Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony” depicts a mountain ascent, beginning in the murmuring pre-dawn quiet, bursting to life with the sun, trudging through a forest, meadows and pasture before its “summit” section mimics the exultation of reaching the mountaintop. It then descends into dusk and again into the pre-dawn darkness.
Leonard Slatkin, who conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a performance of the symphony today, selected the piece as his farewell to Aspen, where he first came as a student in 1964. Slatkin studied here for four summers and has since come back frequently as a guest conductor. Today marks his last performance here, as he is retiring from guest conducting.
“It’s not just descriptive of a physical journey,” Slatkin said of Strauss’s 1915 symphony. “It’s more about the philosophy of ‘Where do we begin?’ and ‘Where do we end?’ It starts in darkness, and by the time we’ve gotten through 52 to 53 minutes, we return back to where we’ve begun. With a relationship of 50 years with Aspen, and the festival and school, it seemed, philosophically, the right thing to do.”
Slatkin, 69, is not retiring altogether. He’ll remain in his post as director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra National de Lyon in France. But he’s giving up guest-conducting commitments elsewhere, in places like the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, the Tanglewood Music Center in Boston and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles — all of which he’s visiting this summer.
“There is an aura about the Aspen festival,” he said in his dressing room at the Benedict Music Tent before a recent rehearsal. “There’s something about it. It has a special feeling for so many people — I’m always proud to say I’m an Aspen product.”
Slatkin grew up in Los Angeles in a musical family — his mother a cellist, his father a violinist and conductor. Yet Slatkin thought he wanted to be an English teacher. He went to Indiana University straight out of high school in 1962, was kicked out for refusing to take part in mandatory ROTC service and then went to community college in Los Angeles. When his father died at age 47 the following year, Slatkin said people encouraged him to go back to music and take up conducting.
He was accepted to Aspen in the summer of 1964 and conducted his first music here (besides high school musicals). Festival Music Director Walter Susskind encouraged Slatkin to audition for the Juilliard School in New York. He was accepted, and he spent the next four years studying at Juilliard during the school year and in Aspen for the summers.
“I heard so many pieces here for the first time in my life,” Slatkin said. “I heard pieces here that were eye-opening — it was like worlds were opening constantly for me. Going to song recitals, harpsichord recitals — what was I doing at harpsichord recitals? It was all about learning the music, learning every aspect possible. I think today it’s impossible to do that — there’s just so much going on that you can’t absorb it all.”
When Slatkin arrived as a student, the festival hosted just 125 students — only four of them fellow conducting students — with three concerts per week over nine weeks, performed by students and faculty without guest artists, and there was one orchestra. The student body has grown nearly fivefold since, and today there are three orchestras and often three concerts per day during the festival’s eight-week season, headlined by prominent soloists and guest artists.
“Every place changes, but Aspen has had one of the most dramatic changes over 50 years,” Slatkin said.
One downside of the expanded scope of the festival, he said, is that students often focus solely on their specialties. In what he called a “disturbing trend,” he often sees students of a particular instrument leave concerts after a soloist on their instrument has finished.
“In the old days, we were here to learn the repertoire — all of it,” Slatkin said.
He encourages current students to open themselves up to new music and listen as much as they can while they’re here.
“If you come here with the true desire to learn and listen, to keep your ears open, you will come away with the ideal Aspen experience,” he said.
The distinguished conducting career Slatkin embarked on as an Aspen alumnus included posts as director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he served for 27 years; as director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; and as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. He has been awarded both the U.S. National Medal of the Arts and the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. His recordings have won seven Grammys.
Over his five decades of performing in Aspen, Slatkin has taken the stage in all three incarnations of the Benedict Music Tent.
“There’s still something very exciting about walking on that stage and seeing experienced people training young musicians, trying to show them the way around the orchestral world,” he said. “That part has always remained.”
Yet Slatkin is decidedly unsentimental about saying goodbye to Aspen.
“It doesn’t feel like leaving home whatsoever,” he said. “It’s just a change. Will I miss it? Probably a little, but I hope other activities will make up for it.”
With less time on the road conducting, Slatkin said he aims to travel for pleasure and to focus on writing books and composing music. His 2012 book “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro” has sold 12,000 copies, making it a blockbuster by classical-music publishing standards. He’s working on two follow-ups, he said.
Today’s program begins with a relatively new piece by Roberto Sierra. Titled “Fandangos,” it’s a Latin-tinged work based on 17th-century harpsichord compositions, which Slatkin commissioned from Sierra in 2000 for the National Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s a terrifically colorful work, and audiences eat it up,” he said. “Usually if you see a composer whose name you’re not familiar with, there’s a worst-case-scenario assumption, and that’s not the case here.”
Sierra’s piece will be followed by Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Garrick Ohlsson, whose Aspen history goes back nearly as far as Slatkin’s.
“(Ohlsson) and I have been working together ever since the mid-’60s here in Aspen,” Slatkin said.”It’s nice to reconnect here again after all these years.”