The Slatkin Years

By Tim Page

The following essay by music critic Tim Page appeared in the six-disc retrospective "The Slatkin Years" and subsequently in a commemorative publication by the SLSO released in 1996.

St. Louisans are a proud bunch. And justly so, considering the area's many attractions – the "mighty Mississippi" in midstream; the vast, sumptuous Forest Park; the great Arch ( dubbed — by some Easterner, no doubt – the "Gateway to the West"); the extraordinary mansions in the Central West End; the seasonal heroics of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Still, it is doubtful that even the most fervent local booster could have predicted the all-but-unprecedented rise to national – and, indeed, international – prominance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra during the 1980s. To put it another way – it would have been unlikely forr any critic to have chosen the orchestra one of the country's "10-best" in 1979, the year young Leonard Slatkin was named Music Director. A decade later, such an omission would have been unthinkable; the only question would have been just how high to rank what had become a magnificent ensemble.

Leonard Slatkin knew exactly what he was doing and he made his intentions clear from the outset. Reading back over the young conductor's initial post-appointment interviews (a tip of the hat to James Wierzbicki, the indefatigable critic and reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who covered the Slatkin beat so capably) one cannot help but be struck by how well he had everything planned out. Right from the beginning, Slatkin stressed the objective of major touring (by the mid-80s, the orchestra's visits to New York had become an eagerly awaited part of Manhattan cultural life and there were highly-praised tours of Europe in 1985 and 1993 and Asia in 1986, 1990 and 1995). He spoke enthusiastically of his recording plans (by 1995, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra would have recorded more music with Slatkin than with all its other conductors combined).

He spoke of his commitment to the city of St. Louis – of his intention to be much more than merely another jet-setting visitor to the Midwest. And, most tellingly, he spoke of his ideal ensemble: "There is something about a truly great orchestra when it walks onto the stage. You can sense that no matter what difficulties it has had through the day, it is one now, with a sense of identity. Individuals do not make an orchestra. lt takes a collective pride."

That pride can be heard on every selection contained within The Slatkin Years, a six-CD set of never-before-released recordings.

Throughout, there is evidence of a questing, independent musical mind. Slatkin's tastes in American music generally ran toward a thoughtful selection from the middle of the road. I say this without disparagement, simply to note that he cared neither for the abstract, aggressive chromaticism of Elliott Carter (although he conducted a memorable performance of the Symphony of Three Orchestras) nor for the austere, determinedly reductive minimalism of Philip Glass (although he led works by three other leading figures in this movement – Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams). Slatkin helped rediscover a whole generation of American composers that had long been slighted by the high priests of musical modernism. He conducted works by William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and the neglected concert music of Leonard Bernstein. (Sadly, all five of these men died during Slatkin's tenure.)

He helped make it clear, once and for all, that there was much more to our "serious" musical past than the sole, idiosyncratic figure of Charles Ives.

There are several traps that can befall a critic attempting to sum up the Slatkin years. The first is to minimize the qualities of the orchestra before his arrival. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was already a fine group, no doubt about it; recordings dating back to the days of Vladimir Golschmann attest to that. Yet it is fair to say that Slatkin improved the ensemble enormously, that he took it from a respectable niche in the second tier of American orchestras to the pinnacle of prestige. Critics used to speak of the "Big Five" American symphonies - Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. By the mid-80s it was clear that St. Louis deserved a place in their roster. This was due in part to Slatkin's ear, in part to the clarity of his conducting, in part to some crucial appointments he made during his tenure. But it was also due to his energy and boundless enthusiasm for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He came along at a time when the orchestra was in considerable turmoil (there was a musicians' strike at the beginning of the season); he presented a working vision of the future and then followed it through to fruition.

But it will not do to dismiss Slatkin merely as an "orchestra builder." The phrase suggests an austere technocrat and Slatkin always emphasized interpretation. He was candid about his own skills and deficiencies – in 1984, he complained to me of what he called his own "misconception" of Mozartean style, his difficulties conducting opera, his lack of enthusiasm for most of Mahler. And yet, over the years, he turned into a fluent Mozartean, he made a highly-praised Metropolitan Opera debut leading Puccini's La Fanciulla del West and he produced the idiomatic and deeply felt Mahler symphonies during the late part of his St. Louis tenure. Rather than reach a certain plateau and then rest on the laurels, Slatkin continued to grow, and this growth was one element that made his directorship so exciting.

Who could have predicted the beginning of a 27-year association when young Leonard Slatkin stepped nervously onto the stage of Powell Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 13, 1968, for what was not only his debut in St. Louis, but his debut conducting any major orchestra anywhere? Critic Richard Hirsh wrote a mixed review: Till Eulenspiegel was certainly the highlight of the afternoon. The orchestra played with great relish and the humor of the piece was underscored nicely," he said. "Slatkin conducts with rather fluid motions and this seems to leave the orchestra lacking a certain amount of rhythmic support."

It wasn't an especially auspicious beginning, but Slatkin quickly won over St. Louis. Indeed, he already had deep roots in the city; his father, Felix Slatkin, had been a member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Golschmann before moving to Los Angeles, after having been refused a $3 a week raise during the depths of the Depression. (Some of the older Slatkin's colleagues were still with the orchestra when his son came to conduct.) Leonard Slatkin studied with Walter Susskind at the Aspen Music Festival in 1964 and with Jean Morel at Juilliard. When Susskind took over the directorship of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1968, he brought Slatkin with him as his assistant.

Slatkin threw himself into St. Louis life. He had his own radio program on KDNA-FM, broadcast from the Old Gaslight Square area, where he played records and offered his own commentary, becoming one of our best popular "explainers" of music in the process. He helped choose programs for Susskind, conducted Sunday afternoon concerts and occasionally appeared as a piano soloist with the orchestra. And he advanced to associate, associate principal and principal guest conductor before assuming the position of music director in 1979, replacing Jerzy Semkow. Slatkin literally grew up with the orchestra.

It is difficult now to remember the surprise many of us felt when Peter G. Davis of New York Magazine chose the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as the "finest in the land" in a 1983 article. What? St. Louis? Not even one of our precious "Big Five"? A similar poll by Time Magazine ranked the orchestra in second place, just after Solti's Chicago. This was news – a radical reordering of America's orchestral hierarchy – and so, with the blessing (and expense account) of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, I decided to visit St. Louis to investigate and sat in on a rehearsal of the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius.

"Slatkin is the antithesis of a podium glamour boy," I reported at the time.
"His gestures are passionate but devoid of histrionic excess; during particularly rapturous moments, his eyes will close momentarily and on occasion he will allow himself one quick choreographed leap into the air, but he is playing for the musicians, rather than any prospective audience. His stick technique is transparently clear – the expression concisely conveyed, the beat unmistakable. Orchestra and conductor seem fellow pilgrims on a quest for the Sibelius Second.

"The orchestra responds reflexively to Slatkin's demands – the tympani right on time for a clap of Sibelian thunder, the flutes wild and Northern birds. A perfectly contoured crescendo sweeps from near inaudibility to an explosion of sound that fills the entire hall. As the last chord dies away, so clean and unanimous that it seems to have been produced by a seraphic organ, the musicians break into startled laughter. Are they really playing this well?

"They are indeed. Slatkin, red in the face and drenched with sweat, looks out at his spent forces and grins. 'O.K.,' he says, with calculated understatement. 'I think I can live with that.' And, the following evening, the audience rose to its feet immediately to give Slatkin and the orchestra a stomping, shouting, standing ovation. It was a good night – a good time – to have been in St. Louis."

What now for Leonard Slatkin? He has his work cut out for him in Washington, D.C., where many of us hope (and expect) that he will give us a National Symphony Orchestra worthy of the name. In the meantime, he has been named Conductor Laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra – the latest in the long string of positions he has held with this group. The Symphony itself is in an exciting period of transition, with a new music director, Hans Vonk, taking over the reins at the beginning of the 1996-97 season. Already, Vonk has deeply impressed the orchestra, its board of directors and its listeners with his performances, and Powell Hall is buzzing with anticipation.

And so this is truly the end of an era. But there is more sweetness than sorrow in this parting. To begin with, Slatkin will come back to St. Louis – and often. Secondly, we are eagerly waiting to hear what Slatkin will do with Washington and what Vonk will do with St. Louis. Thirdly, we may look back with gratitude on an extraordinary partnership that has permanently altered the story of American orchestras. And, finally we have a recorded legacy of some inspired music-making.

TIM PAGE, the former chief classical music critic for The Washington Post, wrote this essay for the six-disc retrospective The Slatkin Years during his tenure as chief music critic for Newsday.