Leonard Slatkin and Susan Slaughter met in the mid-'60s, both of them students gulping clear mountain air and wisdom at the Aspen Music Festival and School. "The idea of a female trumpet player was unheard of," he recalls, "but we just accepted people for whoever they were. And already, she had remarkable talent."
The two went their separate ways. In 1968, Slatkin was hired as the Assistant Conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. And a year after that, Slaughter was hired as a trumpet player.
"It was a very big change from her predecessor," recalls Slatkin, who eventually took the reins of the SLSO and is now Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "Susan brought a kind of darkness to the sound.... Almost always it was not just a straight note; there was a little bit of vibrato, a little bit of expression. And the ease of virtuosity was extraordinary, the way she could toss off passages of incredible difficulty."
Child prodigy? Not exactly. Slaughter grew up in tiny, rural McCordsville, Indiana, and her only early music teachers were the "song evangelists" who visited her school. When she heard the trumpet, though, her future was decided. "You have a cake," she says, trying to explain, "and when the trumpet would come in, it was the icing."
She learned on the coronet and kept its warmer, rounder sound when she graduated to the trumpet, which she was determined to play in an orchestra someday. "I knew there weren't a lot of women doing it," she says, "but I didn't realize it was discrimination. I thought maybe they just weren't good enough!"
When she auditioned for the SLSO, one committee member saw a female candidate and decided it was time to refill his coffee cup. Then she started playing, and he sat back down.
She was hired as fourth trumpet, and just four years later she was made Principal Trumpet: the first female Principal Trumpet in a major orchestra anywhere in the world.
"It is a tribute to her," says Music Director David Robertson, "that by now one thinks of it as a completely normal thing. Principal Trumpet was thought of as the one position you couldn't hold in an orchestra without a male amount of testosterone. The fact that the first was such an extraordinary individual meant you stopped looking at whether the person was male or female. You looked at the humanity she expressed when she played."
She didn't forget her gender, though: Eighteen years ago, she founded the groundbreaking International Women's Brass Conference, and she opened the first meeting by raising her trumpet to her lips and loudly missing the first note. Everybody cracked up, and then relaxed into collaboration instead of competition.
Slaughter can be blunt, even willful, if it's for the music's sake ("She doesn't take any crap off anybody," Slatkin murmurs), but she has a way of bringing people together.
Gary Smith, who was already playing trumpet for the SLSO when Slaughter arrived, says she gave the section a new sense of itself. "We used to get together at her house and practice. She saw to it that we developed a style of our own."
Robertson says, "I don't know of anybody who's done more, behind the scenes, to foster true understanding between all of the parties involved in keeping a world-class symphony working."
Slaughter just sees this as necessary diplomacy: "When people don't communicate, they get angry, and they take that onstage. If your soul is clear and your mind is clear of anger, the music just pours."
And hers does. "What's amazing about Susan Slaughter's playing," Robertson says, "is that it's so eloquent, you almost feel that she is talking to you with words as well as with tone. From the down-and-dirty speakeasy style she can do at the drop of a hat to the absolutely noble and visionary qualities when she's playing Wagner or the Doctor Atomic Symphony."
Tom Drake, Assistant Principal Trumpet, says it's Slaughter who drives the sound of the entire brass section. She's managed to integrate it, blending with the other sections far more subtly and smoothly than most orchestras manage.
"She has this way of controlling the sound," adds Drake. "It's got a whole lot of color to it." From Slaughter, he's learned "to make a musical phrase into a sentence, so it has action, substance." He talks about her sensitivity, compassion, and fairness; her passion; her uncompromising musicality.
So why is she leaving? "Every year, I looked at the season schedule and think, 'Am I going to be able to do that?'" she says, "and each year, I was able to say yes. It's demanding, but I started doing Pilates, and I changed my routine. Last year, though, I'd gotten a serious infection, a virus, and it went to my lip. All of the 2008 _09 season, I never knew if my lip was going to work right. In the middle of a performance, it would swell. By July, I was finally OK, but I thought, 'After this season, I don't want to work that hard.'"
She says what she'll miss most is "the camaraderie of a hundred people sitting there listening to each other and collaborating, matching, taking what someone does in another direction."
She's not likely to mope or whine, though. "I don't think it was an easy decision for her, but you will never hear any of that," Robertson says, "in the same way that there are parts of the trumpet repertoire that are fiendishly difficult to play, and I've never heard her complain. I know of no more inspiring musician on the planet. And that is not hyperbole."