An American Conductor In Uniquely American Times

Leonard Slatkin is directing his National Symphony Orchestra through dynamic change, for the nation and for music.

Classical Music

September 30, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Like everyone else, Leonard Slatkin won't forget where he was on Sept. 11.

He heard the news in a London taxicab, on his way to the BBC's studios and more preparations for his history-making appearance as the first American to conduct the "Last Night of the Proms." That's the quintessentially British event that closes the annual summer "Promenade Concerts" and is broadcast around the globe.

"It was a very strange feeling being there when everything happened," says the Los Angeles-born Slatkin, one of this country's most accomplished conductors, who serves as music director of both the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

"I felt dislocated, not knowing if I could get back home," he says. "For the first few hours, I couldn't get a phone line. Even the Internet service was going in and out."

Slatkin knew that this "Last Night" at Royal Albert Hall could not be the same, not now. Traditional frivolities -- including rousing old British sea songs -- would have to go. One of the first things he did was search for an orchestral arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner, an anthem that British ensembles have little reason to know.

"I found one in the BBC vaults done by an Englishman," Slatkin says. "It's simpler than the ones we're used to; I thought it was very effective."

So did the Times of London, which reported of the Sept. 15 event: "Never, perhaps, have so many British voices sung that stirring salute to 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' Our own national anthem, by comparison, sounded almost threadbare immediately afterward."

Later in the concert, Slatkin turned to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which has become (especially since the movie Platoon) the unofficial American requiem.

"Mr. Slatkin conducted like a man who suddenly felt the full weight of his country's grief on his shoulders, a grief that could only be expressed through perfect restraint," said the Telegraph.

For Slatkin, the sense of isolation he initially felt in England was replaced by an even darker feeling the day after the London "Proms" performance, as he was heading back to Washington.

"The plane flew about 25 miles south of New York," he says. "Looking out the window, it really hit me then that the country I had left was not the same country I was coming home to. It was very frightening."

That apprehension, though, seems to have vanished quickly as Slatkin charged into business at hand. In addition to revamping what was to have been the National Symphony's festive season-opener (repeating much of the "Last Night" program), there was the first round of subscription concerts to rehearse and perform. Then came the Kennedy Center's concert last week in aid of the victims of the terrorist attacks, a concert introduced by Laura Bush and subsequently broadcast on PBS.

Looking trim and fit ("I lost 30 pounds in four months, after I got on a scale and saw I had reached 187"), Slatkin slouches in a big leather chair in his office suite at the Kennedy Center, occasionally smoothes out a shock of unruly gray hair, sips from a bottle of beer, and reflects on his five years with the NSO. His voice is hoarse from lack of sleep, but there is unmistakable energy behind his words.

"The most important thing is that I know this is absolutely the right place for me to be," says Slatkin, who led the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, helping to bring it to international prominence, before moving to Washington.

"I can accomplish things here that I couldn't accomplish anywhere else, like advocacy for music education in schools. It's a constant battle, but it makes an impact here."

A voice for the music

Taking full advantage of his position in Washington's cultural life, Slatkin, 57, has become an effective spokesman for the country's artistic needs, addressing the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations.

He appeared before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to urge increased funding for music education in the public schools. And when the D.C. Youth Orchestra faced a severe funding cut, Slatkin helped put together a consortium that came to the rescue.

His activities got the attention of the Clinton administration; in 1999, Slatkin and the NSO were honored at the White House for their commitment to America's musical heritage.

The NSO, which has long paid attention to American music, has been particularly active in commissioning new pieces since the 1960s. During Mstislav Rostropovich's tenure, 1977-1994, the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund generated six substantial NSO premieres, including two Pulitzer Prize-winning compositions.

This legacy only intensified when Slatkin took the podium in 1996. He has commissioned several dozen scores, most of them through the Hechinger Fund. The roster includes a who's who of this country's major composers, among them William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty and Richard Danielpour.

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