Kaplan: Welcome back to “Mad About Music,” where today we explore the world of the conductor with Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in our nation’s capitol.
Kaplan: At an unbelievably young age, he had already been tapped to become a music director of the New Orleans Symphony. Then, in his early 30s, came the St. Louis Symphony where over a 17-year period he turned that orchestra into a world-class ensemble. For the past decade he has done the same thing in Washington, DC, where he currently serves as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Wherever he goes, the orchestras just get better and better. During this time he has also guest conducted virtually every major international orchestra and has won five Grammy awards and more than 50 nominations for his recordings. And long before it became fashionable, he was a tireless champion of new music, especially by American composers. In recognition of his unique contributions to our cultural life, President George Bush recently awarded him the National Medal of Arts, our country’s highest such award. Leonard Slatkin, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Slatkin: Great to be here.
Kaplan: You know, your appearance on “Mad About Music” comes at an interesting time in the history of conductors. Recently, I had a guest on the show, Clive Gillinson, executive director of Carnegie Hall, and he was lamenting the scarcity of star conductors today. How do you feel about that?
Slatkin: You could almost ask the same question about movies, couldn’t you? Where are the Bogarts? The Monroes? In comparison to the kind of actors we have now. Well, I do think there’s one problem that many conductors begin their careers a bit earlier than conductors of past generations. They’re forced into it by many reasons. Recording pressures, public pressures; and career development for a conductor is something that comes later. I remember when I turned 60, my agent said, “Ah-hah, now you can have a career.”
Kaplan: All right. But on the other hand, I’m sure that in your own background, as you studied, as you started thinking about conducting, there were some giants of the past that must have really impressed you.
Slatkin: Yes, and I was fortunate to be able to see a few of them. Toscanini came to Los Angeles and he brought the NBC Symphony. I was all of 7 or 8 years old. And that was an overwhelming experience. But of all of them that I saw as a youngster, no one impressed me more than Fritz Reiner, who had come for two weeks with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and transformed that orchestra in those two weeks to the most remarkable group I had ever heard. Reiner was a noted opera conductor as well as a symphonic one, and his greatest accomplishment was his really bringing the Chicago Symphony into its own, well before Solti. The Reiner years were infused with spirit, and with drama, and with energy, and even though Reiner’s beat was relatively small, with just a simple flick of the wrist he could produce the most dramatic sound you could imagine.
KaplanNow, when we talk about influences, of course, the primary influence in your life to get started in music had to be your parents.
Slatkin: Absolutely. The whole family. They came from Russia – not my parents, but my grandparents – in 1904. In fact, my great-grand uncle was a man named Modest Altschuler, who founded here in New York at Carnegie Hall the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York, which gave the American premieres of a number of works that we now consider to be the standard repertoire – works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Skriabin. Anyway, my father’s side of the family settled in St. Louis, and my mother’s side went out to L.A. Eventually my dad’s side went out there as well. My father and mother met at the Hollywood Bowl in the 30s, got married, and became part of not just the classical industry, but the motion picture industry as well. However, I think if you had to ask what was their chief love, it was the chamber music that they did. They formed one-half of what was called The Hollywood String Quartet, an ensemble that was probably the west coast equivalent of the Juilliard Quartet in the east. Because they worked in the studios – my father was the concertmaster at 20th Century Fox, and my mom was the first cellist at Warner’s – they really could only rehearse at night and could only tour in a limited way. Orchestras for the studios were contracted, and you didn’t get off that much. So, I had the benefit of hearing this incredible ensemble play every night in our house.
KaplanAs I see from that rich experience you’ve chosen a work by Schoenberg to showcase your parents’ talent.
Slatkin: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, “Transfigured Night,” was already a well-known piece. It’s Schoenberg of an early time, so its influences are more from Wagner than the Schoenberg that seems to frighten so many people off. But at the time, it was really only known in its incarnation as a string orchestra piece. It had been turned into a very popular ballet, but had never been recorded in its original sextet form. My parents worked for Capitol Records, and Capitol wondered if they could get Schoenberg to write the liner notes for the disc, and Schoenberg said he would only do it if he could hear the quartet plus two, in this case, play the work. So, the six of them headed out to the Valley one summer, and it was well over 100 degrees. Schoenberg greeted them at the house wearing a long black overcoat – there was no air conditioning. He closed all the doors and the windows and my parents sat down to try to play the work for him. After two bars, Schoenberg said, “No, I’d like more 2nd viola here.” They started again. Schoenberg said, “No, here it’s a little bit too loud.” And finally my father said, “Maestro, could you let us just play the work for you complete, and then we’re happy to begin to work, but we’d like you to hear the whole thing.” So Schoenberg sat down. The works takes not quite half an hour. They played it through. According to my mother there were pools of perspiration on the floor. They finished, Schoenberg got up and started to leave the room. My father said, “No, no, no, now we’re ready. We really want to work now.” And Schoenberg said, “You know, you were right. You had to play it through because I can’t imagine the work being played more beautifully than that. You’ll have your liner notes in the morning.” And the following morning, the liner notes appeared under the door. I’d love to be able to tell you that the liner notes are as good as the piece. Sadly, that’s not the case. Schoenberg was a far better composer than he was an author. But now you have a chance to hear the result of that collaboration.
KaplanAn excerpt from Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Performed here in the original version for string sextet by an expanded Hollywood String Quartet, two members of which are the parents of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Maestro Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. Now, when you describe this performance and the preparation for Schoenberg and the environment in Los Angeles, it doesn’t sound like the picture most people have of that city, which would, after all, not be regarded in general as the culmination of civilization, shall we say, when it comes to music.
Slatkin: But if you look at Hollywood and Los Angeles in the 30s, 40s and into the 50s, the parallel is what Paris must have been like in the 20s. Yes, it became known certainly for one specific kind of art form. But here you had Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, living there, working there. You had all the film composers, the Korngolds, the Mac Steiners, Dmitri Tiomkin, Rojas. They were all there. You had the popular music industry, which was there. You had writers like Thomas Mann there.
KaplanNow at the risk of turning this into a family show, I can’t resist commenting that your next work continues this idea, because it’s not only Hollywood with Korngold as the composer, but a cellist who seems to have a very similar name to yours.
Slatkin: Yes. This is an interesting story, again, because one of the passions – what really drove me to music was not just that my parents were involved in it, but that I got to meet all these wonderful creators and recreators. They were very special. And among them was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold was one of the staff composers from Warner Brothers. My mother was the 1st cellist at the studio. His last film, made in 1947, was called “Deception” with Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains. And it’s actually a very good representation of musical life. Kind of a corny story, but pretty well done. The film ends with the presentation of a cello concerto, which Korngold wrote, and which was perhaps conceived for another wonderful émigré to Los Angeles, Gregor Piatigorsky, the cellist. But they couldn’t come to terms in terms of a fee, and Piatigorsky declined to do it. So it fell to my mother to play all the demanding solo work in this film, including the new cello concerto created for the film by Korngold. Well, the film came out. Korngold then took the music from the film, made a 12-minute cello concerto out of it, which my mother then premiered. Many, many years later I had this idea that I could continue the family tradition because I have a brother – his name is Frederick Zlotkin – he spells his last name differently – he feels the family name actually was closer to that than “Slatkin” – possibly true. As it turned out, my mother was pregnant with my brother at the time the film was being made, so there was that connection. And with the BBC Symphony, we put together a documentary about Korngold and our family, and my brother came over to record this, playing the work on the very same cello that my mother did for the film and the premiere of the concerto.
Kaplan: An excerpt from Korngold’s Cello Concerto performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” Leonard Slatkin. A remarkable and, I suppose one would have to say, a family recording. Let’s see if I can get all of this straight: the soloist is Leonard Slatkin’s brother, Fred Zlotkin, playing the cello of their mother, Eleanor Aller-Slatkin, who performed the world premiere of this work in 1946, while pregnant with Fred. When we return, we’ll talk with Leonard Slatkinabout the often-quirky relationship between the conductor and the orchestra.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music,”
the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin. Well, let’s turn away from music for a moment and come to the profession of conducting with all its challenges and all its drama.
Slatkin: I hope you’re not implying that the profession of conducting is not musical.
Kaplan: Oh, it’s very musical, but it has its own separate world of dramas and crises, and everything else. One of the things that is often said about you by the critics – and you have your share of brilliant reviews and bad reviews, I suppose like every conductor – but what seems to be a constant is your reputation for making orchestras better, better than when you arrive. What does that mean?
Slatkin: I think other people see it differently than I do, of course. And it’s important. I was taught this early on – to really know your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve actually gone so far as to write them down for myself, to remind myself of the things I do well, and the things I don’t do very well. Not just repertoire, but just as a person. And it’s true, I think. One thing that serves as a strength is, I’m able to analyze where the strengths of an orchestra are, and shore up many of its weaknesses, or as many as possible. Sometimes you do it through the addition of new personnel, but sometimes it’s taking what already exists and making them play to the highest potential they can.
It has to do with that individual personality. And I’m worried, frankly, that we’re losing a lot of it in the world. Not just in this country, but that the internationalization of the players who come into the orchestra – and here is where I would go against some of my colleagues – the lack of sonic vision of some conductors who are more concerned about the technical clarity, and sometimes the dramatic effect and forget entirely about the overall sonority that the orchestra is producing, something to make it unique.
Kaplan: That’s quite interesting. Now, let’s talk about the relationship, though, between the conductor and the orchestra. One of the trickiest ones, I imagine, in music. I’ve had other conductors appear on “Mad About Music” who talked about this and you might find some of their comments interesting. Lorin Maazel, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, talked about a problem of vanity and arrogance in the way certain conductors conduct themselves, personally. Valery Gergiev talked about that orchestras should never get the feeling that the conductor hates the music he’s conducting, which is a rather strange idea. So, in your experiences, either personal or just as an observer, what are the kinds of things that conductors do that cause trouble?
Slatkin: Conductors can talk too much. Conductors might not talk enough. Conductors can come into a situation without fully evaluating the psychology of the group and ensemble they’re conducting. Every orchestra’s different. I think the biggest sin that I see are conductors who come to a rehearsal all prepared to tell the orchestra exactly what they want, even if the orchestra has already played it in the manner that they want. They will stop and say, “I would like this such-and-such.” And every player is going, “But that’s what we did.” So, I have a lot of problem with that aspect of it. Conductors need to listen. My teacher, whose name was Jean Morel – he really had an interesting way of saying it. He said, “You must conduct from what you receive,” which means keep an open mind, let the orchestra play, analyze while it’s going on, what they’ve done. And then if you need to make corrections, you make them.” And again, Morel used to say, “Keep in mind that sometimes when you do that, the orchestra may have a better idea than you do, and be prepared to make a change if it’s that way.” There are things like a collective tempo that an orchestra might settle in to feel really good. And it might be difficult if you take a tempo that’s either too fast or too slow for that particular ensemble. You can’t go into every place and do the same piece the same way. You have to be flexible.
KaplanNow, as to what works, let’s return to music. And I see that you have Hindemith on your list of music you’d like to play. Not a very popular composer. Not one I associate you with doing too much in, but yet he shows up today.
Slatkin: It’s not that I haven’t wanted to do a lot of Hindemith. I love this composer, and I think every musician probably has one creator that is not so popular with the public. And orchestrally, he wrote so much fantastic music. The Mathis der Maler Symphony. It used to be played all the time. Now we don’t see it on programs much at all. His Symphony in E Flat, the Symphonia Serena, the Symphonic Metamorphosis, these are all works of a genius, and somebody who, in three bars, is identifiable as a composer. For me, the hallmark of a composer, whether you like that composer or not – the fact that you can identify who it is immediately. That’s why Bernstein leaps to mind as a composer to me in that category – even for people who don’t like him. And you may think there’s another composer who said his time will come. I think Mr. Hindemith’s time is coming.
KaplanWell, tell us about the piece you’ve selected for today.
Slatkin: This is the Concert Music for Strings and Brass, a work written for the Boston Symphony on its occasion of its 50th anniversary. Why we chose to leave the woodwinds out, I’m not sure. But it’s a jazzy piece where it needs to be; it’s refined and elegant where it needs to be; and it’s certainly virtuoso. And it was given a blistering performance in a recording made by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic.
KaplanThe concluding moments of Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Brass and Strings, the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein on the podium, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin. Well, I think that recording provides a nice transition into the next topic I’d like to discuss with you, which is contemporary music. Now, you have more than most conductors, and certainly long before it became fashionable, you were commissioning new works, especially championing American composers. You must have commissioned more than 100 pieces, I would think.
KaplanAll right then, which of all these composers will endure? Do we have a future Mozart in this group?
Slatkin: The crystal ball is always interesting for this, but it’s a pretty safe bet, particularly with composers from the United States, that the names Adams, Corigliano, Bolcom, Rouse, Reich, Glass – the list goes one. I think right now, we have this generation which mostly is about my age, in their 60s, going on 70 now, who produced a great body of work, and which is accepted by the audience today. You don’t see nearly as much antagonism as you did, say, 25-30 years ago to these particular composers, and one reason is that they chose to move away from a style of writing that was prevalent right up till the early 70s. And the sort of academic type of writing that you saw from many composers was now changed by a new-found interest in composers themselves wanting the audience to be able to appreciate and enjoy their music on a first hearing. What happens to those people who are coming to concerts for the first time? We can’t expect them to be immersed into the world of Babbitt and Carter immediately. It’s not going to happen. And we don’t know what the long-term result will be of that school of writing. After 100 years of it, it still has not been embraced by the general public. That’s a long time. So, all the composers I mentioned, I believe, have instant communicative spirit to an audience. They may not like all the music, but they don’t rebel against it in the way they used to.
KaplanNow, on your list of those who might endure, I notice you did have the name William Bolcom, a composer you’ve been very close to; and you turned out one remarkable recording at least I know of that, and I’m glad to see you have it on your list because that’s a wonderful story, and I hope you’ll tell it in full.
Slatkin: Well, Bill Bolcom I knew first as a student in Aspen in the 1960s. And the talent was already there. He was composing a number of wonderful pieces early on. For about 20 years, he was obsessed with the works of William Blake, and set out to literally put all of the Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience into one gigantic work, which he completed in the 80s, and which was premiered at the University of Michigan. It’s extravagant in every way. There’s a huge chorus, children’s chorus, rock group, ten soloists, madrigal singers, a jazz group – it’s got everything in it. It ends with a giant reggae number. The styles go from 12-tone to madrigal to country & western – it literally is a summation of musical styles. And they all fit the Blake text wonderfully well. In St. Louis one year, I felt we needed to do it and bring it to New York. It had not been played in New York yet. It hadn’t been played much of anywhere. It’s too big. I think we did it in ’84, I want to say, maybe a little later but not by much. And it was an amazing success, a reaction the like of which I’ve never experienced for a piece of new music that was that substantial. And then I spent at least 10, 12 years trying to get it recorded, but the escalating costs of recording meant that to do it professionally would bring us close to $2 million to make a recording of this. And ultimately, we decided, “Let’s go back to the original.” And so, we did it at the University of Michigan. There are 600 participants on the recording, which is taken primarily from the performance. And one nice aspect is that there were two performers on the recording that participated in the St. Louis performance. One of them was Bill’s wife, the wonderful Joan Morris; and the other is my wife, Linda Hohenfeld. So, this made it a very nice homecoming. And then you had new people coming into the work for the first time. The whole project just involved – in the total community. The chorus, for instance, comes from all of Ann Arbor. A mixture of all local amateur choruses. The kids came from all over, and this whole thing is done for a cost of $90,000.
KaplanWell, it’s wonderful that a university would want to take this on, but you left out one of the other “nice” things, as you call it, about the recording, is that in spite of the so-called “amateur status” of so many of the performers being college kids, this won the Record of the Year, didn’t it?
Slatkin: Well, not only that, it picked up four Grammys. It was the first time a classical album had done that, and we liked to say that in that particular year, we won one more than Mariah Carey, but one less than U2.
Kaplan: All right. Well, let’s listen to a sample of this wonderful recording.
Kaplan: The conclusion of William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, music composed to settings by William Blake. Performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the University of Michigan with no fewer than 13 soloists – all under the baton of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, Leonard Slatkin. And I should add, one of the most award-winning classical recordings in the history of the Grammy Awards. And now I’d like to talk a little bit about Washington, DC, and music. You know, Jim Wolfensohn was for a long time Chairman of Kennedy Center, and he was a guest on “Mad About Music” once, and we discussed something he had said, that when people go to Vienna, they go to the Vienna Philharmonic. When they go to London, it’s the Royal Opera House. But when they go to Washington, he said they go to dinner. So, the first question for you is, what kind of an audience do you get in Washington? Does the President show up, for example?
Slatkin: President Clinton came. Hillary Clinton came quite often. One night – I’ll never forget this – we were doing a program that had a world premiere of a very knotty, thorny piece and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, and I came off stage, and there to thank me for the wonderful evening and the performance were John Ashcroft and Trent Lott. They had been in the crowd for that. So, we don’t know from night to night who it’s going to be.
Kaplan: How about in the Senate? Any of them come?
Slatkin: Yes. Tom DeLay came quite often. Teddy Kennedy, of course, comes simply because he’s in the building named after his brother. And he loves music, he really does. A lot of these people are mad about music. They find it a solace from the rigors of what they have to do, running the world day after day.
Kaplan: Now the most famous musician in Washington government circles, of course, is the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Does she come to concerts?
Slatkin: She’s there all the time when there’s a pianist, and even sometimes when there’s not. And she comes back with her bodyguard detail, and she just loves talking about music. Again, for those few moments, she can get away from having to deal with solving issues of global importance and dealing with the wonderful world that we inhabit. In a way, I can understand why they would turn to us.
Kaplan: Well, now its time to turn away from classical music as we come to that part of our show called the “Wildcard,” where you have a chance to pick music from any genre you’d like. We’ve had some wonderful selections here, so what did you bring us today?
Slatkin: This one is always tricky, because of my background, having grown up basically with the Duke Ellington credo, when he was asked, “What kind of music is there out there?” He says, “There’s only two kinds – there’s good music and there’s the other stuff.” I tried to think that whatever the category is, if it’s good it’s good. I’ve had a love of jazz ever since I was very, very young, and particularly pianists. Among the guests at our house when I was growing up, Art Tatum came and played, great blind jazz pianist. His legacy was carried on very comfortably by Oscar Peterson. And I think today there is someone who carries on that tradition as well. He’s from the Dominican Republic. His name is Michel Camilo. He lives in New York; he’s written for films; he’s written for television. But mostly he writes for himself as a jazz pianist. He made one album with a big band, however, drawing on every great Latino jazz player in the New York area. And I remember driving once, before I knew who he was, and this recording came on and I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was just so blown away by it. Ultimately, I would meet Michel at the Blue Note in New York; and I simply fell in love with Michel and his playing. So, I selected a song called “Why Not?”
Kaplan: “Why Not,” composed and performed by Michel Camilo, the “Wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, who believes that Camilo is our best hope for carrying on the great jazz piano tradition as exemplified by Art Tatum and extended by Oscar Peterson. When we return, we’ll talk about what fresh challenges await Leonard Slatkin.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music,” the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin. So far we’ve talked about your music, the challenges of the conducting profession – now let’s talk about you. I think it’s fair to say that you are at the peak of your career and when someone asked the conductor Sir Georg Solti at such a similar juncture what was left for him to do, he replied, “I just try to get a bit better every day.” So, what do you think about in this context?
Slatkin: When I was younger, not only did I want to, but I did conduct everything. It didn’t matter what it was. Just for the experience and because I have this intense curiosity about all music. I still do. But if I had to characterize one thing that’s really different, is that I’m much more focused now on those pieces that constitute the classic repertoire in terms of how I study and how I convey my ideas to the orchestra. It’s pretty easy just to get up there and conduct and be surfacey. It’s not so easy to really feel that as you’re working, you’re gaining some insight into the workings of the composer as they might have been thinking while they were writing the piece. I’m not that egotistical to say I’m doing that. But I know my study habits have now changed dramatically, and that in turn has changed my relationship with the orchestras I work with. I think if you were to ask members of an orchestra that had seen me over the course of 30, almost 40 years now, they would say that’s a big difference, too. I still remain relatively kind in my workings with the orchestras, but much more focused and detailed now. And this was something that I don’t think I did very well 20 years ago.
Kaplan: Would it be fair to simplify what you’re saying, is that you are going deeper into the music now?
Slatkin: I think it’s fair. I think I feel that, and I’d like to believe that other people are now feeling that as well. And it’s harder. A few weeks ago I was in Vienna doing the Second Brahms Symphony – I mean, for Pete’s sake, it’s taking Brahms to the people who invented him. And yet, somehow, if I had done it 20 years ago, I would have felt distinctly uncomfortable in the sense that I didn’t feel I was probing the music. Yes, there’s still a long way to go. But now I think I’m able to really get something deeper in the meaning of the music. It’s coming to me that way, anyhow.
Kaplan: Now listening to you speak, I can sort out something I heard that Herbert von Karajan once said to Simon Rattle, your colleague in the Berlin Philharmonic. He said, “You throw away the first hundred performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” Does that make sense to you?
Slatkin: Absolutely. So far, I can throw away every one of mine.
Kaplan: Now, as you’ve tried to narrow your focus, it sounds like, a bit, there are obviously composers you feel completely in sync with, and some you don’t. Let’s start with the ones you do. And I’ll put this in a sort of silly way, but it’s a good way of addressing the question. If tomorrow, you were asked to audition – hardly something that would happen to you anymore – but you were asked to audition for a job as a conductor, and you had to absolutely dazzle them, who would be the composer, or composers, and what might be the works?
Slatkin: Chances are I would start with something of one of the American composers I have championed as a contemporary. Or maybe not. It could be Samuel Barber’s First Symphony to start with. It could be a short Corigliano piece, John Adams piece. Something like that. Or Copland.
Kaplan: All right. Then let’s come to the composers you’d just as soon forget about for this sort of situation.
Slatkin: Okay. For this situation, you’d never want to hear me conducting Baroque music because I have no clue anymore. When I grew up it was simple. You just played it and you enjoyed it, and now there are so many rules that perhaps I’m a little too old to embrace all of them. Another composer that I probably wouldn’t be doing very often would be Bruckner. Not that I don’t admire it, it just doesn’t speak to me. And another area where, although I do it, and the ones I do I enjoy doing, but not many of them, are operas. Opera is something that never quite caught on with me. You have to have a calling, and the phone didn’t ring.
Kaplan: But if the phone had rung, is it something you would like to have done more of?
Slatkin: No. And the reason is because of how I grew up. When I sat on the steps and listened to my parents’ quartet, and you hear the great late Beethoven quartets, the Schubert C-major Quintet, the sextets of Brahms, the six quartets of Bartok – I think early on I realized that no other music, including the symphonic repertoire, reaches that level of emotional and intellectual intensity. As much as I love conducting the nine Beethoven symphonies, it frustrates me that I really will never have a piece similar to, say, the Opus 132. Sure, I could do it in a string orchestra version, but it’s not the same thing. And so, to that end, an awful lot of operatic repertoire musically pales to me because of my upbringing. Who do I love in opera? I enjoy doing Puccini. I like doing late Verdi. I like Strauss. I like Benjamin Brittain. Mozart. But past that, not so much.
Kaplan: Well, there is one you must love, because I see on your list a different composer, and an opera.
Slatkin: Yes. And actually, it’s the first opera by an American composer to achieve some degree of international recognition. It’s Vanessa of Samuel Barber. It’s a work I’ve always loved, because Barber combines that rare ability to create a chamber music-like atmosphere in the big theater. It’s a work that was written in the 1950s, and surprisingly, did not get a recording since its premiere until now. For a work that most Americans know about. So, rather, it’s a piece that we know about, rather than we really hear. And I was very fortunate to have the chance to do it with an outstanding cast. We had just a terrific group of singers to do this, and it was a lot of fun. Would I do it as a stage work? Probably not. But for a recording, yes.
Kaplan: The aria, “Must Winter Come So Soon,” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, sung by Susan Graham with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, led by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, Leonard Slatkin. And as we leave opera, we come to the one area we haven’t talked about – it’s usually a subject, by the way, I bring up in terms of my guests’ fantasies – whether they ever dreamt of being a composer. But in fact, you are a closet composer.
Slatkin: Yes. It’s the part of my life that I try not to advertise too much, but every so often an occasion comes up where I think, I’d like to write something for that. When the great actor, Vincent Price – when I learned he was actually a St. Louisan, I just sat down and wrote a 25-minute work based on Poe’s The Raven that he narrated. And then, when we re-dedicated the concert hall in Washington, I wrote a piece called Housewarming. A couple years ago, I started a project in Washington based on a number of letters and comments I got, asking why don’t we play encores at home as an orchestra? After all, we do it on tour. Why not for our own audiences? And I thought it was a very valid question. It used to be common to do that. Now, we hardly hear it at all.
I realized that I wanted to do it, but I wanted to do it in a different way. So, for three seasons, we actually commissioned composers to write encores. So, there were five composers a year – some established, like Roberto Sierra, and some students of composers like Corigliano and Schwantner and Bolcom. And we got to the end, and I didn’t know who I wanted to ask to write it, and I thought, “I can do this. Let me give it a shot.” So, our concluding work on that particular season was Petrushka, Stravinsky, which has this famous juxtaposition of two chords, one in c-major, one in f-sharp major. They’re the two farthest chords on the keyboard. If you sit down at home and try it, you’ll know. And I thought I’d like to try writing a little encore based on this chordal relationship, but set it in a quasi-minimalist way. So it’s kind of like John Adams meets Stravinsky, which he does many times anyhow. The piece is called Fin, which in French means “The End,” but I also gave it the title because I wrote it while on vacation in Florida watching dolphins in front of our house. And in the work, you actually hear references to the Stravinsky, but they’re not direct. And one reason they’re not direct – there’s no quotation here – is because my wife hates pieces that quote other pieces. And I vowed I somehow would be able to connect this piece to Petrushka without quoting anything from Petrushka.
Kaplan: Fin, as in the French word for “End,” a composition by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, Leonard Slatkin, who composed this as an encore for the National Symphony Orchestra for which he serves as music director. Now playing a work called “End” is a perfect way to end our show, but just before, I’d like to ask you one final question. Because, you know, earlier you mentioned that you are tending to narrow your focus a bit when it comes to music, to try to go deeper into it. But I notice that as a conductor, you seem to be widening a bit. If one looks just at the New York scene, for example, I believe you are due to show up here both conducting your own orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Tell us about that.
Slatkin: With my own orchestra, I’ll be making my final appearances as music director in front of the audiences here next season in music by Mussorgsky and Liszt. And a contemporary work by a young composer named Mason Bates, who essentially we’ll be introducing his music to the New York audience, something I love to do. At the Metropolitan, I will be doing John Corigliano’s Ghost of Versailles, which is, I think, one of the wonderful theater pieces. We have an incredible cast, which I can’t tell you about, because I’m sworn to secrecy on that. And with the Philharmonic, actually, we’re going to be introducing a new piano concerto that Lang Lang will play, by his compatriot, Tan Dun. So, this for me is important, to come to New York with a variety of repertoire, bringing interesting new things for the audience, and continuing to connect with the ensembles that I’ve had the chance and fortune to conduct over many, many years.
Kaplan: As always, these will be much-anticipated visits. Leonard Slatkin, you’ve been a fascinating guest. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”