Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro by Leonard Slatkin

If you think Leonard Slatkin might have written this unusually candid memoir to explain his side of the Traviata fiasco at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, when after one performance (for which he was savaged by some critics) he “withdrew” from his remaining appearances, think again.

Conducting Business does have some eye-opening things to say about that event, but it also has much more: on how a conductor studies scores, works with composers and performers, and handles all the other “business” of classical music, plus numerous anecdotes about his long career.

Slatkin, now in his late 60s, grew up in Los Angeles in a musical family surrounded by Hollywood stars as well as musicians of every stripe. His father Felix was a violinist and his mother Eleanor a cellist. They comprised half of the Hollywood String Quartet and also worked on recording soundtracks for the big movie studios. Work left them little time for parenting yet enough time to have clandestine meetings at their house of union dissidents. His younger brother Fred, who uses the spelling Zlotkin, is a well-known cello soloist.

As a child Leonard listened to everything – Elvis, pop, classics, jazz. He played both violin and piano. His parents worked with Sinatra and “Uncle Frank” sang the two boys to sleep. Roaming thru Sinatra’s Palm Springs house one day, Slatkin discovered nude photos of Marilyn Monroe.

His life changed when his father died at the age of only 47. The cause was a heart attack, but Felix’s drinking, smoking, weight, and workaholic lifestyle surely contributed to his death. (Leonard himself suffered a non-fatal heart attack in 2009.)

At 19, Slatkin realized his father’s death meant “I no longer had to compete with him” and he decided to make conducting his career, studying with Walter Susskind at the Aspen Music School (“phenomenal”) and with Jean Morel at Juilliard. One lesson he took to heart was that “if you have truly learned the score, your demeanor will radiate a necessary confidence.”

He was a frequent guest conductor at top-tier orchestras and considered an up-and-comer when promoted to music director after 10 years as an assistant in St. Louis. His players liked him, except for one slight flaw: it was suggested he use a stronger deodorant. “I know, it’s disgusting,” he says, “but the physical nature of conducting does not always produce the most attractive sights or aromas.” He uses the incident to talk about how conductors should dress, when they should eat, and other mundane elements that memoirs often ignore.

Slatkin is illuminating on how commissions work, how to program new works along with the standard repertory, how to criticize or commend instrumentalists and how important it is to support talented young American composers. He declares that “no one can know what constitutes enough rehearsal time.”As for jumping in at the last minute when another conductor is indisposed, “you never know when the call will come, so it’s crucial to live by the Boy Scout motto, ‘Be Prepared.'”

Career and personal troubles developed as his reputation grew. After moving to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, Slatkin suffered a “midlife crisis.” Being on the road a lot was “one easy excuse” for “searching for companionship away from home.” (Slatkin has been married four times.) He admits that when his contract was not renewed, he “had not done a good job” for two years. Upon taking over the BBC Orchestra in London, he lasted four years, but “the chemistry simply wasn’t particularly strong between the orchestra and me.”

He seems to have forgotten his Boy Scout motto prior to the Met imbroglio. He had conducted far fewer operas than orchestral concerts and yet considered Traviata “routine,” because it was performed so often. At the first rehearsal he makes this astounding observation to himself: “Realizing that my credibility as a Verdian might be questioned, I decided never to reveal that this score was new to me.”

Huh? This was the Metropolitan Opera.

He blames much of the difficulty on his Violetta, Angela Gheorghiu, who suddenly had to cover for Anna Netrebko in Boheme and thus was not at key rehearsals. Things went wrong quickly after the curtain rose the first night. “I am the considered one of the best accompanists in the conducting world. Ask virtually any singer or soloist who has worked with me,” Slatkin writes.”However, this time I was at a loss. Angela distorted phrases,” and turned her back when he needed to make eye contact. “My timing and concentration were thrown off.” Things were not perfect, but Slatkin thought they were OK. The reviews, however, were awful.

Slatkin charges that some blogs contained material “clearly written” or “at least leaked” from inside the Met. On the advice of his agent, he says, he “walked away” from the remaining performances. Summarizing, he argues that the fiasco was “just a small part of a very rich musical life.”

Overall, Conducting Business is a chatty insider’s look at the musical and administrative work of classical music, even when Slatkin’s explanations about controversies sound self-serving.

Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro by Leonard Slatkin. 2012. 311  pages.  ISBN: 978-1574672046 Amadeus Press

— Grace Lichtenstein

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