Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra since 1996, will step down from his position at the end of the 2007-08 season, the NSO announced yesterday in a terse news release.
Public information was kept to a polite and restricted minimum. Slatkin's current contract, which was to expire in 2006, will be extended two years, either as a courtesy to the conductor or to buy the orchestra more time to choose another music director -- or, as seems likely, a combination of the two.
"I always considered the NSO's 75th anniversary season of 2005-2006 as a landmark year for the orchestra and for me," Slatkin, who turned 60 in September, said in a statement. "I was persuaded to remain two further seasons to ensure a proper transition to new musical leadership.
"The goals which I set when I began my tenure here will have been accomplished," Slatkin continued. "In my opinion, the NSO now ranks amongst the world's great orchestras -- a point of immense pride for me and all the members of the orchestra. I am deeply grateful to the musicians, audience, board and staff who have been supportive of my work here. I look forward to the next 31/2 years of making wonderful music with the NSO."
The conductor made no further comment, and a spokeswoman for the NSO said that he would not be available for interviews right away. Although there has been much recent speculation as to Slatkin's future with the orchestra, the move was neither widely anticipated nor especially surprising, and the final decision seems to have been made only in the past few days.
Slatkin informed the NSO musicians of his impending departure at a rehearsal yesterday morning. The news was received "soberly and politely," according to one musician, who spoke only on condition that he not be identified. In recent years, there has been increasing -- and increasingly vocal -- unhappiness with Slatkin among certain members of the orchestra, who objected to what they consider his "vague" and "disinterested" use of rehearsal time, as well as to some of his programming decisions, which they regarded as gimmicky and "self-aggrandizing."
"We'd play something like Mahler arrangements of Beethoven symphonies and it would be loud, crass and unbelievably ugly, and he just couldn't be bothered with making it better," said another musician, who also spoke on condition that he not be identified. "All he'd say in rehearsal was, 'It'll be fine.' And after a while we knew that it just wouldn't be fine."
A crisis of sorts was reached with Slatkin's gala 60th birthday concert in September -- an evening conceived, planned and mostly booked by the conductor himself. The program melded Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins and Strings, Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" (the latter punctuated with shouts of "Leonard!" from the audience) and a specially composed piece by Peter Schickele that called on Slatkin to wear a pointed birthday cap, bounce a ball around the stage and whirl around a noisemaker.
By the time of the concert, according to sources within the orchestra, the musicians were "in open rebellion," and delegations complained to both NSO Executive Director Rita Shapiro and Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser.
Slatkin came to the NSO as music director-designate in 1994, becoming music director two years later. He had a reputation as an orchestra builder and was widely credited with having transformed the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra into one of the finest such ensembles in the land.
His early years with the NSO -- which coincided with a 1997 rebuilding of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that improved the acoustics enormously, plus a triumphant tour of Europe -- were often exhilarating.
His sure ear, his clear beat and his brisk, authoritative comments came as bracing and salutary shocks for the NSO. Several key appointments within the orchestra gave it a more vivid, diverse and sumptuous tone and, for a time, the collective playing was better than ever.
Moreover, Slatkin's appointment promised fresh excitement in what sometimes seems a calcified art form. During his tenure, he has been responsible for commissioning for the orchestra 64 new works from 53 American composers. Most of these were small pieces -- either preludes or specially written "encores" -- but they helped establish the NSO as a place where the new and the unusual were valued.
His programming came in for criticism, though, and not merely from timid listeners opposed to any element of modernism in the concert hall.
His taste in contemporary music leaned toward a sort of flashy, self-conscious patchwork, rather than distinctly original new work. He had a tendency to reengage the same soloists year after year -- whether old Juilliard friends such as pianist Jeffrey Siegel, the duo-piano team of Katia and Marielle Labeque or the conductor's wife, soprano Linda Hohenfeld -- and he sometimes seemed more interested in making a publicity splash (with a dubious, reconstructed "Beethoven Tenth" symphony or a movie music festival) than in exploring the deepest recesses of the repertory's masterpieces.
Slatkin had similar difficulties with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, where he served as chief conductor from 2000 to 2004. Although there were some triumphs in London -- notably an emotion-charged program presented shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, that was telecast worldwide -- his relations with the musicians were never easy, and he was effectively made a lame duck after the 2002 summer season.
Evidence suggests that Kaiser, who has been president of the Kennedy Center since 2000, is a hands-on director, actively concerned about what is presented in "his" halls. For the past two years, the NSO season has been announced along with the Kennedy Center season, and Slatkin has not even been in attendance. Although Kaiser released a statement yesterday calling Slatkin "an exemplary music director and an important member of the Kennedy Center family," dealings between the two men are said to be uneasy.
It is unclear where Slatkin might go from Washington, where he was paid $1.1 million in 2003, the last year for which there are public records. A number of leading American orchestras -- Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Cleveland among them -- have relatively youthful music directors, some of them appointed quite recently, who are expected to remain in their positions for years to come, and Slatkin is not generally considered a contender for upcoming vacancies in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
He remains a regular guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic, however, which has been led since 2002 by Lorin Maazel, now 74. In the early 1990s, Slatkin was widely favored by some influential members of the Philharmonic board to succeed Zubin Mehta; Kurt Masur won the position instead.
The NSO will form a committee to find a replacement for Slatkin. Although a lot of names were flying around in musical circles yesterday, right now there is no leading candidate.
"It's too soon," said a source close to the negotiations. "There are a lot of things to take into account."