The classical music industry places great faith in the Significant Birthday. Most mortals are permitted to tiptoe from one decade to the next with little or no fuss, but conductor Leonard Slatkin -- who turns 60 on Wednesday -- is gearing up for a huge celebration in his name, sponsored by the Kennedy Center and the ensemble he has served as music director since 1996, the National Symphony Orchestra.
On Sept. 26, the NSO will mark the official opening of its 2004-05 season with a concert and ball in Slatkin's honor at the Kennedy Center. There will be a lot of fancy guests -- violinists Midori, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Joseph Kalichstein and Emanuel Ax, duo-pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque, flutist James Galway, conductor Murry Sidlin, and composer and performer Peter Schickele.
Music director of the NSO since 1996, Slatkin's Sept. 1 birthday will get a belated, and star-laden, celebration on Sept. 26.
"I've been really touched by the people who want to come but simply can't, because of scheduling problems," Slatkin said in a recent telephone interview from London. "But I'm very happy with the guests we have. It will be the principal fundraising event of the season -- a little like eight years of the Kennedy Center Honors in a single evening!"
It is far from easy to assemble such a stellar cast (negotiating the egos of the guest violinists alone would tax the abilities of a skilled diplomat), and the fact that the concert is coming together at all is a sign of the affection and esteem in which Slatkin is held by his musical peers.
Slatkin, of course, will be working throughout his own party, serving as the evening's principal conductor. One can't imagine that he'd have it any other way; he has struggled long and hard and against what once seemed insurmountable odds to achieve his current eminence -- the music director of the most important orchestra in the capital city of the United States. And, as he mounts the podium to lead one of the grandest concerts of his career, he will have much to be proud of.
Perhaps his most significant accomplishment in Washington has been the radical improvement in the day-to-day playing of the NSO. When Slatkin was appointed music director-designate in 1994, this seemed an orchestra in trouble -- a collection of mostly fine artists who rarely managed to play a completely satisfying concert. Slatkin's predecessor, Mstislav Rostropovich, who led the orchestra from 1977 to 1994, was a spectacularly gifted cellist -- indeed, one of the great musicians of the century -- yet his conducting technique was sketchy and he seemed absolutely at sea in much of the standard repertory. Rostropovich's best performances, almost inevitably of Russian music, were charged with urgency and excitement, revelatory almost in spite of themselves. But his off nights -- and there were a lot of them -- were pretty dismal.
The NSO's playing picked up almost immediately when, after two seasons under visiting conductors, Slatkin took the helm in 1996. His sure ear, his clear beat and his brisk, authoritative comments came as bracing and salutary shocks for the orchestra. The reconstruction of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall the following year, while far from a complete success, permitted the musicians to really hear one another onstage for the first time, and the ensemble grew ever more flexible and cohesive. Several key appointments within the orchestra gave it a lusher, more diverse and sumptuous tone: By now, Slatkin has named the principal players for all five string sections (first and second violins, viola, cello and bass), three assistant principal string players, and principal bassoon, horn, tuba and timpani. There are 100 full-time players in the NSO; Slatkin has appointed 33 of them to their current positions.
And so, even when Slatkin isn't in town, this remains "his" NSO. "One of the things that makes me happiest about the orchestra is the way it sounds for everybody these days," he said. "Week after week, no matter who happens to be on the podium, it is a truly excellent ensemble -- and getting better."
A Noteworthy Start
This is not the first time Leonard Slatkin has built up an orchestra. His long tenure at the St. Louis Symphony was widely considered a triumph, for both the orchestra and Slatkin himself. He had originally come to the Midwest in 1968, 23 years old and fresh out of Juilliard, as an assistant to the late Walter Susskind, an old-world maestro who recognized Slatkin's talent and ambition. Beginning by conducting a Sunday afternoon concert series, Slatkin progressed to associate, associate principal and principal guest conductor before taking over as music director in 1979. He remained in St. Louis until 1996, directly before taking the Washington job.
During that time, Slatkin quite literally grew up with the orchestra, turning the St. Louis Symphony into a group quite on a par with the leading ensembles from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago -- the so-called Big Five. Indeed, Slatkin was the first native-born American to conduct all of these orchestras within a single year. Today, with Americans Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony, Robert Spano in Atlanta, David Robertson freshly ensconced in St. Louis and James Levine about to take the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, such an accomplishment may not seem as impressive as it did once.
But -- with the towering exception of the late Leonard Bernstein, who really was a law unto himself -- our young "homegrown" conductors were once pretty much excluded by our own orchestras. Slatkin helped change all that, and a younger generation of musicians is in his debt.
Despite his burgeoning career as a guest conductor, Slatkin brought a refreshing commitment to the St. Louis Symphony. In an era when successful conductors tend to be jet-setting cosmopolites, flying here and there while maintaining their permanent addresses in a musical capital like New York or London, Slatkin settled in St. Louis and lived there until he came to Washington. He attended as many Cardinals home games as he could (he is still an avid sports fan); he knew where to find the best Italian food downtown and the best frozen custard on the South Side; he was very much a presence. It was once suggested that he had shaken hands with every man, woman and child in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Slatkin demurred: He was sure that there were some he had missed.
Through a combination of curiosity, directness, accessibility and charm, Slatkin managed to combine two distinct -- and usually incompatible -- objectives: winning over critics and music professionals with sophisticated, venturesome programming while building a strong following among local donors and subscribers, whose tastes tend to be deeply conservative. Some conductors object to the sort of politicking that is such an important part of running an American orchestra in the 21st century: Daniel Barenboim cited such "fritter" as one of the reasons he was leaving the Chicago Symphony. Not Slatkin. "Meetings, community work, local events -- they're all part of the job," he said.
To the Music Born
It has been well and truly stated that music is a glorious art and a difficult profession: Leonard Edward Slatkin was born into both of them in Los Angeles on Sept. 1, 1944. His parents were powers in the film music industry: His father, Felix Slatkin, was concertmaster at 20th Century Fox, while his mother, Eleanor Aller, was the first cellist at Warner Bros. In addition to his duties as a violinist, Felix Slatkin was conducting both the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Arts Chamber Orchestra; both parents were also founding members of the Hollywood String Quartet, an ensemble that became legendary for the passion and precision of its playing.