Leonard Slatkin, From Two Directions
Classical Music Critic Tim Page Finds Himself Deeply Divided on the Conductor's 12 Seasons With the National Symphony Orchestra.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Leading an orchestra has never been easy, and even the most celebrated music directors generally leave mixed legacies in their wake. It should not be forgotten that the now-deified Leonard Bernstein had a tough time getting a favorable review when he was heading up the New York Philharmonic and that the Berlin Philharmonic all but banished its so-called "music director for life" Herbert von Karajan from the premises a few months before he died.

The National Symphony Orchestra's Leonard Slatkin, who will step down from his directorship in June, is not in the Bernstein-Karajan camp. Nevertheless, he has been a significant figure in Washington's musical history for more than a dozen years now and his overall effect on the NSO is likely to be the subject of controversy for years to come. And so this longtime Slatkin observer -- I first heard him conduct 25 years ago -- thought it might be helpful to frame some thoughts on his tenure in the form of a self-debate. As the reader will quickly discover, my own appraisal is distinctly, but genuinely, mixed. I decided to approach this exercise literally of two minds.

Tim Page One: Leonard Slatkin was hailed as a conquering hero when he came to Washington in 1996. Here was the man who was going to bring new vitality to American music, who was going to emphasize the word "national" in "National Symphony Orchestra," who was going to redefine the hidebound world of classical music for a fresh, eager and untapped audience.

Tim Page Two: It all seems terribly naive now, doesn't it? Today we're hearing some of the same chatter about Marin Alsop -- who might fairly be described as Slatkin in a pantsuit, affecting the same sort of studied informality and sharing some of the same tastes in conservative American composers. But do you really think that anybody could have worked all the miracles that were expected from Slatkin? Musical education has pretty much been eliminated in much of the United States, and a whole generation has come of age with little or no exposure to classical music. Most of our orchestras have been in trouble for years financially.

One: Well, there's still a good deal of intellectual interest in what Michael Tilson Thomas is doing with the San Francisco Symphony and in what Esa-Pekka Salonen did -- and what newly named 26-year-old maestro Gustavo Dudamel may do -- in Los Angeles. Moreover, they play to pretty full houses (as, I would add, does the NSO; I'm not sure that I would write off the orchestral concert as a spent force). But those other conductors offer genuinely engrossing contemporary music (as opposed to Slatkin's penchant for pastiche), deeply personal takes on familiar scores of the past (rather than gross, gimmicky rearrangements such as Mahler's graffiti on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), festivals of substance and distinction (instead of once-over-lightly looks at film music or "Drums Along the Potomac"), and a fresh energy that has been hard to find in Washington for a long while.

Two: But there was that energy and excitement here in 1996! The NSO had come to sound sloppy, dispirited and disorganized in the years after Rostropovich stepped down, and Slatkin moved quickly to improve the playing, both singly and collectively, with some new hires, intensified rehearsals and what one of our less verbally adroit presidents used to call "the vision thing." Surely you won't deny that the NSO is a better orchestra than it was in 1995?

One: Well, it's certainly a more muscular orchestra. The first-desk players are much more reliable, across the board, and the cello section is one of the best around. But, at least when Slatkin is conducting, I find the collective sound loud and featureless a lot of the time, lacking the nuance and textural intricacy that I expect from a great orchestra. When the NSO is favored with a truly distinguished guest conductor -- Christoph von Dohn¿nyi, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel come immediately to mind -- most of these problems disappear.

Two: But those men are such conservatives! At least Slatkin is out there, fighting for the future.

One: You're reading too much of Slatkin's publicity. Does the "future" need three separate performances of Saint-Sa¿ns's infinitesimal "Carnival of the Animals" over the course of a dozen years, all of them with the duo-piano team of Katia and Marielle Lab¿que? Just this year, we've heard two renditions of Franz Liszt's meretricious Piano Concerto No. 1 only a few months apart -- find me another orchestra that would inflict that on its audience! And Slatkin's choice of soloists seemed to come mainly from the music business promo roster (all those child prodigies -- mini-stars at 15, washed up by 20, the cruelest sort of planned obsolescence!) or from his inner circle -- pals such as the Lab¿ques, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman, the pianist Jeffrey Siegel (whom he actually took on a United States tour with the orchestra) and, for a while anyway, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Let me remind you that one of his pet artists in the first part of his tenure was his wife, the soprano Linda Hohenfeld. Even if she had been up to the job -- which, in my opinion, she was not -- it was the sort of casting decision that inevitably made one wonder what was going on. Loyalty is an admirable trait in a human being, but rather less desirable in a music director, who needs to make tough decisions, and from the head rather than the heart.

Two: But what about all the new music he played?

One: Richard Danielpour? Michael Kamen? Stewart Wallace? Do you really want to hear any of those pieces again?

Two: Now you're being unfair. Slatkin and the NSO made far and away the best recording so far of John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 -- it won the Grammy in 1996. More recently, Slatkin led the University of Michigan School of Music in the first complete recording of William Bolcom's gigantic "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" (the NSO wanted to make the record with him but the production costs, with a professional orchestra, would have been prohibitive). Way back when, he led a superb performance of Luciano Berio's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra with the Lab¿que sisters -- who hardly limit their repertory to Saint-Sa¿ns, by the way. That series of concert preludes the NSO commissioned was a genuinely interesting and diverse look at what was going on in American orchestral composition. Slatkin has shown an aptitude for the musical minimalism that you have championed -- Philip Glass and Steve Reich -- and for the not-quite-minimalism of John Adams as well. And he has helped revive interest in some of the classic figures in American composition: Aaron Copland, Walter Piston (that haunting Symphony No. 2!) and Samuel Barber.

One: True enough, although I'm coming to think that Barber has gone from deeply underrated to wildly overrated faster than you can say "Gustav Mahler." I should add that I've generally found Slatkin's Mahler refreshingly objective, last year's uncoordinated Symphony No. 8 excepted. I've also admired Slatkin's ease with the cooler late-romantic and early 20th-century literature (Dvorak, Elgar, Vaughan Williams) and the humor and heartiness he brings to the classical repertory, particularly Haydn, Mendelssohn and early Beethoven. Moreover, over the past year or so, he seems to be taking a greater interest in his work than he has in some time.

Two: Do you think there was a falling-off in the middle of Slatkin's tenure?

One: Oh, no question -- and he's admitted as much. When Slatkin was being considered for the music directorship at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra -- where he will begin his first three-year contract next fall -- he told the Detroit Free Press that his years in Washington were less than fully successful. He said this was partly because he had to answer to four different executive directors. But he also acknowledged his own failings. "There was a time when I wasn't focused and at my best," he said. "I'm much more focused in rehearsals than I used to be. I'm more detailed. After going through the standard repertoire many times in my life, I finally have developed a real sense of what I want to do with these pieces."

Two: That's refreshingly honest. What do you think happened to him during the years when he wasn't "at his best"?

One: Who knows? All of a sudden he was lazy and detached, relying on the same artists and the same formulas that had worked well for him before. I remember the dismay one musician shared with me in 2004, on condition of anonymity: "We'd play something and it would be loud, crass and unbelievably ugly, and he just couldn't be bothered with making it better. All he'd say in rehearsal was, 'It'll be fine.' And after a while we knew that it just wouldn't be fine."

Two: You rarely hear complaints from orchestral musicians that their conductors are going too easy on them!

One: This is a serious group of players and I think that they want to be -- and have at times come close to being -- a reliably first-class orchestra. My sources among the musicians tell me that their happiest concerts in the last few years have been with just those conductors who worked them the hardest: Dohn¿nyi, Masur and Maazel. They play very well for Iv¿n Fischer, who will be principal conductor for two years starting in September. So long as a conductor is respectful, well prepared and neither a bully nor a time-waster, I should think the NSO would be a pleasure to work with. Certainly, there's very little of that chip-on-the-shoulder, hostile aggression toward anybody who tries to lead them that you find in some of the orchestras in the larger American cities.

Two: And so now what for the NSO?

One: My hope is that it will engage a thoughtful, accomplished and charismatic musician who will commit to the orchestra and to the community, with deep and personal ideas about the great repertory of the past and a keen interest in, and affinity for, the best contemporary music around. This is a wealthy orchestra -- its 20-year old affiliation with the Kennedy Center has ensured that -- and it can pay handsomely for the privilege. Slatkin made more than $1.1 million a year from the NSO alone. Not many other orchestras have such financial security, so the NSO is going to be a "catch" for somebody -- and that's setting aside the incalculable prestige of leading the principal orchestra in the capital of the United States.

Two: Do you think it is possible that the NSO will move toward the modern European model -- hiring, say, a principal conductor instead of a full-time music director, and relegating most decisions about direction and personnel to the orchestra players themselves?

One: I've sometimes wondered whether the NSO might be taking a look at Maazel in this capacity. He lives an hour outside Washington, he's one of the two or three great technicians now before the public, he has a terrific rapport with the NSO, his tenure with the New York Philharmonic is up in 2009, and there is money in the hopper to meet what would undoubtedly be extravagant salary demands. On some level, it makes sense. But Maazel will be almost 80 years old by the time this could be put into play and I can't see him wanting to take on more than a few weeks a year. The president of the Kennedy Center, Michael M. Kaiser, has assured me that he wants the NSO to find a music director -- period -- and I think he is right. Surely there is somebody out there who can take this orchestra to the next level.

Two: What about David Robertson, who seems to be able to conduct anything anywhere, and whose contract in St. Louis is up in 2010?

One: That's certainly going to be one candidate to watch. But there are others.

Two: Michael Tilson Thomas?

One: Dream on. Would you voluntarily leave San Francisco?

Two: Fair enough. We'll watch and wait -- and use this opportunity to return to Slatkin. What happens to him now?

One: He's going to be a busy man -- teaching at Indiana University, advising the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, serving as the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic in England. Detroit may be a great fit for him -- let's not forget that his most important work to date was building the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra into a truly dazzling orchestra back in the 1980s. Perhaps he can summon the energy and concentration to do the same thing for yet another such ensemble in yet another battered but unbowed Midwestern city.

Two: You don't sound especially hopeful.

One: If he's learned the right lessons from his Washington experience, I'm somewhat hopeful. Fifteen years ago, Slatkin was on everybody's short list to take over one of the great world orchestras -- New York, perhaps, or Chicago. That's all gone; he was never a serious candidate in their recent searches. What a crushing disappointment it must have been for him to learn that he was dismissed from the NSO -- and, let's face it, that's exactly what happened in 2004, for all the polite talk, although the orchestra generously allowed him one final two-year contract.

Two: Life does tend to beat up on us the longer we stick around.

One: Look, he's a gifted and experienced musician and very, very bright. Indeed, I sometimes think that his brightness works against him -- you can get by on that when you are 40, but it starts to seem awfully glib once you pass the half-century mark. Slatkin is 63 years old now -- relatively young for a conductor -- and if he settles in, focuses, studies, opens his ears, allows no performance to go out into the world until it is as polished as he can make it within whatever time restraints he has, he may well surprise us again. That line from F. Scott Fitzgerald -- that there are no second acts in American lives -- is simply rubbish, however ruefully and elegantly phrased. There are third, fourth and even fifth acts -- maybe more, but if five acts were good enough for Shakespeare, I think we might make an end there.

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