Like a Stradivarius, conductor Leonard Slatkin just gets better with time


“As I get older, I do not even think about the technique anymore ,” says conductor Leonard Slatkin. (Kevin Clark/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 27, 2012

When Leonard Slatkin turned 60 seven years ago, his manager told him that his music career now would really begin. Slatkin had already won seven Grammys and a National Medal of Arts award, but that was all a dress rehearsal. Unlike aging athletes, whose abilities wind down as their bodies grows older, musicians often get better with age and experience, and audiences appreciate them more. A 2010 compilation of the world's busiest conductors found an average age of 62.

Since Slatkin’s 1968 debut at age 23 with the St. Louis Symphony, he has conducted major orchestras and opera companies on three continents. He served as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2008 and is currently the music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon in France as well as the principal guest conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Slatkin returned to Washington last fall to conduct French cellist Gautier Capucon playing Saint-Saens’s Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. He conducted Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 and the NSO premiere of 31-year-old composer Anna Clyne’s “Rewind.” Via e-mail, he discussed how growing older affects musicians and their artistry, and his in particular.

Does aging help you as a conductor?

I think that not only is there a more emotional understanding but a structural one as well. It more than likely comes from repeated study and many years of performing. There is no “perfect” in music. If I ever came off the stage and felt it could not be better, it would then be time to quit.

What do you mean by “more emotional understanding”? Is that like Beethoven writing his best symphonies late in life, after he wrestled with his failing health? Do you have a richer sense of life because of things that have happened to you?

When one is young, the focus of attention is on the technical matters: how to beat time, where to cue in the different instruments, et cetera. As I get older, I do not even think about the technique anymore and only consider how to get closer to the intention of the composer.

Is there music you loved when you were younger that you don’t anymore and, vice versa, music you once loathed and now love?

Surprisingly, my tastes have not changed all that much. When I was younger, I played anything, just to get experience; now I am a bit more selective. I still enjoy Haydn more than Mozart, Mahler more than Bruckner, and Copland over Carter. That does not mean I do not respect those I choose not to perform, but I know where my strengths and weaknesses are.

What about the physicality of actually being a conductor? Is it more difficult to stand there all evening? What about your stamina? Your hearing? Normally, hearing gets worse in older age. Has that happened to you?

The only time I felt uncomfortable, or noticed a change, was after my heart attack 21 / 2 years ago. [Slatkin was stricken while conducting onstage in Rotterdam in 2009.] Standing for a concert presents no problems, but sometimes I sit at rehearsals. My hearing seems to be fine, but once in a while, I sense my perfect pitch is thrown off. I probably do not jump around as much but do seem to throw myself into performances more these days. I love going out virtually every time. It is never boring.

Do you approach the music in the same way you did as a younger conductor? How is it different?

The new pieces take less time to learn, and the older ones reveal themselves gradually. I do not have to learn the notes anymore, just understand what they all mean.

Do you ever see yourself retiring? So what is the peak age for a conductor? When is he or she in his or her prime?

I don’t really think about retiring. I will retire just before people start saying, “I knew Leonard Slatkin when he conducted well.”

What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years? Will you continue to move from orchestra to orchestra?

I do not anticipate taking another music directorship. People believe that this lifestyle is glamorous. It is not. Between the travel, study, rehearsals and concerts, there really is not much time to relax. I do think I will take more time off to enjoy all the things I have not been able to in the past. The word “vacation” has only now entered my vocabulary.

What is your ritual before each concert? Has that changed?

The only thing that I do is arrive in plenty of time for the concert. I hate being late.

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