Leonard Slatkin: Another Bernstein in the making?

January 07, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

If you liked "Lenny I," chances are you'll like "Lenny II."

If the first Lenny was the late Leonard Bernstein, Lenny II is surely Leonard Slatkin, who will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight, tomorrow and Saturday in works of John Corigliano and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Comparing Bernstein, one of the most glamorous figures in American musical history, to Slatkin, a paunchy, balding, unpretentious, middle-age guy, may seem a little peculiar -- not least to Slatkin himself.

"When people make the comparison, it's always without my being around," Slatkin says. "But the only similarity is the first name. There won't be anyone like Bernstein ever again."

But consider: At the age of 48 -- Slatkin's age now -- Bernstein did not have a great reputation for conducting the masterworks of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. He did have an immense gift for talking to audiences, for programming such then off-the-beaten-track composers as Nielsen and Mahler and for championing music by the American composers of his time.

And such happen to be the characteristics of Slatkin. No one today spends more time pushing new American music; he tirelessly investigates the music of such British composers -- still caviar to the general public in this country -- as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Walton; and, like Bernstein, Slatkin has a phenomenal ability to turn around on the podium and explain a difficult piece to an audience -- thus generating, as his predecessor did, both the light of understanding and the heat of controversy.

And Slatkin may be -- from a technical point of view at least -- a better conductor than Bernstein was at the same age. He may not be a glamour boy -- his few rapturous expressions and choreographed leaps on the podium are for the musicians, not the audience -- but his stick technique is transparently clear and his beat is unmistakable.

And while Slatkin insists that technique cannot replace musical expressiveness, his achievements in the two areas of his greatest strength, British and American repertory, challenge those of Bernstein at a comparable age.

He conducts new American music -- whether the latest piece by Christopher Rouse or John Adams or classics such as the symphonies of William Schuman or Aaron Copland -- the way Bruno Walter played Bruckner or that Toscanini led Verdi: with the concentration and conviction that makes listeners feel that this music must be accorded respect and attention.

"I think that comes from the way I was raised," Slatkin says.

Slatkin grew up in Hollywood, the son of two musicians who were legends in the orchestras that the old studio system used to maintain: Felix, the concertmaster and later the conductor of the 20th Century Fox orchestra, and Eleanor Aller, the principal cellist of the orchestra next door at Warner Bros.

It was the kind of household in which you could never tell who might drop over -- Igor Stravinsky or Frank Sinatra, Arnold Schoenberg or Danny Kaye. The elder Slatkin and Aller also happened to be the founding members of the celebrated Hollywood String Quartet, which was as renowned for late Beethoven as for the latest and most difficult new music.

"Having the quartet rehearse in the house meant that I heard composers such as Paul Creston and Leon Kirchner alongside Bartok and Brahms," Slatkin says. "Their music wasn't American and modern -- it was just there, it was just music.

"This is a very good time [for music] in the states now," he continues. Whether it's Adams or Rouse or Joe Schwantner or Corigliano or Bob Beaser, there are more good and interesting composers than we know what to do with -- each has their own distinctive voice. If I'm putting a program together and there's a need for a new piece, I'll go for the American piece almost every time. And it's not because I'm an American -- it's because I happen to think that American music is the best in the world right now."

His affection for British music seems a little peculiar, therefore -- that is until you hear Slatkin explain it.

"After Purcell, English music went into a deep sleep until Elgar," Slatkin says. "That means it parallels American music which woke up at about the same time. The Brits were inventing themselves at the beginning of the 20th century the same

way we were."

Slatkin's authority in British music is such that several British reviewers have called his recordings of Elgar and Walton symphonies the best ever, and Ralph Vaughan Williams' widow, Ursula -- a big Slatkin fan -- attended every session in which the conductor recorded her husband's nine symphonies.

But perhaps Slatkin's most impressive achievement is what he's done with the St. Louis Symphony, the orchestra that he's literally grown up with.

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