Conductor Leonard Slatkin returns to Aspen Music Festival, where his career began 55 years ago
IF YOU GO …
What: Aspen Festival Orchestra with conductor Leonard Slatkin
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Sunday, July 21, 4 p.m.
How much: $85
Tickets: Aspen Music Festival box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: The orchestra will perform Conor Abbott Brown’s “How to Relax with Origami,” Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Seong-Jin Cho and Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations on an Original Theme.
Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert marks a homecoming for conductor Leonard Slatkin, as the distinguished Aspen alum looks back on his career and looks ahead to celebrating his 75th birthday.
“It’s a place that’s very special to me,” Slatkin said of Aspen. “It’s the place that encouraged me to pursue this path as a conductor.”
It was here, in the mid-1960s, that Slatkin conducted his first concerts, that he learned the repertoire, that Music Festival director Walter Susskind took the young Slatkin under his wing and encouraged him to audition for the Juilliard School of Music.
He recalled going to every concert here during the summers — back then, there were three to four a week, rather than that many daily, so it was doable — and soaking up all the knowledge he could about the music, the varied disciplines of his classmates and stories about the great performers of earlier generations from the faculty.
“As a student, I was a sponge, as were most of my colleagues,” he said. “We took in everything. We went to every concert. We just wanted to absorb it all.”
After four years of studying at Juilliard during the school year and in Aspen during the summers, Slatkin embarked on a monumental five-decade career that has 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. His most recent stint, as music director at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, revived the struggling orchestra and made it a point of civic pride. His recordings have won six Grammys and he has been awarded both the U.S. National Medal of the Arts and the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Slatkin returned to Aspen frequently as a guest conductor until 2014, when he bid the festival — and summer guest-conducting — farewell by leading the Aspen-appropriate “Alpine Symphony” by Richard Strauss.
Aspen Times classical music critic Harvey Steiman, who grew up with Slatkin in Los Angeles, recalled the effect that the famed conductor had on students during his guest spots in Aspen over the decades.
“My wife and I always came backstage to say ‘Hi,’ and there was a long queue of students eager to get an autograph or a snapshot,” he recalled, “and they all were effusive in their enthusiasm for the week of rehearsals and concerts.”
Slatkin often battled the elements and afternoon rainstorms in the tent. One heavy downpour on the tent roof drowned out the quiet second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony so thoroughly, Steiman recalled, that Slatkin abandoned it and moved on to the louder third movement. During pre-concert remarks before his 2014 concert, thunder rumbled in the distance and Slatkin jokingly chided the percussion section for coming in 25 minutes early (the rain steered clear that day).
Slatkin is back on the podium in the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday to lead the Aspen Festival Orchestra one more time. The appearance is occasioned by his approaching birthday, on Sept. 1, as he looks back and returns to orchestras and organizations that shaped him along with those he shaped himself.
“I wanted to do one last reconnection with certain organizations and institutions that were beneficial and supportive when I started,” he said. “Aspen, of course, is where I got my start 55 years ago as a student. It seemed only apropos to come back there and make one last run at it to remind myself of my roots.”
His only other summer concert is with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia, where he began his career as a professional conductor. He’s also returning to St. Louis; Nashville, Tennessee; and Detroit, where he remains music director laureate, among other stops.
The stops offer the maestro personal reflection, but he also has a journalistic purpose in mind. Slatkin is at work on a book with Robert Freeman, former director of the Eastman School of Music, that he said is aimed at “evaluating the state of the symphony orchestra in this still-early phase of the 21st Century.”
In his travels and homecomings, he is gathering observations and interviewing musicians, students, administrators, writers and listeners at this pivotal moment for orchestras, as organizations reel from labor conflicts at major orchestras, the dismantling of arts education in public schools, scandals that emerged in the #MeToo movement and the still-growing number of elite musicians being trained in Aspen and other music schools.
Slatkin and Freeman are in the early stages of developing a new arts education curriculum and training program for teachers. His and Freeman’s book will aim to offer new solutions that won’t financially strain institutions and won’t depend on government funding. For instance, they aim to found a privately funded school that would train public school history teachers to incorporate the arts into curricula.
“Probably I won’t be around to see the end result,” Slatkin said. “These things will take years to implement, but it’s an area where I’ve wanted to do something and now I’m starting to come up with ideas.”
Certainly, if anyone can shape a way forward, it’s Slatkin. He’s had a transformative effect on the orchestras he’s led and the cities they call home, most recently in Detroit where he navigated a tumultuous period that included a musician strike and the city’s bankruptcy. Slatkin spearheaded initiatives including broadcasting concerts on the internet, staging performances in the suburbs and restructuring ticket prices to attract younger and more diverse audiences. It became a model for keeping orchestras vibrant and relevant in the 21st century.
“I was proud that the orchestra became one of the city’s leaders,” Slatkin said.
On this trip, Slatkin booked some time in Aspen before his orchestra rehearsals began to observe the town and the festival as he “tried to remain anonymous.”
His initial observations led him to conclude that Aspen may itself need reinvigorate civic pride in the Music Fest.
An interaction with a store clerk underscored the point. When she asked what he was doing in town, and he answered that he was here for the Music Fest, she responded, “Oh, is that going on?”
Such a thing would have been unthinkable in the ’60s during his time as a student, when the Music Festival was the unrivaled social and cultural centerpiece of summer in Aspen. Or even in later decades when he was a regular here as a guest conductor.
But the boom in summer tourism, and the diversification of summer amenities in Aspen, he concluded, has diminished the standing of daily world-class concerts here into a niche event for the classical crowd.
“In some ways, Aspen has grown too big, with too many other events,” he said. “Or the festival hasn’t done what it needs to do to call attention in its own home.”
Every city that has one, he believes, should take pride in its orchestra and all locals should have at least a passing knowledge of it, in the same way residents of a major city would know the stars of the local sports team or generally how the team is doing.
“It’d be nice to get to the same point with artistic organizations, where people say, ‘Oh, we’re proud of our Aspen festival. We don’t go to it but we support it because we think it’s good for the city,’” he said. “That would be a nice goal to shoot for.”
Slatkin stepped down from his administrative role in Detroit last year.
“I didn’t realize the stress it took on my life until I stopped doing it,” he said of the administrative work he’s taken on over the last 40 years. “Being free of the amount of decision-making gave me more time to think about other projects.”
He’s used that time to write, to compose music and to study the orchestral works that he’d most frequently conducted over his career.
“I can’t say I took them for granted ever, but the chance to have the time to go back and re-examine those works that have been with me all these years has been of great benefit,” he said.
Among them is Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which he’ll lead the Aspen Festival Orchestra through Sunday.
“(It is) a piece that celebrates friendship,” he said. “And, boy, if we ever needed a time to do that, it’s now.”
Along with the Elgar piece, Sunday’s concert includes Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the young star pianist Seong-Jin Cho as soloist in his Aspen debut.
“He’s a wonderful artist and clearly embarking on a major career,” Slatkin said of the 25-year-old Chopin Piano Competition winner.
The afternoon will open with Colorado composer Conor Abbott Brown’s “How to Relax with Origami,” which Slatkin commissioned and premiered in 2017 in Detroit. The 12-minute piece by the 31-year-old Boulder native was one of a group of seven short works that Slatkin commissioned from rising young composers. Brown’s was a hit with the audience at its premiere.
“He came up with a clever piece that’s like a series of cartoons you would find in the Sunday newspapers, where some are one panel and some are seven,” Slatkin explained. “The shortest is maybe 10 seconds, the longest is two minutes, all filled with good humor and good fun. He’s a composer I’m going to keep watch on and promote his music.”