Leonard Slatkin may be wondering why he ever left Nashville. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra's former music adviser, who's in town this weekend to conduct music by Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Philip Glass at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, has been leading a surreal existence.
In his current post as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Slatkin has devoted the past few months to studying scores for concerts that never happened. He met with musicians who never played a note and schmoozed with donors who never saw their money at work. He even mapped out programs for a new season that may never materialize.
"It's been a frustrating time," says Slatkin.
It's also been a heartbreaking experience for the 66-year-old maestro, who's been forced to sit on the sidelines and watch as Detroit's musicians, board and management seemingly act out the immolation scene from Götterdämmerung.
Detroit's musicians have been on strike all season because of proposed changes to their contract, which, among other things, would result in draconian cuts in their base salaries. Management has argued that the changes are necessary to save the symphony, which has long been mired in the morass of Detroit's depressed economy.
After months of tense negotiations, the musicians rejected a final offer from management late last month, and the Detroit Symphony's executive committee took the extraordinary step of canceling the remainder of the orchestra's 2010-11 season. The conflict may eventually be resolved through arbitration, but for now the symphony remains silent. The duration and sheer acrimony of the strike surprised many industry insiders.
"This strike really has no precedent," says Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant and orchestra expert. "I can't think of another strike at a major orchestra that's gone on this long and caused this much damage."
The dispute certainly put Slatkin, the Detroit Symphony's music director since 2008, in a frustrating and uncomfortable position. Even though the musicians were out on the picket line, Slatkin still had to do his job as music director. He had to prepare for each concert, keeping the scores fresh in his head until each performance was officially canceled, and he had to raise money.
"I just went through my normal routine," says Slatkin. "The only thing I didn't do was conduct the Detroit Symphony in concert."
One other thing he didn't do was talk. To do their jobs, music directors must maintain the goodwill of both their board directors (who pay them) and their musicians (who may or may not be willing to play beautifully for them). So during labor disputes, music directors often stay mum in order to appear neutral.
But saying nothing in Detroit poses risks. "The longer Slatkin remains silent, the more it's going to look like he's trying to please everybody," says McManus. "In the end, the only thing that's going to do is make everybody mad."
So far, pleasing everyone seems to be Slatkin's official policy. "It is still not my place to comment," Slatkin wrote recently on his blog. "The musicians, board and management all have good cases to make for their respective positions." He repeated similar bromides during a recent phone interview: "I was sad to see our whole season disappear, but I am optimistic about the future."
Slatkin hasn't always been so discreet. In fact, he's famously — make that infamously — talkative, which sometimes gets him into trouble.
His appearance at the Metropolitan Opera last spring, for instance, turned out to be a disaster, in part because he set himself up. He was originally scheduled to conduct one of his specialties, contemporary American composer John Corigliano's opera Ghosts of Versailles. But due to budget cuts, the Met swapped that opera for one of its house staples – the Franco Zeffirelli production of Verdi's La Traviata.
Although he had never conducted La Traviata before, Slatkin opted — as he often does — to go for it. Slatkin is nothing if not a risk taker. But before the production even began, the maestro decided to write about his inexperience on his blog.
"It seems I am the only person who has never performed Traviata," Slatkin wrote. But he added optimistically that "since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters."
As you can imagine, the opera world's blogosphere went nuts over that one. The Met represents the pinnacle of the opera profession. It's not school.
That said, the imposing diva Angela Gheorghiu decided to teach Slatkin a lesson. During the first performance, Gheorghiu went one way with the music, and Slatkin went the other. The next day, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini blasted the production, writing "I have seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and a cast at the Met." Slatkin bowed out after that bombshell, and another conductor had to replace him.
True to form, Slatkin later blogged about the fiasco, posting comments that sounded like they had been ghostwritten by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Mistakes happen," Slatkin wrote, adding, "With more than two hours of music, perfection is not the goal. It never should be." Translation: Opera, like democracy, can be messy.
Yet Slatkin's predilection to conduct by the seat of his pants is also one of his great strengths. His nickname, after all, is "Last Minute Leonard," and he lived up to that moniker in early February.
He was on a train to Chicago to judge a conducting competition when he received an urgent call from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Riccardo Muti, Chicago's music director, had collapsed during rehearsal. Could Slatkin step in that evening — without a single rehearsal — to conduct Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony?
Many conductors would have had a heart attack at the mere suggestion. Slatkin's reaction was more like Bluto from Animal House: "Let's do ittttt!"
Unlike La Traviata, though, Slatkin knew the Shosty Five cold, and he conducted the performance that evening from memory. The concert was a triumph.
Slatkin's willingness to give himself to an orchestra was a huge benefit to the Nashville Symphony following the death of music director Kenneth Schermerhorn in 2005. Slatkin led the symphony during its critical transition from regional ensemble to big-time orchestra.
"Leonard increased our profile in a huge way," says Alan Valentine, the symphony's president. "He paved the way for all the great things we've done since opening the Schermerhorn."
One of those things was to turn the modest Nashville Symphony into a Grammy Award-winning classical powerhouse. Slatkin won the symphony's first three Grammys for his recording of Joan Tower's Made in America. The maestro happily noted the additional three Grammys that the Nashville Symphony and its current music director Giancarlo Guerrero won last month.
"I started the Nashville Symphony's Grammy trend," Slatkin says.
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That was a nice little ditty "Gold Man". / An added interest: I recently learned…