Leonard Slatkin: Not Afraid of Anyone

Frank J. Oteri: When Patricia O’Kelly gave me a tour of the Kennedy Center earlier, I was struck by seeing the president’s box in each of the halls here. The president of the United States could just show up to any concert you do.

Leonard Slatkin: That’s a nice thought.

FJO: Well, this one hasn’t, but most of them don’t?

LS: Bill Clinton came.

FJO: How does it affect your performance to know that the president could be there?

LS: Oh, it doesn’t. I’ve got my back to him, anyway. Not many people can do that! I’ve never been intimidated by anyone who was in the audience, except for when my mother was there—that was always frightening. Most don’t show up so often, but if I learn that someone’s going to be in the hall, it kinda gets me energized. Maybe I’ll go overboard a little bit. But, most of the time, no. Once I start, I’m completely immersed in the music I’m doing. I’m not aware of anyone who’s there. Also, in this particular hall, when we redid the concert hall, we had seats that were put in behind the orchestra and up, and people said, “Isn’t that going to bother you?” Now, a lot of European halls are like that, and more and more American halls are. I guarantee you, once you start, you’re completely unaware of people who are around you. You don’t think about it. It’s you, the music, and the orchestra—that’s it.

FJO: So this is funny place to ask you about audiences?

LS: Not really. Because you still feel the audience. Our hall is a big hall, 2,200 or so, but it now has an intimacy to it—the sound, something about it, at least on stage—so we feel the presence of the audience. You have to be connected to them. You can’t just isolate yourself. And you’re aware of them from the point you walk on. We just finished this concert which was a free concert. There were probably about 900 people, maybe 1,000 walked in. You could hear what happened as the program went on. The audience got really energized by the fact that it was these kids up there with the pros. And when I asked the kids to stand up on their own, the cheer was wonderful. And this wasn’t just parents and relatives. As the concert went on, you could feel on stage the energy of the audience growing. And, as a result, you could feel the orchestra’s performance rise from one piece to the next. And that happens time and time again. You know when the audience is there. You don’t think about who is in the audience, but you know that they’re there.

FJO: You do a lot of guest conducting in Europe. The culture there is very different?

LS: It’s different in Europe, but gradually Europe is turning more into America. They’re experiencing the same problems in schools in terms of teaching the arts and music. They’re experiencing definitely older audiences. They’re struggling as well. But, at the moment, I would say there is still more active teaching of music and arts and more reverence for what is their own culture—you alluded to this earlier when you said that people today wouldn’t know so much about a Copland the way a European audience would know about, say, Brahms, or a Russian would about Shostakovich—and that’s true. So, when you go to Europe and you’re conducting mostly a mainstream orchestra, they ask for something not adventurous. They want to go with what they know. It makes it a little difficult on people like me who are trying to sell American music, but right now American music is kind of popular. So I can usually get in one piece on a program by a variety of composers. There hasn’t been too much resistance. It’s hard to get a major piece on, a big work. So if I want to do Harmonielehre of Adams, usually a radio orchestra can take it because that’s state subsidized, but a private one can’t. Or, if I wanted to do the Corigliano First, it’s a tough sell for a mainstream audience. But, there are occasions where you can get it accomplished.

FJO: So, from your experience, who would you say are the American composers who are known over there?

LS: The composers who are hot in Europe: Adams, Corigliano, Chris Rouse, Michael Torke, and a few others. Composers of the past: Copland, Gershwin, Ives, Bernstein. Not so much Barber, and certainly most of the composers from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s go unheard.

FJO: No one’s doing William Schuman, Walter Piston, or Roy Harris?

LS: No. But we don’t do them so much here either. Until we start prizing our own culture, it’s going to be difficult for others to accept it. But, that being said, the English don’t have such a different situation, do they? When you go to England, that’s about the only place you’re going to hear Michael Tippett. And aside from a couple of pieces by Britten, that’s their territory. You hear very little Walton outside of the U.K., and so forth. So there does tend to be an isolation by country of some of the composers. That’s quite sad, but the reason for it is quite simple. It takes conductors from those countries to promote their own music. Some [of the composers] I’ve mentioned as being more international, it’s because the conductors doing their music are not just from America.

FJO: To bring it back home, having a National Symphony is very different from, say, a Philadelphia Orchestra or a Chicago Symphony, or even a New York Philharmonic. They all pride themselves on being international orchestras, but there’s always a local component that helps to shape their identity. Of course, there’s a local component here as well—I just witnessed it this afternoon—but by giving it the name “National Symphony”, you assume a national identity; you imply something quite different than you would if you called the orchestra the Washington, D.C. Symphony…

LS: Well, first of all, that sounds horrible. The opera company now calls itself the Washington National Opera, which is a nice title. National implies something, of course, and I’m probably the first [NSO conductor] who is really a “native” American. Howard Mitchell was here, too, but not as active in the promotion of music from here. But now I guess it’s expected that we would do that, pretty much like the BBC would play British music and the Vienna Philharmonic would play Austrian. But we have to satisfy the core audience that’s here first. You can’t worry about the rest of the country until you take care of matters here.

Why we’re different than any other organization in the United States is that we’re run, not by one, but by two organizations. The National Symphony has its own board of directors, but we’re also governed by the Kennedy Center—separate boards, separate people with separate but almost equal powers over the activities of the National Symphony. And that is a very delicate and difficult balancing act. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of the orchestra rely to some degree on the fortunes of the Kennedy Center. If the Kennedy Center has a good year, we have a good year. If they don’t, we suffer in our budget. So those are matters that maybe don’t reflect quite the lofty world of the arts, they reflect the simple world of money. Is there enough money to promote what’s going on in this building with its seven stages, its outdoor events, its free concerts every night? There’s so much going on here. We have to hope that each year the Kennedy Center does well so that we can do well.

FJO: Now you say core audience, but this is a city that is always in transition.

LS: No, no, no, I don’t think so. People think that. What’s the transition? Politics? Sure. Diplomatically? Yes. But like any major city, what do we have? Lawyers, doctors, universities. Now, I think if you really look at it and look at the contributors, for the most part you’ll see they make up people who are longtime residents and people who live and work in either Washington, across the river in Virginia, or down the street in Maryland. It is not as transient a population as most people think. When I came here, I know I was surprised to learn that. When I first arrived, I was also surprised at the incredible breadth of music that goes on in this area. I can’t even name how many choruses there are here. Every museum has a music series. Every school has something going on. It’s hard to go and pick up the paper on Sunday without just being overwhelmed at the number of musical events that are taking place. So in some ways, musically, Washington is one of this country’s best-kept secrets.

FJO: And the politicians don’t really come to concerts?

LS: Even if they do, it doesn’t have the impact because they are simply members of the audience. People can gasp, “Look who’s here!”, but then the music starts and those people disappear. If a Condoleezza Rice comes, and she comes quite often, yeah, people will look—oh!—but then the focus is to what’s on stage. And that’s the way it should be.

FJO: In terms of, say, a Condoleezza Rice coming down. That potentially is good on another level because, since she’s a public figure and people are following her, maybe it gets more exposure for classical music. There was a segment I saw of her playing Brahms on the piano.

LS: Right, with Yo-Yo Ma.

FJO: So, hurray! Classical music makes it onto television.

LS: Why not? It’s fine. Any exposure to what we do through anybody is just fine. In January, our celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday is being done with a mostly staged production of the Abduction from the Seraglio. It will be quite provocative and a lot of fun because we’ve asked Sam Donaldson to do the speaking role, and we’re rewriting the text to suit Sam’s particular interests. So, what does that do? It probably brings some people into the hall who would not normally have come. Sam Donaldson! I have to go to that. What’s he going to do? It’ll be interesting, and I think we’ll attract an audience. Why not?

FJO: Now because you’re the National Symphony, because you’re in this Center, you have to be neutral. In terms of the politics, are there things that you’re not going to do?

LS: You know, we’re really not bound by politics here. When I do the Corigliano First Symphony I’ve never have a problem here. But I’ve had a problem with other orchestras where some people, when it was first written, objected to playing a piece that celebrated people who have died of AIDS. I didn’t understand it, but there were some objections on religious grounds. Sorry. It’s a great piece of music; I’m going to play it. So if I’m Jewish and I’m doing the Verdi Requiem, should I not do it? Is that another issue here? No. The piece of music itself has to be strong enough and, if that’s the case, the content, either political or whatever, it doesn’t matter so much.

So you don’t have to be neutral, but there have been occasions when I’ll propose an idea that I think is absolutely sensational, then they’ll all go, “You’re nuts. You can’t do this.” For instance, this season in September we had a gala celebrating our 75th anniversary. In putting together the program, we had Itzhak, Yo-Yo, and Manny Ax playing the Beethoven “Triple,” had some orchestral pieces, commissioned something. I was looking for one Washington edgy moment. I wanted something, and I thought, “Hmm. I’ve always wanted to do Lincoln Portrait with two people narrating it—one person to do the Lincoln words, the other to do the Copland words. You [don’t think about the fact] that Copland wrote words, but of course he did. “He was born in Kentucky, raised in Illinois,” so forth and so on. Those are Copland’s words.

And then I thought, okay, what’s the edgy part of this? I know, [have it] narrated by Al Franken and G. Gordon Liddy. This is great! And I know they get along because Liddy appeared on Al Franken’s Lateline, the television show that was gone in one season. Franken can be on the left side and Liddy can be on the right side. I thought the idea of the two of them walking on the stage would be provocative but fun. Other people said, “You can’t do that!” I said, “Why not?” “Well, first of all the event is being hosted by Colin and Alma Powell.” I said, “Yeah.” “Oh, and I’m not too sure that the Kennedy family would be too pleased to see Gordon Liddy up there.” I said, “Well, maybe we should ask.” And they said, “Just don’t go there with that.” What we wound up doing was actually to have Colin Powell and his wife do it. Which was really lovely and very sweet. But I kinda missed the opportunity to do that. It’s not censorship, and I understand where they’re coming from on it, but one day I’m going to do it.

FJO: Now, the diversity question: You’re devoting an entire evening—and you’re doing it three times, three entire evenings—to this massive work by Puerto Rican-American composer Roberto Sierra, whose music you’ve championed here and abroad. When I looked through the entire 2005-06 season, this was the project that stuck out. What a huge commitment of resources for a composer whom we both know is a fantastic composer but whom the general public and even the general classical music public is perhaps still not aware of. The fact that it’s somebody from the Latino community is also really exciting and unique. I thought it might be interesting to talk about that in terms of the demographics of this particular city, of pretty much every major urban area in America today.

LS: This is the third work of Roberto’s that I have commissioned. First was one of the fanfares from eight years ago. Then he wrote a piece four years ago for us called Fandangos, which has been played quite often now by many orchestras. I’m very pleased about that. In this very room, Roberto came up and we were talking. I said, “Do you write for voice much?” He said, “Yeah, I’ve done some vocal writing.” I said, “What about chorus?” “Nah, not so much.” I said, “I have this idea to create a work for chorus and soloists, either a mass or requiem, but using your background as a Puerto Rican living in the United States. A literal Latin mass, Latin-American mass.” And he got very excited by it. I think it’s about 77 minutes. I’ve seen the piano reduction: terrific. I know Roberto’s orchestration will be fabulous; I’m not really worried about it. It’s moved in a slightly different direction than he first outlined. Originally he was going to actually have a Latin instrumental group, but he thought that became too gimmicky and moved too much away from the traditions of the mass. So now the Latin elements are contained within the course of the work itself. It’s very serious and quite moving.

I think it will be a big hit. Do I think the house will be full on any night? No, but we play 21 subscription concerts and you can’t plan that every one is going to be sold out. That would be foolish, because if you did that you’d be playing the same pieces every year and after a certain time people get bored. You have to energize the repertoire. There’s not so many works for full-scale chorus and orchestra that are being written these days, and I thought this is a chance to make an inroad in an area that needs help. The last big choral work that I can think of that entered the repertoire is probably the War Requiem. Well, maybe Harmonium of Adams.

FJO: Well, El Niño is getting done in several places.

LS: Yeah. This is different though. This is the full evening.

FJO: El Niño is a full evening.

LS: Is it?

FJO: Oh yeah.

LS: Okay.

FJO: Two CDs, too. It’s big.

LS: But this is different. This is a piece that can actively enter the repertoire of the choruses. It’s a little different. It’s a work that can probably be played more in the community field as well. I don’t think you can do El Niño that way. I think it has to be produced and a little more exotic.

FJO: I’ve seen it done without the staging.

LS: Oh, really?

FJO: They do it as a concert version. I actually like it better that way.

LS: Possibly, that’s good. But this is purely intentionally a Mass.

FJO: Another one. Great. Even better.

LS: Another one, right. By the way, there also exists out there, a requiem of Chris Rouse, which has yet to be performed. It’s completely finished and it’s phenomenal. But it’s so hard! It’s the hardest choral work I’ve ever seen.

FJO: Really.

LS: It’s really difficult.

FJO: Harder than the Ligeti Requiem?

LS: Yeah, which is short.

FJO: Right.

LS: And the Rouse, again, is around 85 minutes. Really hard.

FJO: Wow!

LS: I’ll get around to it.

FJO: As a final area to get into, this question of what the orchestra can do, what the orchestra can’t do. You said early on that the classical audience is only three or four percent of the population. Maybe somebody who likes Coldplay is never going to be turned on to this.

LS: Not everybody. Some people like both. I do.

FJO: Now, are there places that the orchestra can’t go? What are the things that are sacred about an orchestra as we move into the future that shouldn’t change, that can’t change?

LS: This is going to be clearly a question of personal taste, but having talked a lot about new music and the role of the composer today and all of this, we are still bound by the conventions of the last 250 years or so. Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler can only be tampered with so much. But it comes down to growing and finding new ways to present the music without distorting it, without resorting to gimmicks to make the music work. Our bread and butter is still the tradition that has caused people to study for fifteen to twenty years before they get into an orchestra. And like a big, great museum, it has to have specialties, things that identify that orchestra as being unique. To me it has to do with two things: the sound of the orchestra and the repertoire it plays. But ultimately it must be able to provide a good solid basis in what already exists without resorting to anything that changes dramatically the way in which that music is presented. I do think that Palm Pilots with program notes, the big screens going up, date nights, all of these things that people are trying—it’s all passing stuff. Maybe it helps to get some people in, but ultimately it’s going to be how we play and what we play, how we balance it.

FJO: Electronics, amplification?

LS: All of that’s fine if the music calls for it. But, look at the virtual orchestras in the Broadway pits. When was the last time you saw a Broadway show where the singers actually come out and sing without this tiny, tiny little voice which is then amplified to sound like something huge? You don’t know where they are on the stage because it’s all coming from one central speaker. We have to be careful. We can’t bruise this art too much. We can bat it around a little bit, but not much. Ultimately it has to heal and it evolves, but it doesn’t really change. And a great work, a masterpiece, survives the abuse that gets heaped on it, and it transcends it. But at the same time, you relate to the young audience, the sophisticated audience, those you want to bring along, by providing excitement both in what you bring to the old works and which pieces you choose to perform and how you do it. You have to try to do it without commercializing what we do.

Yes, we’re in competition to some degree with every other form of entertainment, but our form is a little bit different because it literally resuscitates what has existed in the past for the audience of today with the idea that they will take it somewhere tomorrow. And we have to be very careful to remember that music is very precious, and that it was a struggle to create for most composers. They put out this body of work that has lasted for, in some cases, centuries. Hopefully, we go to composers—even if the techniques have changed, the nature of the instruments might have changed, all of these things have evolved—and maybe some of the people we pick will be heard 50 years from now, 100 years from now. We’d like to think that. But they will belong to the great traditions we also try to promote and encourage from the past. So it’s all a growth process. It’s all part of one large pot. If you try to isolate too many elements of it, we’re going to go away from why we’re in business in the first place.

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