Conductor Portrait: Leonard Slatkin

Classic Arts Features   Conductor Portrait: Leonard Slatkin
The Kennedy Center celebrates Leonard Slatkin on the maestro's 60th birthday.

It's said that many people's love for the arts begins at a young age. Leonard Slatkin is a perfect example of an artist having cultivated this devotion into a remarkable career.

Sixty years ago in Los Angeles on September 1, 1944, Leonard Slatkin was born to a distinguished musical family. His parents, conductor-violinist Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, played in the Hollywood studio orchestras and were founding members of the famed Hollywood String Quartet. As a child, Slatkin was surrounded by his parents' numerous friends from the music and film industry, including Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Doris Day, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Felix Slatkin was a frequent arranger and conductor for Sinatra during the classic Capitol years of the 1950s.

In addition, Leonard Slatkin's maternal grandfather played cello in a vaudeville pit on Broadway, his great-uncle founded and conducted the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York, and his uncle Victor was the staff pianist at Warner Brothers. The conductor's younger brother, Frederick Zlotkin, is currently principal cellist with New York City Ballet and an active chamber musician.

In 1979 Slatkin began a highly successful, 17-year Music Directorship at the Saint Louis Symphony. During his time there he became an integral part of the community, with talk-music shows on a local radio and television station and occasional commentary for St. Louis Cardinal baseball games.

During the last two decades, Maestro Slatkin has made regular appearances with virtually all the major international orchestras and opera companies, including the New York and Berlin Philharmonics, the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, and the BBC Symphony.

Since joining the National Symphony Orchestra as Music Director in 1996, his commitment to community and artistry has been transferred to a national setting. Slatkin has been praised in Washington and around the world for his imaginative programming, advocacy for music education, and promotion of American music and musicians. During the Clinton presidency, he was honored at the White House for his continued contributions to the arts. In 2003 he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Bush, the United States' highest honor for an artist.

During his tenure with the NSO, he has led highly lauded European, Asian, and U.S. tours; conducted numerous national broadcasts; programmed uniquely themed festivals‹among them Soundtracks: Music and Film, Journey to America, and Piano 2000; and inaugurated the Composer Portrait series, a unique musical examination of a composer's entire body of work.

Throughout his career, Slatkin has demonstrated a continuing commitment to arts education and audience diversity, as reflected in his work with student orchestras at various conservatories and across the country through the NSO American Residencies. He has participated in benefit performances for youth orchestras in the Washington area and beyond. When the D.C. Youth Orchestra's public funding was cut in 1998, he orchestrated a consortium to replace the funding, enabling 130 children to continue public music education.

Slatkin and the NSO have a strong commitment to the development of American music and musicians. Through the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestra Works and The ASCAP Foundation, the Orchestra has commissioned more than 50 works, including cycles of fanfares and encores, which, taken as a whole, are representative of the diverse influences in American composition today. During the 2004-2005 season, the Orchestra will perform two world premieres of NSO commissions by renowned American composers Philip Glass and Jefferson Friedman. There will also be performances of works by Irving Fine, John Corigliano, Donald Erb, and Mark O'Connor, as well as an entire program led by John Williams, which will feature Washington, D.C., premieres of Williams's own works for the concert hall.

With a reputation for nurturing young American conductors, Slatkin founded the National Conducting Institute in 1999. A groundbreaking program that assists conductors in making the transition from leading part-time or academic orchestras to working with full-time major symphony orchestras through seminars on programming, administration, and marketing, each institute culminates in a public concert led by the participating conductors. The New York Times has described the institute as "that rare program that offers more than its name might promise."

On September 26 the National Symphony Orchestra celebrates Leonard Slatkin's 60th birthday and begins its 74th season with a star-studded concert. The Season Opening Ball Concert features performances by many eminent artists of the classical world, including conductor Murry Sidlin; conductor and composer Peter Schickele; conductors and violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman; violinists Joshua Bell, Midori, and Elmar Oliveira; flutist Sir James Galway; and pianists Emanuel Ax, Michel Camilo, Joseph Kalichstein, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Jeffrey Siegel, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It's a fitting tribute to a conductor who has had a significant impact on the state of classical music today.

Jeremy D. Birch is the writer and editor of Kennedy Center News.

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