Return of the Native

Written by: Colin Anderson

Leonard Slatkin continues to love London and British music; things turn full-circle and he has returned to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra…

Leonard Slatkin needs no introduction to London audiences and neither does his championing of British music; and his recent assumption of the Last Night of the Proms is as British and as institutional as you can get. Not bad for a chap born in Los Angeles! For the last 30 years, Leonard has been gracing London’s concert halls with innovative programming, much of it British. It all started in 1974 when he replaced Sir Adrian Boult at a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert. “I did replace Sir Adrian but changed Vaughan Williams’s Job to his Symphony No. 6. Sir Lennox Berkeley did his own Symphony No.3 and I took over the rest of the all-English programme. It went well and that is how my relationship with London began.”

Leonard is now back with the RPO. Just a couple of weeks ago, in the Royal Festival Hall, he conducted a memorable concert of Walton, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and a similar mix is promised for April 7. There’s the work that opened Leonard’s 1974 British debut, Walton’s exuberant Portsmouth Point Overture, which heralds Elgar’s much-treasured Cello Concerto and Vaughan Williams’s atmospheric A London Symphony. The familiar Elgar is also abused as background music and the Vaughan Williams in its original version has about 20 minutes of extra music. Sadly, Leonard won’t be playing the latter. “The VW Trust does not permit any performances of the original other than those by Richard Hickox. So ours will be similar to the one I did at the Proms a couple of years ago.” And Elgar’s Cello Concerto should be personal and intimate? “Intimate is exactly the word. It is Elgar’s finest piece of chamber music and, perhaps, his most personal utterance in music. I prefer understatement in this piece.” Natalie Clein should prove a sympathetic soloist, then.

So, you have returned to the RPO? “It is true that I have done all the London orchestras and it is somewhat ironic that I have come back to the RPO. But over the last couple of seasons we have actually done a few dates together on tour and these have gone very well.” And these current London concerts also point to how little our own repertoire is played in London. “In the States, Chicago is often referred to as the second city. Sometimes I feel that the British think of their own music as falling into this category. In order for a specific repertoire to survive, it needs proponents from countries other than the one of the music’s origin. Those of us who love this music do what is necessary to ensure that it does not become relegated to regional specialists. Since my London debut was an all-English programme, it makes sense that this return is something similar.”

Typical of Leonard is his willingness to conduct something new. On this visit it is the premiere, on April 5, of James Whitbourn’s Annelies. Equally new is the location, the RPO’s new home, Cadogan Hall. “Cadogan is a fine place for music that is not too large-scale. We are doing this piece by Whitbourn that is based on Anne Frank materials. Obviously, when the Festival Hall is closed for the much-needed overhaul, the RPO is in a good position as it has its very own hall.”

Leonard’s most recent London assignment was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the most adventurous of the London orchestras. How does Leonard see the RPO in terms of repertoire? “For the time being, I will actually have the chance to do a bit more standard stuff than I did with the BBC. It is so easy to get pigeonholed and I do not want that to happen to me.” Maybe the RPO, with its own CD label, might schedule some sessions with Leonard; their versatility is complementary.

Three decades later, with a major appointment in Washington DC, and something of a rough-ride during his BBC tenure, does London remain appealing? “I still love London. It is a special place with a special audience. And what other city can boast five full-time professional symphony orchestras?”

  • Concerts on 5 April (Cadogan Hall) and 7 April (Royal Festival Hall)
  • RPO/Slatkin 10 March 2005
  • Cadogan Hall Box Office: 020 7730 4500
  • South Bank Centre
  • RPO
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 30 March 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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