For Leonard Slatkin, conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the concerto performances of the six Cliburn Competition finalists is personal.
“I had such great respect for Van [Cliburn], and had the honor of working with him so many times. So when they asked, I just felt I had to do it,” said the internationally renowned maestro. “It wasn’t even a question of wanting to. I had to.”
Slatkin, who lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and is music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and France’s Orchestre National de Lyon, will be making his debut with the event, which has seen James Conlon on the podium since the 1997 competition.
“This is first time I have done anything like this,” he said. “And I am also working with an orchestra that I’ve never worked with. I enjoy that very much.”
Each of the six finalists (who, as of press time, were not yet announced) will play two concertos with the orchestra, under Slatkin’s baton. They had their choice of several “small” concertos, by Beethoven or Mozart, and got to choose a “big” concerto by any composer. Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky were popular choices among the competitors this year. The finals take place Thursday through Sunday, and the winner will be announced Sunday night after the last concerto performance.
Cliburn President and CEO Jacques Marquis said he thinks Slatkin can be the firm foundation the competitors need.
“What I look for first, for the last round, I need a rock. I need a conductor and orchestra that will be there to support the candidate because, naturally, they are nervous. There is a lot of pressure on them,” Marquis said. “Leonard Slatkin is very experienced and likes working with young players. And he knows how to rehearse. He can pick up on the needs of the players very quickly.”
Indeed, Slatkin seems to pick up on everything quickly. He grew up in Hollywood, the son of musicians who made their living performing and conducting classical, film and popular music. In his 2012 book, Conducting Business, Slatkin remembers an amazing parade of visitors to his home, including Igor Stravinsky, Erich Korngold, Arnold Schoenberg, Danny Kaye and Nat King Cole. Frank Sinatra, for whom Slatkin’s father, Felix, served as a violinist and conductor, was such a frequent guest that Slatkin and his brother, Fred, referred to him as Uncle Frank.
Slatkin started music lessons at an early age, beginning on violin but eventually moving to piano and viola. After a brief stint in college in Los Angeles, he continued his musical education at Indiana University and the Juilliard School.
His list of professional appointments and accomplishments is dizzying.
His work with conductor Walter Susskind at the Aspen Music Festival led to a series of positions with the St. Louis Symphony, culminating with his appointment as music director of the orchestra in 1979 — a post he held for 17 years.
He has also held positions with a number of orchestras here and abroad, including principal guest conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and the London and Royal philharmonic orchestras, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.
He has served as guest conductor for a long list of major symphonies on these shores, ranging from the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the Dallas and Houston symphony orchestras, and numerous important orchestras across Europe and Asia.
Slatkin has been showered with awards over his career, perhaps the most significant being the National Medal of Arts, the highest such honor bestowed by the U.S. government, in 2003.
He has also been a prolific recording artist, compiling more than 100 recordings with orchestras stretching from Missouri to Moscow. Those efforts have resulted in 64 Grammy nominations and seven wins.
So about the only place Slatkin has not worked (or won an award) is Fort Worth.
“But my wife, [composer] Cindy McTee, taught at the University of North Texas for 30 years,” Slatkin said. “So for her, this trip is kind of a homecoming.”
And last year, he added “author” to his list of achievements with Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro, a combination autobiography and guide to the art. It includes everything from an extremely candid description of his relationship with his apparently distant and work-absorbed parents, to exact instructions on how Dvorak’s New World Symphony should be interpreted.
“I wrote it with the idea of trying to inform the average music lover about what the conductor does,” said Slatkin, adding that the book grew out of his enjoyment of writing for his website, www.leonardslatkin.com. “Most people come to the concerts, and they watch us walk on stage and wave our arms, and they watch us walk off stage. I wanted them to know how we rehearse, how we study, what life is like on the road — a behind-the-scenes look at what we really do.”
Slatkin at the competition
The six Cliburn finalists have very little time to prepare with Slatkin and the orchestra, but the maestro said that some of the most important preparation time comes before anyone lifts a baton or touches a key.
“I will first meet with the pianists to get an impression of what they want to do,” he said. “That’s what we have to convey in the rehearsal [with the orchestra]: the atmosphere and the mood. The technique will take care of itself because we will know from how the pianist plays what kind of sound they might want from the orchestra. It’s a question of just adjusting to his or her approach to the piece of music the orchestra already knows. We know the notes. Now we have to understand what the soloist is doing with them. What is it that is underneath the notes that is trying to be conveyed?”
And, despite outranking his young soloists by any musical measure, Slatkin is not afraid to allow them to be in charge.
“Remember, all these pieces are called ‘concerto for piano and orchestra,’ not ‘orchestra and piano.’ The stronger the soloist, the more ideas that soloist brings to the piece, the more shape it will have.”
As for the performances, Slatkin thinks his primary challenges will be to make sure the symphony players know they matter, and to keep track of who plays what in what way.
“The role of the orchestra just being the background part of the concerto experience can be a little bit frustrating. But perhaps I can give them even more of an incentive to want to be equivalent or participatory with the various soloists,” he said. “And since some works may be played by more than one pianist, you have to remember how each one does a particular phrase. Pianist 1 may take a different tempo in the beginning. Pianist 2 may want to play softer than Pianist 1.”
Slatkin also has some advice for Cliburn handicappers out there.
“I would be looking for that one person that has the spark and imagination that makes you listen and sit on the edge of your seat, wondering what they are going to do next,” he said. “A person who is not afraid to miss a note or two along the way just for the sake of taking a chance on a phrase musically that makes sense.”
And Slatkin will be listening, too — but not to pick the gold medalist.
“I’ll be waiting for that one or two who makes me concentrate even more to get inside their head,” he said. “And maybe I will wind up engaging somebody [to perform with his orchestra]. But not necessarily the winner.”