Memories, anecdotes, names of staff members, musicians, friends‹these all come easily to Leonard Slatkin as he recalls his time with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, with whom he reunites for its 125th season opener this month. Almost a decade has passed since he left as music director, leaving the ensemble he had put together over three decades in the very capable hands of Hans Vonk, who continued and extended the artistic legacy. Since Slatkin left St. Louis in 1996, he has been music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., as well as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, yet those phenomenal years with the SLSO are never far removed.
Maestro Slatkin recalls his beginnings fondly. He came to St. Louis at the request of then-Music Director Walter Susskind, who hired the young Slatkin as assistant conductor. Slatkin's familiar voice over the telephone conveys the welcoming, articulate assurance he projects from the stage. He speaks warmly of the man who gave him his start. "He became a combination mentor, teacher, father‹literally he was the main figure in my life," he says of Susskind.
"I watched him very carefully in his first years in St. Louis build a very flexible and virtuosic ensemble out of something that really wasn't in very good shape when he arrived," Slatkin says. "I learned a lot. He was always very kind to me. He was also demanding. There was one experience in rehearsal with the Sixth Symphony of Vaughan Williams. The job of the assistant is to be there and be ready for anything. Susskind wanted to go out and listen, he said, 'for three or four minutes.' Would I mind going to the podium and going through it a bit? After 35 minutes the piece was over.
"He would do that kind of thing. He would give me chances to conduct that, quite frankly, very few people would give."
Slatkin eventually moved on to direct the New Orleans Symphony‹a brief artistic detour before he returned to St. Louis as music director. "You really wonder if you can come back," he says. "But this time it was different because the whole nature of management had changed. Everybody seemed to be on the same wavelength in terms of what they wanted to have accomplished. Dave Hyslop (former executive director) and Joan Briccetti (former general manager)‹we were all on the same page.
"We started to focus on a repertoire that nobody else in the country was doing‹primarily American, but also the Russian repertoire, which at the time was being neglected because the majority of music directors coming in had more Austro-Germanic leaning. The country had changed its musical profile, so all of a sudden Slavic music was being neglected."
With a unique repertoire; tours of the United States, Europe, and the Far East; annual visits to Carnegie Hall; and numerous recordings, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra began to stand out in the orchestral landscape. After six Grammy Awards and 56 nominations, adulation from critics and audiences around the world, and a Time magazine survey that ranked the Orchestra Number 2 in the nation (behind that other middle-American jewel, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra), the spirit of St. Louis could be found in Powell Symphony Hall.
Slatkin emphasizes the collaborative atmosphere that produced such success. "You can't just have a conductor who comes in with good ideas; you need an entire force to do it. That sometimes gets lost. It's not a one-person show. It's run by a group of people. That's what happened the majority of my time there. Everybody was working toward the same end."
Slatkin's reputation as a great communicator began in St. Louis. He introduced new works and new composers to the St. Louis public, and he turned and spoke to the audience to help them better receive the music. "My message was, 'I'm not sure if you're going to like it, but now that I've explained and we've demonstrated it for you, maybe now you'll know why you don't like it.'
"I think people liked that we were more casual about it‹that I could tell jokes; that I could explain it. What I tried to imagine was, if I was sitting in the audience, what information would I need to help me get through the piece? That was always the approach I took."
Slatkin's program with which the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra opens its 125th season this month is characteristic of the Slatkin years: his friend Emanuel Ax performs a work from the standard repertoire, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27; an SLSO commission by a young American composer, St. Louis native Kevin Puts, receives its world premiere; and the enthralling Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich concludes the concert with high Russian drama.
Slatkin looks forward to working with old friends again, as well as the many new members of the Orchestra. He's fond of reminiscence, but as Slatkin is always looking ahead, always an innovator, he thinks of the SLSO's future too. "It was a very special time. One hopes that you're entering another one now."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.