Leonard Slatkin: Not Afraid of Anyone

Frank J. Oteri: There’s usually an American work on the program of each of the concerts you do with the National Symphony Orchestra—both at the Kennedy Center and on tour—as well as on programs you guest conduct with orchestras in this country and abroad.

Leonard Slatkin: I don’t really think quite so much about placing an American work into most of the programs; it just happens that way. It’s a repertoire that I know and love and that I’m closely associated with. In Washington, it makes great sense for the orchestra in the nation’s capital to be doing a fair share of music of this country and to feature artists of this country, as well. I would say that I have had a few instances where I’ve consciously placed an American work on the program. The first place is in commissioning. Although I’ve commissioned a couple of pieces from Asian and European composers, the vast majority are Americans. Simply because I think the United States is the creative hotbed and has been for the past 25-30 years. Even though the culture seems to be oriented more in a Austro-Germanic and sometimes Slavic and Francophile nature, when you really stop and think about it, the preponderance of composers who are really making names for themselves and expressing themselves individually in music tend to be Americans. Whether they follow the minimalist patterns of a John Adams or a Steve Reich, whether they’re colorists like a Joseph Schwantner, whether they’re eclectics like a William Bolcom, whether they are symphonists writing in large forms like a John Corigliano, or a person writing for film like John Williams…all these composers, and so many others, have found individual voices. That’s the key. The second place I think of is all the programs the National Symphony does to open its season must contain an American piece, hopefully the very first piece we play on the program after “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Then there is the matter of balancing elements during the course of the regular season because there are so many composers whom I love and adore, both from America today and its past. I tend to program a work of this century and the last 50 to 60 years of the previous century from a composer from this country rather than a European one, and that does tend to be a conscious decision just because so many Americans have been neglected or forgotten, like William Schuman or Walter Piston, David Diamond, Roy Harris, or whoever it happens to be. Then you have the current generation of well-established composers, like the ones I talked about, and the younger composers: Derek Bermel, Jefferson Friedman, Mason Bates. These people are also producing an incredible body of literature. So I find that it’s helpful for me to be identified with the music of this country, and certainly this orchestra needs to be identified that way.

FJO: How do you find those composers, specifically the younger ones? Whom do you talk to?

LS: For three seasons here in Washington we had a project that was simply called the Encore Project. It was specifically devised with the idea that I would have a chance to hear the young voices in this country. I realized that I didn’t really know them. I’m a little bit isolated here in Washington, in a way. So I asked the composers who are now the teachers—the Coriglianos, the Stuckys, the Bolcoms, whomever it happened to be—and I said: “Show me the work of your students. Who would you recommend? If I wanted to commission a three- or four-minute piece just to get a flavor of what they are doing, who would I go to?” So the majority of our commissions went to the younger composers as recommended by their teachers, whom I trust implicitly. And not in any case was I let down. One of the joys of this project has already been that there have been a couple of composers who from their Encore pieces we then asked to write larger works because I was so impressed with their talent. So I find the young composers via the old composers.

FJO: You said something also about composers who have been neglected or forgotten. It was very moving to hear Shostakovich and Sibelius on your Youth Orchestra Day program today. Of course, these are composers who are known by practically everyone in their respective homelands. We’re very lucky to have so many voices and so many options in America, yet at the same time perhaps we’re missing something by not having a composer who is that universally recognized and revered. At some point it was Copland, but nowadays people are less aware of his music.

LS: We don’t teach our young people about the heritage of music in this country. We don’t teach music much in this country to the young people. As we’re talking, we’re nearing the end of what we call Education Week—I wish it had a better name, but that’s what we call it. It has consisted of Young People’s Concerts in which all the music was American. It had this collaborative effort between members of six youth orchestras and members of the National Symphony, which was more varied, just because it turned out that way. Although you could argue that Lucien Cailliet’s presence gave it an American touch. [Ed. Note: the concert opened with Cailliet's orchestration of Bach's "Little Fugue" in G minor.] Then, on Sunday, we also have a program which is all American in content and contains a premiere of a work by David Del Tredici, a significant, major piece—half-hour long—for young people! This is something quite exciting. This is really an amazing event to me. It’s not that we don’t revere the composers; we don’t teach it. And until we find a way to get the active teaching of music back into the classrooms on a regular basis as part of the curriculum, not before school or after school but part of it, we’re not going to be able to do that.

Let me tell you about an interesting thing that I experienced last year. I was in France, eating very well but also having the chance to conduct. I was asked if I would attend a session of a project that a grade school was doing. This was 10- or 11-year-olds, one class, about 65 kids. This is not a music school, and it wasn’t a music class, but they had spent the whole week with a composer and working all day on putting together a work that the composer had written for the children. No instruments. It was using vocal sounds, found objects. It was written out but had improvisatory elements in it. And it was about 15 minutes long. It required really quite an amazing sophistication on the part of the young people, yet very few of them had training in music. They simply made it a class project. Could you imagine that happening here? Could you imagine the result, if it did? It would be fantastic, because it takes young people at their most impressionable age and introduces them to this incredible world of sound and creativity and imagination.

There’s a comedian, a political commentator named Louis Black. He said something once that resonated with me, although I’m sure he didn’t intend it in quite the way I took it. He did a routine, which he does every year, where he takes apart the Super Bowl halftime show, in particular from the point when MTV started producing it. He basically said that many people associate a song or a piece of music with a wonderful event. It might be a life partner, or something in nature, who knows. Those works have special significance. So he said, “If you hear a song and its significance is only reflected by the music video which you saw, you should kill yourself!” Because it means that you’ve been brainwashed. Not that videos aren’t fine. But instead of letting the music take you to that special, unique place that only you can occupy, you’ve been taken someplace by someone else. You’re a part of somebody else’s vision. That’s the crux of one of the problems of today’s society. I’m not a social commentator, but I see a distinct problem coming unless we really find a way to trigger young people’s imaginations. And the best way to do it is through music and the arts.

On the concert series where we’ll be doing the Del Tredici piece, we’ve been utilizing a screen, which for young people is good because they can see all the players. But I asked that when David’s work comes up, because it’s a narrative work, that the screen disappear and that the young people and their families who will be with them at the concert be encouraged to simply use their imaginations. As we go through Rip [Van Winkle]‘s tale, they can imagine what nine pins played by giants might have looked like, what it’s like to sleep for twenty years. They don’t have to see the clarinetist’s fingers; they don’t have to see bows on strings. It’s about creating your own images. And that’s what makes the biggest difference in a young person’s life, using imagination. And that’s what they can bring to the workplace 15 years from now.

FJO: You had a remarkable childhood growing up in a musical family whose tastes were so varied. How do you make a viable connection between someone like David Del Tredici or Joseph Schwantner and a young kid growing up in D.C.?

LS: Young people are the easiest people to convince about new music. They don’t have the built-in prejudice that older audiences have. They’re not frightened by the names—they don’t know them. They don’t know Schubert or Haydn. Some know Mozart and maybe some know Brahms. To them—Del Tredici, Schwantner, Corigliano, Adams—it’s the same thing as Bach or Beethoven. They all fall in the same category. Plus, sometimes these composers resonate more with young people because they are alive. As opposed to generations of people who have traditionally come to concerts who seem to appreciate the composers who are dead. Although that’s changing, too. I don’t see the rebellion against new music that we saw 25 or 30 years ago. We see much more acceptance because composers themselves have moved into a varietous state of writing. We can now accept an Elliott Carter alongside a William Bolcom, alongside a Del Tredici or whomever it happens to be. The styles that are out there are astonishing, so it’s not as problematic as it was, and it’s easier to get young people into it.

At our concert where we’ll do David’s piece, following the second performance we’re inviting the audience to stay and have a discussion with David, myself, and the narrator, Brian Stokes Mitchell. So they can actually have a chance to speak with the man who created a piece of music. It’s a little like J.K. Rowling showing up and kids could talk to her about Harry Potter. They would love it. They would eat up this opportunity. Now, granted, that’s part of the popular culture, but we can make composers part of that by incorporating them in much the same way we do our popular writers. Now, that being said, ultimately what I do for a living appeals to maybe three-and-a-half to four percent of the population, when it comes down to it. I do not expect people who adore Willie Nelson to come to hear Bruckner. I don’t expect people who idolize Linkin Park or Coldplay to come to hear the Webern program at all. I think it needs to be available so that anybody can hear it. But as you grow, you define your musical tastes and refine them. So, even though it’s available to everybody, not everybody is going to fall into it. You have to cultivate the people who will.

One of the problems orchestras are facing seems to be that with declining numbers in audiences in many cities, rather that trying to target those who should be coming to concerts, they reach out to the broadest possible public and they don’t wind up with anybody. They segment it and they fragment it, rather than really focusing on the people who would make up a symphonic audience. Also, there’s looking at the future. What’s changed in our society? The make-up of the orchestras and the make-up of our population has moved away from a Eurocentric-dominated one towards a Latino and Asian culture. Twenty years from now, not the re-creative forces—not the soloists—but the creative ones—the composers—as they begin to make more of a mark—Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Roberto Sierra, and so forth, that’s where our audience is going to be building from. It will still continue to be dominated, perhaps, by the kind of people who’ve been coming to orchestras for a century or so, but this new audience is coming. Look at what’s going on in China. It’s probably the most active musical culture in the world right now. And you know that a lot of these people are going to wind up in the States or be here for a period of time. They will bring with them what they learned in their homeland. They’ll come to us. They’ll go to museums. The same can be said for Venezuela, which has an incredible musical culture right now. These are the places that will come to make up part of our future audience. I’m not as concerned as a lot of people. And these are the audiences we need to be targeting to understand where the new music is coming from as well. That’s the one thing they don’t get in their own countries, and that’s where we can be really helpful to what we do as a traditional group and also what we do for making available what’s there for the future.

FJO: Funny, to get back to something you said a few minutes ago, when you mentioned Willie Nelson and Bruckner. I immediately thought of Jimmy Carter, a big Willie Nelson fan but who also loves Wagner, a composer whose music is quite close to Bruckner’s. It’s never possible to fully gauge the range of people’s potential musical interests. It also made me think of the work you commissioned from Michael Kamen—someone I know from his work in the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble and with Pink Floyd and Metallica—which stirred up a bit of controversy.

LS: I grew up in a household which basically followed the dictum of Duke Ellington, which said there’s only two kinds of music: there’s music and there’s the other stuff. In our household, Stravinsky might be over. Next night, it might be Frank Sinatra. Schoenberg or Korngold might be there.

FJO: But never Stravinsky and Schoenberg together?

LS: No, never at the same time. But our household functioned that way. My parents operated as a string quartet; they were film studio musicians, freelancers in the recording market. We knew everybody. There was no feeling that any music was better or worse than any other, as long as it was done well both in the work itself and in performance. If you go back and listen to the orchestras that played in the films in the 1940s and ’50s, that’s fantastic playing. The product warranted it, and you can hear it.

I’ve always carried that through. In my earliest years in St. Louis, I put together a series in which there were unusual combinations with the orchestra. Indeed, the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble did play with us, and Ravi Shankar. We had Wendy Carlos when she was Walter! I continue that to this day. I don’t think about boundaries.

When we got to the millennium, I was looking for something that would be different, something unexpected. I’m sure people thought that the National Symphony would commission something from a John Corigliano or a John Adams. I didn’t want to go that way. So I turned to Michael. Michael Kamen was a friend from school. He was the leading English horn player at Juilliard when I was a student. We all assumed that’s what he would wind up doing. Who knew he would go on to write [music] for Lethal Weapon, Baron Muchhausen, Die Hard? So I talked to him about this and said, “Could you write me a piece for the millennium?” And he thought about it and said, “What kind of piece?” And I said, “I don’t know. Write what you want to write.” He thought about it, and he wanted to write a piece based on the Kokopelli legend, so I said, “Great. Go ahead. Do it.” So, the music showed up, and it reflected many things. It reflected his study of the culture and his knowledge of music and its structures. I didn’t think of it as a film work at all, although it could easily be dropped into a film score or a film could be created around the music as you could with any Beethoven symphony. It featured primarily a lengthy cello solo as protagonist as well as a violin and a flute. I thought it was a wonderful piece. I did it in several places.

But I can’t say I was surprised that there was one person in particular who was not favorably disposed toward it. But the venom that he put into writing about this piece was unacceptable, mostly because he got the facts wrong. I think anyone can have an opinion and you should, but when you venture into attacking someone and you get the facts wrong, then you’re fair game. So you don’t say that Michael Kamen was a Hollywood film composer. He’s not. He’s based in London. You don’t talk about his credentials without realizing that he was one of the leading musicians at Juilliard and that his studies with Vincent Persichetti and Jacob Druckman were of great importance to him, and down the line. Very rarely do I send anything back to the press. But this time I had to. I had to defend the composer. I had to defend my friend. But, most of all, I had to defend musical output. Anybody who writes something is to be commended. To create something out of nothing is the hardest thing in the world. Here was this evocative piece, very well received by the audiences, the ones here in Washington and the ones elsewhere, so I never had any problem with it. And I still wouldn’t have any problem with it. Two years from now I’m going to ask for commissions, again from people who are not mainstream concert hall composers, only because I simply think they’ll write a good piece; that’s all I’m looking for.

FJO: So has a piece ever come in that you’ve commissioned that you just don’t like?

LS: Sure. You can never know when you commission a work what it’s going to come out like. You can’t. But, having commissioned it, having put in your faith and confidence, maybe you can let the composer know that he let you down, but you still go through with it. And for the time you’re doing it, it’s the best piece in the world. You get out there and you sell it—you sell it to yourself, you sell it to the orchestra, and you sell it to the audience. There were a couple that I thought really weren’t successful, and I knew I would move on after I did them. But the same way when you engage soloists and they come out and it’s not really what you thought it would be, you simply go out there and get into the mind of that person and you do the absolute best you can. I don’t know how many pieces I’ve commissioned over the years—it’s got to be close to 200 now between all the Fanfares and Encores, the big pieces and the little pieces—and out of that I’m always surprised and pleased when I see other conductors taking up some of these works. That’s the biggest satisfaction, when it lives past its first performances with me and other people will do it. I’d say the track record is good. When you look at pieces or commissions done by Toscanini, Reiner, Bernstein, or Solti—I’m not comparing myself to them at all—look how many of their pieces never got played after the first performances.

FJO: O.K., so in the process of selling yourself on a piece that you didn’t initially feel so strongly about, have you ever come around to loving that music?

LS: Yes, some Philip Glass has been like that for me. He was a composer I really didn’t like at one time. I love the early Philip Glass. But then, the middle period when he wrote his Violin Concerto, I thought, this is awful. And I did the Violin Concerto two or three times, and as I got to do it, I really got into it, to the point where I then commissioned Phil to write a piece for me! I got so interested in the structure. Other composers have grown on me, as well. The reverse is also true. Sometimes when planning a season, I’ll go back and look at what pieces I can bring back. And I’ll see a piece that I might have been excited by when I premiered it and think maybe it was O.K. then, but now it doesn’t hold up so well.

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