Maestro Leonard Slatkin’s musical talent has taken him throughout the world and connected him with high-profile figures, from Frank Sinatra to Bill Clinton and Colin Powell.
Now, the beloved former conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and current music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is returning to the roots of his expansive music career for performances with the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis on Jan. 14 at Sheldon Concert Hall and the St. Louis Symphony on Jan. 18 and 19 at Powell Hall.
The seven-time Grammy winner will serve as guest pianist and narrator during the Chamber’s Notes from Hollywood performance—a special compilation of scores by Hollywood film composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and John Williams. The concert will transport Slatkin back to his childhood, when the L. A. native was surrounded by the music genre through his parents’ musical work in the film industry and his family’s relationships with composers and actors of the storied era. “We were very close with Frank Sinatra and his family,” Slatkin notes, adding that Sinatra was one of the first to recognize and collaborate with classical musicians on recordings. “There was no such thing as crossover at the time. With Sinatra, it was the first time classical musicians were actually listed along with the other artists on the album cover.”
Now the laureate conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, Slatkin also will conduct the orchestra for two performances of The Planets, a “colorful and exciting” work by British composer Gustav Holst. The show also will feature Double Play, a one-part atmospheric, other half jazzy piece by Slatkin’s wife, award-winning composer Cindy McTee. Slatkin says he enjoys connecting with McTee through music and calls her one of the most gifted composers in the world.
A graduate of Julliard School of Music, Slatkin’s conducting career has included 17 years in St. Louis. “My time was 17 of the most glorious years anyone can ever spend,” he notes. “I left because I felt I achieved everything I could there, and it was time for someone else to put their stamp on it.” Slatkin also had a 12-year stint as music director for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. “It was a very exciting world of symphony, with access to the most interesting political leadership. I became friends with President Bill Clinton and Colin Powell, as well as the broadcast media you would see on television every day,” Slatkin recalls. “It was a tremendously exciting, intriguing time.” In addition to leading the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he currently serves as music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. The maestro also has completed more than 100 recordings with orchestras throughout the world, including groups in Munich, Paris, Prague, Stockholm and Berlin.
For an intimate look into the personal journey of Slatkin’s internationally lauded career, he has released the book, Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro. Autobiographical and instructional, the work details how to become a conductor through Slatkin’s own experiences in the industry. “For nine years in Washington, I had a conducting institute where I instructed young conductors on how to make the transition from student to professional world,” he says. The transition is learned during the real-world experience of standing in front of the orchestra, he adds. Slatkin says through the years, he always has valued the conductor’s responsibility of preserving music from the past and creating music that will be part of the future. “You’re in communication with the spirits that are on a page. There’s just all these dots and circles on the page, but you’re doing what every doctor wishes they could do—you’re bringing something back to life that existed before and you’re bringing it to the attention of the orchestra and the audience.”
For Slatkin, a highlight in the book is a story from his time creating St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. “It is so gratifying seeing something you started really flourish and grow,” he notes. “And there’s nothing better than seeing young people discover and make music.” Working with young people to develop their musical talents throughout his career, Slatkin is playing a big part in the future of classical music. “Our society has come not to value the treasures of the past—we don’t look upon sculpture, music and other art that helps preserve our history, heritage and culture as we should. Without (art), it takes away a piece of humanity. So it’s good to instill young people with it, or they will be void of it and their lives will not be richer.”