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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Leonard Slatkin - Last Night of the Proms

By Norman Lebrecht / September 11, 2002

On 11 September last year, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor, Leonard Slatkin, was in a London taxi preparing to write his Last Night of the Proms speech. He heard of the attacks over the driver's radio. At that moment two players in his other orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, were driving past the Pentagon as the plane crashed in. He called home on his mobile to find out if his wife and son were safe, but all connections were down.

In a daze, he continued composing his curtain speech, knowing the world had changed and the concert might have to be abandoned. The soloist, Frederica von Stade, was grounded in America. John Adams's piece A Short Ride in a Fast Machine would have to go, as would Constant Lambert's jolly Rio Grande. Slatkin offered to step aside, let someone else conduct. "I couldn't have done a traditional Last Night," he recalls. "I wasn't in a party mood."

Next morning, with Proms director Nicholas Kenyon, he constructed a restrained and dignified Last Night around the unifying finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, the music America plays at presidential funerals. "There was concern at the BBC," relates Slatkin, "that some people (in the Royal Albert Hall) might want the usual shindig. I said, 'I have got to know people in the arena. Let me see if I can't get word out to them to control their forces.' Well, they got the word out. I have never heard the American anthem sung with such fervour. It was the most emotional night I have ever spent in a concert hall." Afterwards, alone in his dressing room, he wept on the phone with his wife and child, who had heard the concert live in America.

The following day he flew home on a friend's private jet to conduct a consolatory concert for families of Pentagon victims. "I landed in a different country from the one I had left. People came to the concert in army fatigues - with children, bewildered." While other maestros cancelled engagements, pleading flight chaos and family pressures, Slatkin swung into shuttle mode, determined to do his duty in both great capitals.

The mission continues. He flew into London last Friday to rehearse last night's Prom, back to Washington on Sunday. On Monday he led the NSO in the nation's memorial concert, to be televised across the States tonight, with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan, Placido Domingo and Enrique Iglesias. The moment he put the baton down, he was whisked off to catch the London flight and conduct Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, "a shattering piece", before devoting the rest of the week to rehearsing the Last Night. "I thought I was over it," he sighs, "but it's all coming back, like a replay. We've altered the ([Last Night) sequence, so that not all the frivolity comes in one chunk and gets out of hand. We are doing the Britten version of the national anthem, very beautiful and restrained."

The year's stress has left its mark. Slatkin's wavy brown hair has turned gossamer-white and his eyes are crinkled with more than mere bonhomie. At 57, he stoops slightly beneath burdens of public office. In London he may be just another off-the-shelf conductor, but in Washington the NSO music director is, ex officio, music master to the masters of the universe.

Bill Clinton summoned him to the White House for a baton lesson. "He was due to conduct the Stars and Stripes at the rededication of our concert hall, so I went to the Oval Office and said, 'Let's see what you can do.' I could see immediately that he knew the moves - he'd conducted a school band. So I said, 'Mr President, start with a small beat and gradually increase.' He asked nervously, 'Are they gonna watch me?' I said, 'You - they'll watch.'"

His access to power is free and easy. He planned educational projects with Hillary Clinton and is now making friends with Laura Bush, a frequent concert-goer.

"You never know who's going to come to your dressing room after a concert," he reports. "The Kennedy clan come quite often. Colin Powell (US Secretary of State) - all the time. Condaleeza Rice quite a lot." He is persuading Rice, the National Security Adviser and a trained concert pianist, to play a concerto with the NSO - "something to raise the profile of the arts" - provided she is not bunkered into a war with Iraq.

HiS London job, by comparison, lacks lustre. Four months ago, the BBC announced that his contract would not, by mutual consent, be renewed after 2004. Neither side said why. Slatkin, unfailingly transparent, puts it down to cultural confusion. "The difference between running an orchestra in America and here," he ventures, "is that in America you are totally in charge. I'm used to taking responsibility. Here, I was not responsible for choosing guest conductors and soloists, even for some of my own programmes. Did I really want to conduct a whole weekend of Schnittke? No. But I did it."

He found himself caught up in BBC in-fighting. He complains of "agendas within the organisation, different factions, some wanting the BBC to go one way, some the other". No foreigner, he notes, has ever lasted more than four years as chief conductor.

"Maybe they had trouble adapting to the system. It takes time to turn an orchestra around. In Washington it was five years before it felt like my orchestra. Here I wasn't given the chance. They said a few months ago, 'This is not what we're looking for.' I said, 'I'm struggling, too.' Would I have liked to stay on longer? Yeah."

The BBC, for its part, was miffed by his press gaffes over Proms jingoism (he said that some songs were too bombastic) and what women should wear in orchestras (to cover flabby arms). Crucially, it refused to take up his radical ideas. "I argued that the BBC's role in arts education should be vastly increased," he maintains. "If anybody has the technology to do it, they have. Schools are phasing it out. Unless the institutions provide it in substance, civilisation will go to hell."

But where in Washington he talks to the President and sees action, in London he only once got to meet the BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, at the party after his BBC SO opening concert. He is rueful rather than bitter, and notes a change of atmosphere since his departure was announced. "In the last coupla months," he beams, "the orchestra and I have moved on to a real common wavelength. I'm having a good time. Maybe it'll be easier for me to achieve things outside the role of chief conductor."

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001