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Slatkin on Conducting, Composing, and Musical Life

 Leonard Slatkin (B.M. ’67, orchestral conducting) is the conductor of the Detroit Symphony (with which he’s pictured here). He will be spending a week at Juilliard culminating in a concert on May 4 featuring Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.

 (Photo by Donald Dietz)

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Former faculty member Leonard Slatkin returns to Juilliard to conduct the orchestra in its penultimate concert of the season, on May 4. The author of Conducting Business (Amadeus, 2012), he is currently the music director of the Detroit Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon, France, and has conducted virtually all of the world’s leading orchestras over the years. Slatkin, who started his musical career as a violinist and received his bachelor’s in orchestral conducting from Juilliard in 1967, comes from a family of musicians. His father, conductor and violinist Felix Slatkin, founded the Hollywood String Quartet, of which his mother, Eleanor Aller (’37) was the cellist; his brother, alum Frederick Zlotkin, is also a cellist. Recently Slatkin, chatted with second-year composition student Zachary Green.

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The program on May 4 is Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. What will the audience gain from having those two works placed next to each other?
Of course, more of the benefit is planned for the students. The audience simply gets a very fine concert of two of the most important scores in the orchestral repertoire. The main thing is that the young musicians get to learn these two incredible pieces of music. The majority of the players, assuming they continue their musical paths, will more than likely become members of orchestras themselves. Anything you can do to know that repertoire in advance is helpful. 

In terms of the works themselves, they’re both highly virtuosic. They test many of the limits of orchestral playing, or at least the limits as they existed when they were written. Strauss’s tone poem is one of the great representations of a literary classic. It gives a solo cellist and violist the opportunity to strut their stuff a bit, but in this case, rather than playing an abstract role, they play a very real one—they represent the Don and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, so the soloists have to have not only the technical prowess and the musical skills but they have to imbue the characters whose roles they are taking. Even the orchestra has to play the role of storyteller, whether they’re representing the battle against the windmills or the sheep or various things like that—all these different characterizations become very important. The Prokofiev is a primarily celebratory work looking at the end of World War II, trying to give uplift to the people of the Soviet Union at the time. It is really in a way like going home for me—it was the work with which I made my debut with the New York Philharmonic, in 1974, so playing it again in New York is always interesting, whether it’s with students or professional orchestras. 

How do your approaches to conducting student and professional orchestras differ?
Much depends on the level of the players’ abilities and their musicianship. Obviously the main difference is, for the most part I would imagine, the Juilliard musicians will not have encountered these pieces before as an orchestral unit. That phrase, “orchestral unit,” becomes very important. Because the Juilliard Orchestra sees several conductors in the course of the year, there’s probably no really identifying orchestral characteristic. In other words, different conductors are going to bring different approaches to how an orchestra sounds. So, my job for the week with them is to teach the music so that they really know it and so that it serves them well for whatever future endeavors they choose, but also, maybe even more important for me, is to teach the concept of a unified sound—how to blend with each other, how to listen to each other, whether it’s this whole string section or a solo wind player or even a percussion part.

You’ve talked in the past about how certain orchestras have sounds that are cultivated within the group as a whole. When you guest-conduct, is it ever hard to negotiate your vision for a piece with a different sound?
My attitude—and different conductors have different feelings about this—is that as a guest conductor, it’s very much like spending a week in someone’s house. You make yourself comfortable with how the house is set up. You don’t go rearranging the furniture. My job with a professional orchestra is to let the orchestra be themselves and get my musical ideas across to them—tempos and dynamics, things like that that I want to take care of. It would be foolish to try to get one orchestra to sound like another; that would go against the whole point of music-making, which is for me, not to be the same anywhere, but knowledgeably different.

Was it always your intent to switch from the violin to conducting? 
My parents were outstanding musicians. My father was a violinist and conductor and an arranger as well, and like many young people, you like to be like your dad, so I started as a violinist myself, then I moved over to piano—I couldn’t play the cello because everybody else in the family already did that. Gradually, watching my father conduct, I thought, “This is something I would really be interested in doing.” [But] I found that the competition in the household was very strong—everybody had to be totally at the top, and after a while, I didn’t want to compete with my dad, so I sort of put conducting as something I wouldn’t do. And then my father passed away when he was 47—I was only 19—and after a little bit of soul-searching, I realized that a door had been unfortunately opened for me, and I began to seriously consider conducting.

You’ve been affiliated with Juilliard for a long time. What changes have you seen in the students?
I would say that students today—probably as a general rule, not just limited to Juilliard—are a little more world-wise than we were. When I was a student, the focus was purely on the music. Nobody really thought of the rest of the world—I guess economic pressures and social media give a different perspective. Also, of course, having so many people coming from so many parts of the world provides a different perspective as well. Young people today are more in tune with popular culture. We weren’t quite so much back then—we knew a little about it, but mostly weren’t concerned with it. We were more insulated, and isolated. You’re up on 122nd [at the former Juilliard building on Claremont Avenue]—it was a different part of New York, a different part of the world. It didn’t seem connected at all to downtown. Now, with the School and all the arts organizations right in the heart of a bustling part of the city, there’s not only a mental connection but also a physical one. 

Do you have any advice for would-be conductors?
One thing is to attend as many rehearsals as possible and to watch very closely what the conductor does—what their gestures are like, what they say. Don’t try to imitate what you see that is good, but rather focus on what’s not working. All of us have areas that we don’t do so well, so avoiding mistakes is critical.

The second thing, or maybe the first, is to study as much as possible. Most of conducting is spent by yourself—it’s you and the score sitting on a table. You’re poring over it and it’s very lonely, but you do have the company of all those great composers. 

Another thing that I found important and what I did while I was a student at Juilliard was to be a little entrepreneurial. I would put ensembles together to play repertoire. It could have been the Stravinsky Octet, the “Brandenburg” Concertos—different things like that—the bottom line is that the only real teacher you have is getting up there and conducting. It’s the only way you’ll ever know if you can do it or not. You can study all you want to, you can work with teachers, but the proof
really does have to do with when you stand in front of a group of people. 

Any advice for aspiring composers?
I just did a reading of four young composers’ works in Pittsburgh, and the main drawback in virtually all of them had to do with their not understanding the relationship of the individual parts of the piece to the whole orchestra. Often I would stop and say, “You know, here you have a woodwind line, and you have eight bars with slur, and you don’t tell them where to breathe” or “you don’t delineate where you want long notes and short”—lots of details. So, it’s going to sound like strange advice for composers, but when you write a piece, rather than just look at the score as a totality, look at the individual parts. Frequently when you see something isolated, you realize where the problems are. 

You’ve said that “amateur” is your favorite word in music. Why is that? 
Because an amateur is somebody who does music (or almost anything) because they truly love it. So, an amateur orchestra comes absolutely thrilled to be able to sit down and play. Or the amateur conductor, getting up there and conducting just because they want to—there’s no feeling of career or money involved, therefore the pressures are different. I used to conduct an orchestra of doctors—my father did, too—that met every week in Los Angeles, and there was never any talk about the surgery they had that morning or the patient they saw in the afternoon. All they wanted to do was discuss Brahms and Mozart and Haydn or whoever it happened to be. That  kind of joy is sometimes missing in the professional ranks. Not of everybody—there are certainly so many professionals who love what they do—but in the amateur world, it’s remarkable to see that enthusiasm constantly. There are times when I’m doing a great work, say a Beethoven symphony or Brahms concerto or The Rite of Spring, and I wonder what it would be like to encounter this work again for the first time, but with the knowledge and understanding of things that I have now. In other words, I’d like to be an amateur again.

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