for Slatkin to curb his enthusiasm. He doesn’t pause before adding: “We will be back in the media market, big time. And we haven’t scratched the surface of Internet broadcasts and other ways to get the orchestra seen and heard by a national and international audience.”

Those are lofty goals, but some of the conductor’s plans are simpler, such as playing a game of musical chairs in the arrangement of the orchestra.

“I love the hall, but I think we can maximize both the listening and the visual experience for the audience,” he says. “It may not happen in December, but I’d like the cello and viola sections to switch — the cellos on the inside of the orchestra, and the violas on the outside. I want to get the low brass away from the corner on the right; because they’re at an angle, you get a slap effect. I want to move the harps out from the back up to the front, near the violin section. You’ll hear them better and you’ll also be able to see them.

“I’m toying with the idea of using risers, to raise the winds above the strings, so there’s more balance of the ensemble. It’ll take one or two years to experiment to see what’s the optimal setup.”

Orchestra Hall, the fabulously restored 1919 Beaux Arts auditorium, is renowned for its exquisite acoustics, but Slatkin believes the way the hall actually looks also accounts for the way the orchestra sounds, a phenomenon called psychoacoustics.

“If you have a hall that’s mostly white, with white walls, the sound is going to seem bright, just because of what you’re seeing,” he explains. “But here, you have deep, rich wood that offsets the lighter elements, and that contributes to the kind of sound the orchestra makes. This orchestra has a specific sonic profile: Its sound is dark and rich. It has a lushness in the strings and brilliance in the brass.”

As much as Slatkin likes technology, he’s old-fashioned in some respects. Projection screens to complement the music are becoming more common in the concert hall, but he’s dead-set against them. He doesn’t think it’s the role of a conductor to suggest, much less dictate, what the audience should feel when the orchestra plays.

“We’re exactly the opposite of a visual art. Our job is to be abstract,” he says. “We’re bringing music to life, and listeners can take away what they want from it. I don’t think we make enough out of teaching imagination. It’s being eroded from our culture.”

A young Slatkin with younger brother Fred, circa late 1940s.
A young Slatkin (right) with younger brother Fred, circa late 1940s. Photograph courtesy of Leonard Slatkin

But Slatkin doesn’t want to alienate listeners, either. He’s been known to talk from the podium to elucidate a composition or talk about the composer.

“When I do address the audience, it’s not at all playing down to them, but trying to embrace the audience and bring them into our world.”

Under Slatkin, the DSO’s repertoire is likely to pick up a decidedly American accent. He gravitates to such modern composers as Joan Tower, John Corigliano, and Christopher Rouse. But he also has a soft spot for the easily digestible “bonbons” of Leroy Anderson (1908-1975), the accessible but clever composer of such light works as The Typewriter, Bugler’s Holiday, and The Syncopated Clock.

If there’s been a criticism of Slatkin, it’s that he sometimes overloads himself. He admitted as much to The Washington Post in June, citing a time a few years ago when “I overextended myself … I was doing too much.” While praising Slatkin for improving the NSO, Anne Midgette, The Post’s music critic, volleyed a parting shot at the end of his tenure, writing that the conductor “generally gives the impression of fluency rather than profundity.”

But the slate is wiped clean in Detroit, and Slatkin is intent on making an indelible mark here.

The Making of an Artist

Slatkin’s musical pedigree is about as pure as a Mozart sonata. Born Sept. 1, 1944, in Los Angeles of Russian-Jewish heritage, the young Slatkin was exposed to music daily, and in a wide spectrum of styles. His father, Felix, played the violin in the orchestra first at Warner Bros., then at 20th Century Fox. His mother, Eleanor Aller, was a cellist with Warner Bros. It’s she who’s heard playing the Korngold Cello Concerto in the 1946 film Deception, starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid. His parents were founding members of the Hollywood String Quartet, an ensemble renowned not only for recordings of Beethoven and Shostakovich, but also for accompanying Frank Sinatra on the 1957 album Close to You, as well as other pop albums for Capitol.

The Slatkin household became something of a Parnassus for musicians in L.A., and young Leonard couldn’t help but soak up the inspiration in that hive of creativity.

“Our house became a magnet for all the people involved in music in Los Angeles,” Slatkin says. “This meant that if the quartet was playing a piece by Stravinsky, then Stravinsky came to the house. If [film composers] Max Steiner or Korngold were writing a score at the studio, they came to the house. If my parents were doing an album by Sinatra, he was at the house. Or Nat King Cole. Or Schoenberg. Art Tatum played on our piano. It was unbelievable.”

Of all the musical friendships his parents forged, the one between them and Sinatra was especially warm. Felix served as Sinatra’s concertmaster. “Frank wouldn’t do anything without my parents,” Slatkin says. “He cancelled recording sessions if my dad was ill, and he’d say to the musicians, ‘I’m paying you, but Felix isn’t well. Go home.’ Frank would sometimes take my brother and me upstairs and sing us to sleep.”

Felix died in 1963, when Leonard was just 19. Eleanor outlived her husband by 32 years. Leonard’s younger brother, Fred Zlotkin (he uses the original Russian spelling of the surname), is principal cellist with the New York City Ballet. Leonard studied violin, piano, viola, and cello and went on to learn composition and conducting at Indiana University and the Juilliard School of Music.

Along the way, the 16-year-old Slatkin played a gig as a cocktail pianist in California. On his first night on the job, he took the same request over and over from a man who became increasingly plotzed. He eventually confided to Slatkin that his wife was leaving him.

“I was incredibly naïve about everything in life; I led a very sheltered existence,” Slatkin says. “The man said, ‘My wife left me for another woman.’ I thought she was going to live with her roommate — that’s how naïve I was!” Then, after dropping a $100 bill into the brandy snifter atop the piano, the besotted fellow announced, “I’m going to drive my car into Santa Monica Pier and kill myself.”

An alarmed Slatkin called on the bartender for help, hoping to avert the impending suicide. Inured to the empty threats of lushes, the bartender didn’t bat an eye. But that didn’t mollify Slatkin. “For two weeks after that, every morning at 7, I’d check the paper, looking for a body that had washed up in Santa Monica.”

In addition to being ingenuous, Slatkin says he was preternaturally shy, a trait that seems hard to fathom today from a conductor who’s bathed in the limelight. He says he shed his bashful side after nabbing a job in 1968 as a radio host on KDNA in St. Louis while also serving as assistant conductor with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

“The orchestra went on strike, I had nothing to do, and they asked me to do a radio interview,” Slatkin explains. KDNA was known then as an “underground” station with an unstructured format. It soon became apparent to the host that Slatkin could talk as volubly about Janis Joplin, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix as he could about classical music, and he was offered a show.

a pensive slatkin at orchestra hall
A pensive Slatkin at Orchestra Hall. Portrait by Marvin Shaouni

“I would juxtapose all kinds of music — Broadway, blues, classical, rock, and I interviewed people,” Slatkin says. “I learned how to speak, and I learned not to be afraid of people. Radio did that for me.”

Private Life

Even today, though, Slatkin describes himself as “a quiet guy” when he’s away from conducting and fundraising.

He’s been down the aisle a few times. The conductor once told Britain’s The Guardian that “Music is a possessive mistress,” which could explain the failure of his three marriages, the latest of which, to soprano Linda Hohenfeld, was expected to be dissolved in November. And then there was the well-publicized reputed affair with percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the leaking of their racy e-mail exchanges — while both were married.

Slatkin says there was “no rancor” in his split from Hohenfeld. “We are very amicable and raising our son in what we feel is the best possible way,” Slatkin says. They are the parents of 14-year-old Daniel, with whom Slatkin is very close. Although his son attends boarding school outside Boston, Slatkin savors their time together. In August, they went on a two-and-a-half week tour of baseball stadiums in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

“Near the end of the trip, we were driving,” Slatkin says, “and either I said something or Daniel did, and we just started laughing uncontrollably for about five minutes. We just couldn’t stop. Just when we thought we had stopped, we’d start up again. When we did settle down, we just looked at each other, and this became a moment when it wasn’t just about father and son, it was about being friends.

“It was a defining moment for me; I hadn’t expected that. So, a few days later when I had to deposit him at boarding school, it turned out to be much more emotional than I thought. It was an important trip because it was a personal journey.”

The experience was so mutually gratifying that Slatkin says they’ll do the same thing next summer, except on the West Coast. By then, Slatkin will be comfortably ensconced in his home in metro Detroit.

“All my stuff is here; it’s already in storage,” he says. “In spring, I’ll have a physical place.” The conductor has already checked out Royal Oak and Pleasant Ridge and “found a lot of neighborhoods attractive. But I haven’t looked in the Grosse Pointes yet. I don’t want to be so far from the hall that I can’t get down here within 20 to 25 minutes.”

Wherever he decides to hang his hat, it’s clear that Detroit has already unrolled the welcome mat, just waiting for its new maestro to cross the threshold.