Leonard Slatkin’s gloriously entertaining and informative book, Conducting Business, is subtitled Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro, and that is exactly what his book does, with wit, acute observation, and the knack of evocatively conveying the inside story.
Although partly autobiographical, it is also part manual – a conductor’s survival guide – and doesn’t follow a strict chronological sequence, making it an excellent book to dip into after the initial read. Slatkin wrote the book without a ghost writer, and he is fearless in his self analysis and doesn’t hold back in criticising others, even though he does so with style. His tricky encounter with that famously difficult opera diva Angela Gheorghiu during La Traviata at the Met, is told through his journal entries which were published on his blog. On 18 March he wrote,
Angela was tired and decided not to come in.
which says it all. The situation got worse,
Uh-oh! Guess who did not come to the rehearsal today?
he wrote six days later. On opening night, 29 March, he says,
But now Angela starts causing trouble… [she] distorted phrases to the point where no one could anticipate what she would do. She would hold notes longer than her colleagues on stage, disrupting the ensemble… one of the roles of an opera conductor is to follow the inflections of the singers, but in this case, at least for me, it was simply not possible.
Slatkin left after the first performance, knowing it was an “Either he goes or I go” situation. His refreshing honesty is present from cover to cover.
He came from a well-known musical family: his father, Felix Slatkin, conducted for Frank Sinatra and both his parents (who were founders of the Hollywood String Quartet) played for Sinatra’s recordings. Young Leonard and his brother Frederick were often guests at ‘Uncle Frank’s’ residences:
In Palm Springs we had full run of the house. This is where I discovered some nude photos of Marilyn Monroe stashed away in a drawer.
Growing up in this musical environment resulted in his appreciation for popular genres which lends a naturalness to his interpretations of music by Gershwin and Bernstein. With over a hundred recordings, Slatkin has been nominated 64 times for a Grammy Award and won seven. His recordings range from the Metropolitan Opera’s production of La Fanciulla del West to Barber’s Vanessa; Mahler symphonies to Prokofiev’s film music; Tchaikovsky ballets to Christmas music with the BBC Concert Orchestra; and many recordings of works by Bolcom and Vaughan Williams.
As far as identifying which are my favourites among my hundred-plus discs, I cannot. But the worst is easy: a completely wrong-headed partnership of the Saint Louis orchestra and the jazz/fusion pianist Deodato… By the time of the concert a variety of aromas were wafting out of the dressing rooms. The trumpet player missed more notes than he hit. You can audibly hear the editing throughout the recording. I insisted that my name not appear on the jacket. You will not find any copies. I bought them all and burned them.
Slatkin has chapters on health – most conductors seem to die of heart attacks – and trade unions; he talks about approaches to the famous first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th; he mentions programming and the importance of mingling with the sponsors – “these patrons are funding your post”; he explains the difficulties of maneuvering around the stage – “Danny Kaye used to do a ten-minute comedy routine about the conductor getting lost within the orchestra en route to the podium”, the correct bowing order for soloists, how to deal with critics, the perils of open-air performances, and different attitudes to clapping around the world. It’s an eclectic mix, though all directly tied to the job of being a conductor. Not an easy one, and he quotes Zubin Mehta’s answer when asked how much he is paid,
Slatkin had a heart attack in 2009. It changed his world view. He remembered what Carlo Maria Giulini had told him when, in his late forties, he was facing a serious operation:
When he awoke from the procedure, he made a vow to himself, and these were words I would never forget: “You must make music a part of your life and never make life a part of your music.”
Words he followed after his heart attack, wishing that he’d been more attentive to Giulini’s advice years earlier. However…
A late addition to my activities has been to assume the directorship of the Orchestre national de Lyon. Coupled with Detroit this gives me two bases of operation and helps cut down on travel during the course of a season… My cardiologist is not thrilled with this appointment.
Towards the beginning of his book, Slatkin recounts his time at the Juilliard School, his mentors and tutors, his musical growth, and setting out as a “second banana” (the assistant conductor)! However, he feels that with age has come greater understanding,
With the passage of time, and with more experience under my belt, rehearsing became just as important as the concerts. Getting ideas and interpretation across to the orchestra in whatever means possible meant going deeper into the musical meaning of a work, although it always seemed there was never sufficient time to get it perfect.
Then again, there is always this philosophy:
Practice makes perfect.
No one is perfect.
Typical Slatkin. This book is a damn good read, by an exciting conductor and a fascinating and witty human being. Here are his closing words:
Conducting is a noble profession. As with any re-creative artist, it is our responsibility to be honest with ourselves and with the music we serve. A bit of ego is not a terrible thing and once in awhile we can afford to pat ourselves on the back. Just not too often.
Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro
By Leonard Slatkin
Published by Amadeus/Applause Books, 328 pages, $27.99
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.