A Conductor Comes to A Coda

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Leonard Slatkin is temperamentally nervous. When he takes the stage to conduct, he walks out rapidly, slightly hunched, his head thrust forward, as if moving through a gantlet and trying to protect himself from the needling arrows of thousands of watching eyes. In person, in his office at the Kennedy Center, he sits back in a pose of assumed relaxation, his soft Muppet face marked with thick white eyebrows and a sharp line of a mouth, and chats.

But he skitters across topics, anticipating the criticism that may be lurking behind every question, mentioning it, steering away from it, then returning to it to show that he is not steering away from it, until one is left with the impression that outside criticism, despite his protests to the contrary, matters to him very much indeed.

The general impression is that conducting is a difficult metier for a man who describes himself as having been chronically shy in his youth. The particular impression, as Slatkin talks about his 12-year tenure at the head of the National Symphony Orchestra (which concludes with a gala concert tonight), is of encountering someone in the final throes of a failing marriage, going over ground that has been trodden many times before, prodding the scars of old wounds that still have a tired ache.

"It was probably time to go," he says.

"I know inside of me," he adds, "that I could have been better."

So what happened?

Slatkin the conversationalist is like Slatkin the conductor: You get a lot of material, flecked with flashes of apparent revelation that recede as quickly as they appear. Talking about one subject, his firefly mind is already on to the next one.

These days, that next subject is usually the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where he becomes music director in the fall, and which he speaks of in the star-struck tones of a new lover. Detroit is wonderful. In Detroit, he will have a finger in every pie: reimagining the orchestra's youth programs, revamping its Web site.

"We're reaching a whole element," he says of his vague but ambitious plans to extend arts education in his new position. "Things I wished I could have done here, and I probably could have but I didn't do a good enough job at it."

He is certainly not shying away from self-castigation.

The story of Slatkin and the NSO has been oft-told in the media, here and in the other cities where he is establishing artistic footholds: Detroit; Nashville, where he became music adviser to the Nashville Symphony in 2006; London, where he led the BBC Symphony Orchestra for four less-than-halcyon years and is now principal guest conductor with the venerable, though B-list, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Pittsburgh, where he is about to start a stint as principal guest conductor.

In a nutshell: A superstar who elevated the St. Louis Symphony into what Time magazine called one of the 10 best orchestras in America, noted for his easy populist touch and conversational tone with audiences, Slatkin came to Washington in the footsteps of Mstislav Rostropovich and improved discipline, appointed new players and put the "national" back in National Symphony with dozens of contemporary and 20th-century American works.

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