A Beverly Hills boy takes up a British baton

His parents knew Sinatra and Schoenberg. Now he's chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Anna Picard meets Leonard Slatkin
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The Independent Culture

I could quite easily have walked straight past the new chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Slatkin's conservative off-stage get-up is a million miles away from his rather groovy (as classical musicians go) unbuttoned publicity shot. The compact, middle-aged, bespectacled American I met in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel looked more like a well-to-do tourist; the kind who plans his visit around the latest show at the Royal Academy, votes Democrat and discusses the novels of Richard Ford over dinner. But this was the same man who, the night before, had vividly, energetically and sweatily painted scenes of carnage in Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, who had wreaked modernist havoc with Turnage, and wrought restrained romanticism from Barber's Violin Concerto. This was also a man who had schmoozed with the big-wigs of British music at the ubiquitous post-concert drinks party before having "five or six" hours sleep - with a 5am break to check the baseball score.

I could quite easily have walked straight past the new chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Slatkin's conservative off-stage get-up is a million miles away from his rather groovy (as classical musicians go) unbuttoned publicity shot. The compact, middle-aged, bespectacled American I met in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel looked more like a well-to-do tourist; the kind who plans his visit around the latest show at the Royal Academy, votes Democrat and discusses the novels of Richard Ford over dinner. But this was the same man who, the night before, had vividly, energetically and sweatily painted scenes of carnage in Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, who had wreaked modernist havoc with Turnage, and wrought restrained romanticism from Barber's Violin Concerto. This was also a man who had schmoozed with the big-wigs of British music at the ubiquitous post-concert drinks party before having "five or six" hours sleep - with a 5am break to check the baseball score.

If 10am on the morning after his inaugural concert is not the best time for an interview, Slatkin doesn't mention it. He is prompt, courteous, softly-spoken and scrupulously polite - qualities that instantly exempt him from the tortured genius, stubble'n'angst school of conducting.

"My demeanour is always calm until I get on the podium, then I become sort of ... animated," he says, carefully. It's no accident that the worst remark any critic has made over Slatkin's appointment to the BBCSO is that he is "a safe pair of hands". As Slatkin talks about the business of conducting, the words that come up are, well, business-like. He is even - unusually- eager to be involved in the marketing of the orchestra. He tells me that losing his temper is such a rare occurrence that he can remember almost every time it has happened; "Maybe six or seven times?" he says. "Very little fazes me. It takes a lot to get me angry and you don't want to see me when I'm angry. Nobody does! I think it shocks people no end because I can tear into somebody pretty good, I really can." And although he looks as mild as milk as he says this, I believe him.

His BBCSO appointment is clearly a source of great pleasure. He tells me he is "immensely flattered" to be here, that the orchestra's administrative team is "great", Nicholas Kenyon (artistic director of the Proms) is "wonderful", and the players are "incredible personalities". But over the course of an hour, through which we cover the BBCSO's up-coming Copland Weekend and what was a difficult and troubled relationship with his parents, Slatkin's calm candour has the quality of a carefully honed defence. Even his response to the previous night's concert - a huge success - is couched in the reserved terminology of "appropriate" and "idiomatic". For the most part he is the one to raise any awkward questions - if only to control the agenda - and I sense that, for all his passion for music, Slatkin is also a natural politician. Appropriate, then, that from now on his two homes will be in London, with the BBCSO, and in Washington DC, with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Slatkin has a habit of making peculiar remarks with a poker face only to tell you immediately afterwards (with the same poker face) that he was being "facetious". In an interview situation it's confusing - particularly as he starts out by saying that he and the BBCSO have found a "common sense of humour". It's hard to imagine the more raucous brass players responding to these quiet "moments of levity" and it's only after the tape is switched off and he is relaxing over a Diet Coke that the volume creeps up and Slatkin is actually funny - going off on an absurdist riff about alternative Olympic sports such as "equestrian diving". The on-record Leonard Slatkin is polite and politic, the off-record Leonard Slatkin is charming.

Of course this summer's tabloid fuss over some of Slatkin's out-of-context remarks about the need to cover up violinists' fat arms and cellists' plump rears (of both sexes, incidentally) might have something to do with his current reserve. For a liberal (who also tells me he enjoys being politically incorrect) the furore at his concert hall "fashion tips" came as a shock. Slatkin is at pains to point out his own struggle with the scales - hence the Diet Coke - and he is clearly unhappy at having caused such offence. That said, I doubt that this issue will die; his inaugural concert saw at least one set of (slim) bare arms among the female players, and I have the impression that however subtly he may go about it, Leonard Slatkin is used to getting what he wants.

It was not always so. Slatkin's parents, Felix and Eleanor, were the founders of the Hollywood String Quartet and enjoyed uniquely Hollywood careers across classical, film and popular music. The Slatkin family's house guests ranged from Schoenberg to Sinatra - a background of musical diversity that gives Slatkin a distinct advantage in today's assimilate-or-die classical music scene. "Whether it had a name or an 'ism' attached to it didn't make much difference," he says. "It was all just music." But his parents' success crippled his own musical development as much as it enhanced it.

As a child he took up a series of instruments only to abandon them because he realised he could never be as good as his father (violin), his mother (cello) or his uncle (piano), and "like a lot of children, I was resentful of that". For a while he played viola but admits he was a lazy student. He briefly left music altogether to study literature and even Felix Slatkin's sudden death some months later did not provide an immediate release from living in his father's shadow; "I was too guilty," he says. "I didn't feel responsible for his death, of course not, but I felt I shouldn't really do something that my father did. I'll always be measured against his standard. He had been a fine conductor as well, so while he was alive I was reluctant to conduct - again, the competitive factor ... Now that he wasn't alive, I could do it."

Slatkin seldom works on the west coast these days, but the eastwards and upwards progression of his career - from LA to St Louis (for 16 years) to Washington to London - is not, he insists, the "you can never go home syndrome". He is at peace with his childhood now, and a father himself - having joined the ranks of the nappy-changers at the relatively late age of 50. His six-year-old son, Daniel, already shows signs of musical promise and Slatkin describes their relationship as "wonderful" while ruefully admitting that we all hope not to make the same mistakes as our parents. Parenthood was another reason for wanting the stability of two bases; freelance conducting "takes it all out of family life," he says. From now on he is restricting guest conducting to the Concertgebouw and the New York Philharmonic.

If the inaugural concert was Slatkin's welcome party, next week's Copland centenary weekend - three days of concerts, lectures and films - will be his housewarming. As he points out, last year's Kurt Weill centenary showed that "you kind of needed" a reason for that much Weill. Copland's work stands alone. "One can argue that perhaps Gershwin or Barber or Ives or Bernstein might have had greater potential or reached a different audience but Copland is the heart and soul of American music," he says. "Copland was the one who lived, saw and wrote about it all."

For the BBCSO these concerts will be where Slatkin really starts to makes his mark. "I don't want to take away their individuality," says Slatkin. "We can be flexible on pretty much any kind of repertoire now" - a flexibility that showed in the inaugural concert's Prokofiev. He smiles and says: "I thought, this just feels like home. We're all connecting. It had nothing to do with the text or the score really. I was just - we've got it! For me there was something very personal in that moment."

'An American Portrait - Aaron Copland' (three concerts), Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) 10 to 12 November

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