Leonard Slatkin seems the right conductor at the right time to lead the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

By David Fleshler

When Leonard Slatkin became music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the winter of 2008, he soon made a change in the life of Haden McKay.

McKay, a cellist in the orchestra since 1983, had long enjoyed the cello section’s prominent position on the right outer edge of the orchestra. But Slatkin moved the cellos to the interior and gave their old spot to the violas. The result was a richer, warmer string tone, and while McKay doesn’t particularly enjoy the cramped conditions of his new location, he appreciates the reason.

And more than that, he appreciates the dynamism of a conductor seeking to help a fine orchestra return to the national position it held in the past, as well as one who involves himself in the larger Detroit community to attract more people to concerts.

“He seems like the right person for us at this point in our history,” McKay said. “He has the track record. Whatever the repertoire, he’s done it, and he’s really rolled up his sleeves in Detroit. He’s on radio stations, he’s going to schools, he’s all over the place.”

“This is a place that presents challenges,” said Slatkin. “It’s in Michigan, so it’s a tough time here, very tough. But you get the satisfaction of being in a place where you could build and grow, rather than where it’s just about maintenance.”

Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony will perform music of Barber, Berlioz and Rachmaninoff in West Palm Beach Feb. 10 and in Miami Feb. 14. And perhaps it could be said that like the orchestra, its conductor is also trying to recapture the triumphs of his early years.

Founded in 1914, the orchestra was considered one of the leading U.S. ensembles in the 1950s under the French conductor, Paul Paray and again from 1990 to 2005 under the Estonian Neeme Järvi. But it had been without a music director since then, working under visiting conductors as the board conducted an almost interminable search, a lack of strong leadership that takes a toll on a symphony orchestra.

Slatkin, 65, was one of the leading hopes of American classical music: a U.S. born and trained musician who could hold his own against the Europeans who had occupied most of the nation’s major podiums, and a man who could conduct a Tchaikovsky symphony one evening and talk baseball with board members the next.  As music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1996, he took a respected ensemble in a gritty midwestern city and transformed it into one of the nation’s leading orchestras, shaking loose the old American Big Five orchestral hierarchy of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York.

But he stumbled in his next two jobs—as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.,  the latter a 12-year tenure that was by most accounts, including his own, disappointing.

Now he has been given another chance, with another respected ensemble in a gritty, midwestern city. Although Slatkin had once been mentioned as a candidate to lead one of the very top American orchestras, he said he’s happy to take over in Detroit, where the orchestra has the potential to grow, rather than becoming leader of an ensemble that is, in some ways, already a finished product. That was the reward of his acclaimed work in St. Louis, years that brought awards, tours and record contracts.

“This is a place that presents challenges,” he said. “It’s in Michigan, so it’s a tough time here, very tough. But you get the satisfaction of being in a place where you could build and grow, rather than where it’s just about maintenance.”

Cellist Sol Gabetta perform Barbers Cello Concerto with the Detroit Symphony on its Florida tour.

Sol Gabetta will perform Barber's Cello Concerto with the Detroit Symphony on its Florida tour.

Since taking over, Slatkin has immersed himself in the affairs of the orchestra and the Detroit community. Whereas many conductors from Europe, where orchestras tend to be state-supported, interact grudgingly with the community, Slatkin has plunged in, taking the orchestra around town for free concerts, working with music students, and visiting schools, while working to establish the Detroit orchestra as a leading performer of classics and new music.

McKay, the cellist, said Slatkin frankly acknowledged that he hadn’t been happy with his performance in Washington and that he knew Detroit may be his last chance to make a mark. “He came here and had a vision of what he wanted to do here,” he said. “I feel glad because we’re reaping the benefits.”

Slatkin has made only modest personnel changes. He filled a few string positions, and selected a new tuba player and percussionist. But he said the high quality of the orchestra, despite the long absence of consistent leadership, gave him a strong foundation on which to build.

“Surprisingly the orchestra held up well,” he said. “The orchestra maintained its integrity as an ensemble. Mostly it’s been a matter of just communicating with the orchestra and establishing a work ethic. I tend to be quite efficient in rehearsals. I don’t like to waste time.”

At its performances in West Palm Beach and Miami, the orchestra will play Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2—a work they have recently released on the Naxos label—Barber’s Cello Concerto with soloist Sol Gabetta, and Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture — a romantic program that Slatkin says will show off the orchestra’s strengths.

“People will hear a very lush string sonority, refined brass playing and good solo playing from the woodwinds,” he said. “They’ll hear a warm, rich sound. I think this is a good, representative way to hear the orchestra.”

One impediment to Slatkin’s work took place Nov. 1 when he suffered a heart attack in Holland. He came to the University of Miami Medical Center for treatment, then entered a weight loss program at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Doral. He has shed 20 pounds and is working on the next ten. “People think aerobic activity will take the weight off, but it doesn’t,” he said.  On the Sunday afternoon matinee concert, at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, his cardiologist will be in the audience.

Slatkin returned to the podium in Detroit last month, leading the orchestra in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, and is preparing for the orchestra’s Florida tour.

Mark Stryker, longtime music critic for the Detroit Free Press, said Slatkin’s arrival has invigorated an orchestra that, while it played at a high level, had become comfortable and too distant from the larger community. While other music directors would allow an assistant conductor to handle the annual Classical Roots program, a celebration of African-American composers and performers, he said Slatkin does it himself.

Slatkin recently spent the day at Michigan State University working with student composers, and later led the Detroit Symphony in reading through some of their works, allowing students the thrill of hearing their compositions performed by a professional symphony orchestra.

“Slatkin has made a tremendous difference in the sound of the orchestra and the way that the orchestra is relating to the community,” Stryker said. “He had the violas and cellos change place to get a richer, darker string sound. He’s got the orchestra out playing free concerts in the community, taking the orchestra to non-traditional venues and trying to make the case that the orchestra is for everybody and that it has a real, tangible role to play in civic life. It’s not just lip-service. He’s out there making it happen.”

Leonard Slatkin conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra  8 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach and  4 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. For the Kravis performance, call 800-572-8471 or go to www.kravis.org. For the Arsht performance call 305-949-6722 or go to www.arshtcenter.org.

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Wed Feb 3, 2010
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