An American showman in London

Leonard Slatkin: He is one of the world's greatest conductors, and next month he takes the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Proms will never be the same again, says Claire Wrathall
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The Independent Online

Last night's Last Night of the Proms marked the end of an era. Ever since the first season in 1895, the final concert has tended to be a celebration not just of British music, but also the preserve of a succession of English knight-conductors, including many of the most eminent: Sir Henry Wood, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Colin Davis and, yesterday, Sir Andrew Davis. Sir Charles Mackerras, who presided over it in 1980, may have been born in Australia but he's been based in London since 1946. But all that is set to change. Next year it will be an outsider up on the podium, in front of the flag-waving, klaxon-wielding promenaders, the live audience of 5,000 and the further 35 million who tune in to the broadcast world-wide.

Last night's Last Night of the Proms marked the end of an era. Ever since the first season in 1895, the final concert has tended to be a celebration not just of British music, but also the preserve of a succession of English knight-conductors, including many of the most eminent: Sir Henry Wood, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Colin Davis and, yesterday, Sir Andrew Davis. Sir Charles Mackerras, who presided over it in 1980, may have been born in Australia but he's been based in London since 1946. But all that is set to change. Next year it will be an outsider up on the podium, in front of the flag-waving, klaxon-wielding promenaders, the live audience of 5,000 and the further 35 million who tune in to the broadcast world-wide.

For on 1 October, Leonard Slatkin takes over as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And Slatkin, 56, is all-American, born in Los Angeles and best known for his work with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he spent 16 years; the Chicago Symphony; the New York Philharmonic; and latterly the Washington-based National Symphony Orchestra, where he has been music director since 1996. He is probably best known here for his work with the London-based Philharmonia, where he's been principal guest conductor since 1977.

However, Slatkin's connections with the BBCSO go back to 1973, when Warner Bros asked himto record a last-minute soundtrack album to The Exorcist. The film's music comes from classical sources: Webern, Penderecki, Ligeti and others. When it became clear the movie was going to be a hit, Warner's whisked him to London to make a recording on their label. The BBCSO was the first orchestra the young American conductor worked with in the UK.

Slatkin's youth was filled with film music. His father, the violinist Felix Slatkin, was leader of the Twentieth Century-Fox Orchestra and his mother, Eleanor Aller, was principal cello in the Warner Bros studio band. Both were also members of the celebrated Hollywood Quartet. "In the course of my growing up I met people ranging from Stravinsky and Schoenberg to Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Doris Day - all the great people in the film and music industries at the time," Slatkin has said. "Sinatra was great to our family. We used to go out to his place in Palm Springs on the weekend."

As a teenage pianist in LA he played in piano bars and jazz clubs, before leaving for New York to study at the Juilliard School. It was the beginning of an impressive cv. He was conducting at the Aspen Festival at 20; made his début at Carnegie Hall at 22; and was appointed assistant conductor to the St Louis Symphony two years after that.

"He is one of the very best conductors of his generation, there is no question about it," says the violinist and conductor José Diego Garcia, who has worked extensively with him, both as leader of the English Chamber Orchestra and as a conductor and soloist engaged by him in St Louis and Washington. "He is a phenomenal trainer of orchestras. The St Louis Symphony was always a good orchestra, but he made it a great one, one of the top orchestras in America. And that's beginning to happen in Washington, too."

Slatkin also has a great reputation for versatility. "There are few musical styles I don't do," he says. "Very rarely do I get up there and experiment with something I don't feel comfortable with. Though that said, you're not about to hear me do [Bach's] St Matthew Passion."

Despite the brouhaha last month concerning some ill-judged comments made to Classic FM magazine about women musicians' right to wear trousers if they are "slightly heavy in the rear-end department", his appointment to the BBCSO has been met with delight. He was also alleged to have said he "tended to favour covered arms [for women], especially among violinists. You do not want to see too much flapping about". He maintains that he was misconstrued, meaning to imply simply that, just as men wear dinner jackets or tailcoats, so women players should have a uniform dress code.

Whatever his views on appearance - and he is equally critical of portly men in cummerbunds, and admits to being no sylph himself - Slatkin has a Teflon reputation. Even in the bitchy, gossipy, archly competitive world of classical music, it is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about him. That his performances are excellent rather than outstanding is about as critical as anyone is prepared to be.

He is committed to the core classical repertoire, within which he sees his strengths as focusing on the obscurer reaches of Late Romanticism, both Austro-Germanic and Slavonic. (His passion for Russian music in particular may come in part from his grandparents, all four of whom emigrated to the US from Odessa.) But he has an original way with even the most familiar works. "If one is to ride old warhorses, there are few conductors better than Slatkin to have in the saddle," the critic Barry Millington wrote of an account of Dvorak's New World Symphony he gave with the Philharmonia.

Slatkin is, however, equally committed to new music, looking forward to working with the BBCSO's recently appointed associate composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage. He has championed Turnage in the US, as well as playing pieces by Simon Bainbridge, John Casken and James MacMillan, and discovering "the elder statesman of British music", Harrison Birtwistle.

"People shouldn't worry that I will become a bastion of conservatism. I plan to be as adventurous as the BBC will allow," he says.

This enthusiasm pleases Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBCSO, an orchestra that has premiÿred 1,100 new works to date. "I thought we would be hard-pushed to match Andrew Davis's commitment to new work, but Leonard has a similarly great interest; and not just in new music but in rare, unusual music. He's got a phenomenal mind for digging up unusual programming items."

Slatkin joins the BBCSO at an important time in its history, just as it prepares to open its 70th-anniversary season and move its residency from London's South Bank Centre to the Barbican. He is contracted to do six main-season concerts and five Proms a year as well as touring, recording and any television programmes that develop, an area which excites him. Two years ago he made an acclaimed 10-part series for Radio 3, Discovering music with Leonard Slatkin. Inspired by Aaron Copland's 1929 book What to Listen For in Music (Copland's music is another favourite of his and will form the basis of a weekend of concerts at the Barbican in November), it was didactic without being difficult or patronising; and astonishingly catholic in its breadth of reference, with Indian raga, Balinese gamelan and Jewish and Hungarian folk tunes quoted as well as works from the traditional western canon.

"He's a natural in that respect, a great showman," says Hughes. "And he has a tremendous ability to communicate without talking down to people, pitching it just right. He's a passionate believer in education. And I think that's going to make a difference to the way the BBCSO is used by the network."

But it isn't just audiences and administrators who revere him. He is also that rare creature, a conductor who is genuinely liked by musicians. "He is very popular indeed, very friendly," says Keith Bragg, piccolo player and chair-man of the Philharmonia. "He's a quick worker, very efficient, doesn't waste time. And English orchestras are quick. It's the way we're trained. Generally in Britain we don't have as much rehearsal time as elsewhere. And he is one of the very few conductors who exploit that to the maximum. People like it because it means you're not hanging around doing things unnecessarily.

"And there's the repertoire he chooses. There's a tremendous buzz whenever he's around because you're going to be playing something interesting."

The cellist Steven Isserlis concurs. He met Slatkin while recording Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto with the St Louis Symphony, and they have also performed together with the Philharmonia and the Japanese NHK orchestra. "He's a fast worker, with absolutely no affectations. And because his parents were both string players, he understands how we work. The first time I met him I was quite shy of him. He's not a bear-hugging, luvvie type. As far as I remember, the ice was broken when we discovered we were both Dallas fans. He actually knows Larry Hagman. I was so impressed by that."

Given that Slatkin might have had the pick of almost any orchestra in the world, his appointment is a coup for the BBCSO. (In what almost amounts to a swap, Andrew Davis has been appointed music director of the Chicago Lyric Opera.) There are two prevailing reasons for his decision. The first is his special affinity with English music, especially Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams and Walton. "One of the hallmarks of the BBCSO should be to promote the strength of the English repertoire itself," he says.

He likes the English way the orchestra sounds. "There is a school of woodwind playing that all English orchestras retain; it's what gives them their character. It's a darker sound; the vibrato is a little wider." But he does have plans to refine its sound. "I'll need to try and find a representative sonority that works within the structure of most of the music the orchestra plays, which for me is centred around the string tone."

His second objective is to simplify his schedule. "As it is now, I work here in Washington for 18 to 20 weeks a year, and then I'm all over the map, conducting different orchestras. I thought, wouldn't it be much more advantageous to have one other orchestra to work with, rather than so many? Of all the places I go, I have a special love for London, and that satisfies this as well."

So what of next year's Last Night of the Proms? "We're already working hard on that," he says. "Obviously the four pieces that come at the end will remain. And I want to try to find some connections between America and England. I might change the format of the speech a little, but I'll retain the traditions. They're not going to go away. People shouldn't be concerned about that. My job on the Last Night will be to have a great time, and make sure the audience does, too."

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