Slatkin Picks Up the Beat in Washington

St. Louis conductor follows Rostropovich as head of National Symphony Orchestra

AN enthusiastic champion of American musicians and composers will take the baton as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington when Russian-born Mstislav Rostropovich retires from the position.

``There will be more of an emphasis on the American-ness of the orchestra. That's what I do,'' says Leonard Slatkin, who takes over as music director-designate next season. ``There will be more frequent American performances, more use of American composers.''

Mr. Slatkin will complete his contract with the St. Louis Symphony, where he has been music director for the past 15 years, and take on full duties with the orchestra in 1996.

St. Louis has the second oldest symphony in the United States, after the New York Philharmonic. But when Slatkin took the helm in 1979, it was, in his words, ``a good orchestra that had little, if no, respect in the world community.''

Under Slatkin's leadership, the symphony has gained international prominence, touring the world and recording widely.

Slatkin has emphasized community outreach and arts education in St. Louis and worked to broaden the audience for classical music. He now takes that agenda to the national level as the fifth director of the 63-year-old National Symphony Orchestra.

Soon after Slatkin's new position was announced, he spoke with the Monitor:

When you announced you were leaving the St. Louis Symphony, you mentioned possibly taking a few seasons off. What persuaded you to take the position with the National Symphony?

It became very clear that what was being asked of me was more than just leading the orchestra, that it was a broader job of shaping the musical personality of the entire Kennedy Center. It was something new. In addition, I felt that the potential access to congressional leaders and other people in positions of authority ... was something that I couldn't afford to pass by.

Did it surprise you to find out that President Clinton has not attended a National Symphony concert since he became president?

Yes and no. Politicians and people in power get asked to do all kinds of things. We know that he has interest in music and in the arts. We just have to persuade him to show up.

How do you plan to use your new influence?

I think I'm able to promote the idea of having been an American and succeeded - so far - in establishing a career in this country without really going abroad to acquire a reputation. As a native-born American and a person who studied in this country and grew up in the musical institutions of this country, I want to bring that perspective to it and encourage others to follow that kind of path....

I want to make arts education a true agenda in this country for everybody. Arts education should take its rightful place along with the sciences.

What do you see as the main challenges facing the National Symphony right now?

Like any of the [music] institutions right now, it's an economic one. But that's dictated as well by the place of the arts in today's society. By emphasizing education, I think there is a chance to recover some economic ground that's been lost over the last 10, 20 years.

The National Symphony has to continue on its role of outreach, which it's apparently done quite successfully. They have something called the American Residencies Program where they go out into different states, break up the orchestra into small groups, get out into schools, and really delve into the community. They now have to begin to do the same things in their own community. That's an immediate goal.

You've said that some acoustical adjustments need to be made in the Kennedy Center concert hall. Are those relatively simple?

I think the way to do this is very slowly. You don't tear down the building yet, but you begin by trying different configurations for the orchestra on stage, you try risers here and there to see what works best within what you already have. After that, if it's not working at all, it's time to have the consultants come in. The key here is that the players can't hear properly on the stage when a large orchestra is out there.... An orchestra needs to listen to each other.

You've been criticized by some for your audience-friendly approach - talking directly to concertgoers before a performance, for example. How do you defend yourself against this criticism?

We are in competition with all the other events that the public could go to on a given day or evening - movies, sports, sitting at home. We're in a competition for that individual and, on a very basic level, for that dollar. I think of it as drawing people into what we're doing, bringing them more into play with the performance itself.... I find that a lot of people enjoy having more information via the program notes or what I would have to say....

I do it as I see it's necessary for the enjoyment of the performance, something that takes the audience further along in a piece of music.

You've also promoted the idea of using technology wherever possible to increase interest in music. Why do you think the music community has resisted these changes?

Because we, for the most part, are conservative in our thinking. We tend to believe that the music of the past is what we're about, that we don't move concurrently with the changes of our time. And yet, if you look at opera, which is flourishing to a degree that it hasn't in 35 or 40 years, I think we can point easily to the one addition of putting [sur- or super-] titles at performances as having drawn in an audience that was not interested before. It uses the technology of our time.... Orchestras have been the last of the musical institutions to embrace change.

How do you expect the Washington audience to respond to your ideas?

I don't really know yet.... I'm not sure how much of what I was able to accomplish in St. Louis will play in Washington. I certainly don't expect to bring everything that I did in St. Louis to the Washington audience in the same way. I'll be looking for new ideas.

Has the job of music director changed over the years?

I can see that it has. For myself, I don't change that much. What I do see is that other music directors have relegated responsibilities that they used to have. I suspect one change is that the communities have not looked at their music directors as the lionized being in the community that they used to be. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe music directors have been brought down to earth a little.

You've talked about yourself as an ``old-fashioned'' music director who makes community participation a priority. What has happened to that tradition nationwide?

Well, the convenience of transportation has made it much easier for people to just come into town, do their concerts, and leave town. Several of my colleagues simply don't maintain residence in the cities in which they conduct; they live elsewhere. So really what differentiates them from the guest conductor is the number of weeks they conduct.

Do you agree with those who call orchestras endangered species?

No. I think we'll always have fine orchestras. People seem to always demand to hear the great classic music. What I think will happen is that we will see fewer orchestras as financial conditions make it less feasible for smaller communities to maintain orchestras on their own level. So perhaps the larger orchestras will break down into smaller components and service a broader area.

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