US conductor Leonard Slatkin says future of orchestras is secure

US conductor Leonard Slatkin thinks the future of symphony orchestras is secure, but new works for younger players would help, writes Alexis Alrich

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 10:36pm

For anyone worried about the future of symphony orchestras, speaking with American conductor Leonard Slatkin is heartening. He's optimistic about the role of orchestras in our society, positive about young players and doesn't worry about the classics disappearing. As long as society exists, there will be orchestras to reflect it, he says.

Slatkin, who is the music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, visited Hong Kong just before its December 29 mainland tour, which ended on January 4.

The genial 69-year-old was casually dressed in jeans, and with his sandy white hair and boyish face, looked just like an ordinary tourist, except for an unmistakable air of authority.

The orchestra’s health is doing very well. But there is still a need to be careful

Some attention inevitably focused on his role at the Detroit orchestra, as the US city has been declared bankrupt. But Slatkin wasn't unduly worried about the dire financial straits.

"Detroit is doing very well, at least the orchestra is. Because we are a private institution, we are not related to the bankruptcy," says Slatkin. "That doesn't mean it doesn't affect us. Of course it does. But we've seen a massive spike in contributions, in ticket sales, and in virtually all aspects [of revenue]. That's because we have worked very hard."

He says the orchestra went on strike a couple years ago for six months, but now it's expected that the new contract will be settled six months before the old one expires. "So the orchestra's health is doing very well. But we are also conscious of a need to be careful.

"There's a point that you reach where you can't increase the ticket sales any more," he says. "During the big [economic] downturn, if contributions weren't coming in, there was an accident waiting to happen. Either nobody saw that, or everybody saw it, but they didn't want to believe it, so they ignored it."

So orchestras got into trouble. "They started dipping into their endowments, and they started losing audiences right and left. But we've come up with a real strategy for us, and it works. Every city solves its own problems in its own way."

The Orchestre National de Lyon has also been keeping the veteran conductor and composer busy; the recent tour - which took in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing - was a celebration of 50 years of Sino-French diplomatic relations and was partly supported by the French Ministry of Culture.

The repertoire included Berlioz, Fauré, Satie, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Debussy, and Ravel.

"It wound up being a kind of programme of French bonbons," says Slatkin. "A lot of the audience here is hearing much of the repertoire for the first time. So a little sampler on a first visit is not a bad idea."

Born in Los Angeles to a musical family, Slatkin has won seven Grammy awards while amassing a huge discography which spans a four-decade career as a conductor. He is best known for his work with the St Louis Symphony, which he established as a leading US orchestra.

Though best known as a conductor of American music, Slatkin has also recorded much of the standard repertoire with orchestras like the National Symphony and the BBC Symphony orchestras. He had a heart attack in 2009, and that meant he had to cut back on touring. He now divides his time between Lyon and Detroit.

Lyon released a new selection of Ravel works on Naxos ( Orchestral Works Vol. One) in November, something that the conductor feels has expanded his range.

"I have a great body of recordings in the Russian repertoire, in the British repertoire, in the American repertoire, odd ones from here and there.

"So with a French orchestra, it made sense for me to get immersed in a repertoire I was not really represented in. The Ravel is going to be as complete as anyone has ever seen. Eventually it will total 11 volumes."

This will include pieces that have never been recorded before, some newly commissioned orchestrations, and Ravel's two operas, Slatkin adds.

The new Ravel recordings are high-spirited, as well as intimate and charming. The woodwinds, in particular, add lovely, expressive details. Slatkin says that he had to overcome a degree of scepticism from the French orchestra, who regarded him as a conductor solely of the American repertoire.

But he won them over. "The ultimate compliment came last week. A couple of people came by to say how much they enjoyed doing La Valse with me, because I do it in a very free way," he says.

Slatkin has always been a composer, and says he is now finding more time to write new pieces. His Fantasy on Television Themes is inspired by composer John Williams, who is known for his film scores; it sounds like something to look forward to. "People forgot he was a television composer before everything else. Even he forgot."

Slatkin is also writing music for children to play, something he says is an important factor in creating future audiences. "Where's today's version of Peter and the Wolf, or Tommy the Tuba?" he asks, noting that young players are not served by today's major composers, and they should be.

So where do orchestras fit in today's society?

"That's kind of like asking how to great authors fit, how do artists fit? It's about the relationship of culture to society. The only way we would ever really know the answer is if these things didn't exist. And if they didn't exist, that would be the end of that society," Slatkin says.

"What we do, in general, is to reflect the feelings, and the thoughts, and the emotions of everyday life. We put it into an artistic context so that future generations can know, and also what our ethics were in terms of how we perceived our own society."

Classical music may often look back to the past, but Slatkin says that doesn't mean it will die out. "It's hard to imagine a world without Beethoven. I can't imagine it. But I don't think it's ever going to come to that. You don't just wipe out history."

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