Conducting Business by Leonard Slatkin [book review]

Written by: Mike Langhorne

Conducting Business

Leonard Slatkin

ISBN 976-1-67467-204-6

Amadeus Press

The first thing to say about this entertaining, revealing and very readable book, subtitled “Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro”, is that it is not a straight autobiography. Rather it is part-memoir, part-insight into the music business and part-manual for aspiring conductors.

Leonard Slatkin was born in 1944 in Los Angeles to musical royalty. His parents were legendry figures in Hollywood, both playing in film-studio orchestras and forming half of the celebrated Hollywood String Quartet. Felix Slatkin was a noted violinist, conductor and arranger and worked for Frank Sinatra and many other A-list figures. Collectors will remember Felix’s Capitol LPs conducting the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Slatkin’s childhood was therefore highly particular – the house would be full of Hollywood stars and noted composers – many of them émigrés like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Korngold; the latter’s Cello Concerto was given its premiere by Slatkin’s mother, Eleanor Aller.

Slatkin regales us with many cracking anecdotes. He and his brother Fred (who later took the family’s original surname, Zlotkin) were soon taking music lessons, Fred on the cello and Leonard at the piano. The latter’s education after high-school was, of course, musical and he won a scholarship to the music faculty at Indiana University. It was around this time that the tragic death of his father occurred, at the age of 47, which his son candidly puts down to a combination of drinking, smoking, overwork and weight problems.

Later at the Julliard School of Music in New York Slatkin studied with the French maestro Jean Morel and subsequently obtained a post at the Saint Louis Symphony as assistant to Walter Susskind. This period of the early-1970s is vividly described and his period later as music director in Saint Louis (1979–96) clearly formed the foundation stone to his later career. He was asked to stand in for absent conductors with the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and in the UK with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when Sir Adrian Boult was indisposed.

Slatkin’s appointment as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington DC, 1996-2008) in succession to Mstislav Rostropovich was a not altogether happy experience, but he gives us some great stories about the rough and tumble of orchestral life and is engagingly frank about his departure and the reasons for it. Slatkin also took on the role of Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2000-04) and the chapter on the decisions taken on what to do with the Last Night of the Proms in 2001, only four days after the ‘9/11’ outrage in New York and Washington, is poignantly expressed. Again he pulls no punches as far as his reasons for leaving the BBCSO, not as he suggests a “government orchestra” but one of a number run by the public broadcaster funded by the licence fee.

The heart-attack he suffered in 2009 shortly after conducting a concert in Rotterdam clearly affected him deeply and is dealt with in some detail in a chapter where he analyses the reasons for the deaths of eminent predecessors and muses on the hectic lifestyle of his profession and to what extent it contributed to the experience he suffered. Irrespective of his close brush with death, Slatkin is currently (December 2012) Music Director of both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Orchestre National de Lyon. The American appointment brings further fascinating insights into heading-up a great symphony orchestra both on and, more revealingly, off the podium. The players’ strike and Slatkin’s stance at the time is particularly interesting.

Interspersed with Slatkin’s reminiscences are fascinating chapters which offer advice to aspiring musicians ranging from finding an agent to getting an assistant post with an orchestra, rehearsal techniques, collaborating with soloists and dealing with tricky musical passages. There is also a section on FAQs, which adds real value to the memoirs. A couple of minor niggles include a paucity of dates, which makes it difficult to follow Slatkin’s career sequentially, and there is also a dearth of photographs. Those that are featured are delightful, particularly those of his parents. Modestly he limits himself to one picture with his father and brother. This aside, the book is a really good read.

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