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Taking It To The ’Hoods

DSO’s Slatkin talks about neighborhood concerts, the orchestra and his life.

Classical music gets lots of public attention as Leonard Slatkin leads the Detroit Symphony Orchestra into neighborhood concerts, but rock gets some private attention as the orchestra’s music director does some listening in his own home.

Leonard Slatkin

Slatkin, who just extended his DSO contract for another three years, wants to keep up with the current interests of his 17-year-old son, Daniel.

Before the end of June, the Neighborhood Concert Series will bring four concerts to six venues, including the Berman Center for the Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield and Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. (See sidebar for schedule.)

Slatkin, 67, also music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France and principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was married Sunday, Nov. 20, in a home ceremony to composer Cindy McTee, 58, who retired from the University of North Texas as regents professor emerita. Slatkin recently updated the JN about the DSO programming initiative, the orchestra, work commitments and some activities:

JN: What does the Neighborhood Concert Series bring to the DSO season and the community?

LS: When I arrived in Detroit, it was very apparent that some listeners and patrons had difficulties coming downtown or had been overlooked by the DSO itself. I began to think about a concept of reaching out to different communities in an attempt to say we’ve come to your neighborhood and to make sure they’re invited to come into ours. It’s really more about accessibility and getting to know the orchestra. I think the long term is that we develop a new base of listeners. The idea is to reach people by coming directly to them.

JN: How have you gone about deciding on the programming for these concerts?

LS: We’ve kept all of the programming within the classical sphere. This is not about pops or holiday concerts or the jazz series. It’s about Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Copland and other composers whose works have the most resonance with us as a viable symphony orchestra. We thought that one thing to do would be to see if the repertoire itself was a problem in audience attendance downtown. I tend to think that’s not the issue because our Downtown concerts are selling out on a regular basis now no matter what we play. I think the issues are accessibility and pricing. Keeping accessibility on the high side and pricing on the low side will give us a good opportunity to increase our audience base.

JN: How did you pick the places where the orchestra will be playing?

LS: They had to be large enough to accommodate the orchestra and provide enough seating. Congregation Shaarey Zedek is a logical place because of its space. The Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn seats almost the same number as Orchestra Hall. The arrangements have been about reaching a broader audience in a particular neighborhood, not a particular venue.

JN: How did the strike affect the DSO in general?

LS: After a work stoppage for half a year, there are residual effects for everybody, not just the orchestra but members of the board and the public. A lot of people didn’t know what to expect when we came back to work. In many respects, I was very happy that we played for a few weeks and had most of the summer off to reflect about what we’re doing. Certainly, from the point of view of the management and the staff, we’ve restructured so many things — these community concerts, the low pricing, the number of concerts we play, the streaming of the broadcasts. I think we learned from the strike how to do this; and we learned it, in a way, from the orchestra itself in producing concerts.

JN: How did the strike impact musicians?

LS: I think the attitude on stage has been very high and very welcoming. Yes, we lost members of the orchestra, a consequence of anything like that; but I’m confident we will attract the brightest stars out there to become members of our orchestra, whether they’re experienced or coming from music schools. The orchestra is playing at a very high level. Our musicians see full houses and are energized by that. Maybe there are a couple of people who continue to be a little bit bitter about what happened, but I think eventually the initiatives we’ve taken will show that, unfortunately, the strike probably was necessary in order to address the problems we had.

JN: Did you have to do anything special about the guest artists whose concerts were canceled?

LS: Everybody understands the nature of a strike. We’re not the first orchestra to go through that. We’ve tried to reschedule virtually everybody over this season or next so people not able to come here during that time will be making appearances.

JN: How does your work in Michigan complement your work in France and Pennsylvania?

LS: For me, it’s a matter of not wanting to get on a plane every week. That’s what I’ve had to do for 40 years. Now, I’ll go from Detroit after a two- or three-week stint, head off to Lyon for two or three weeks and maybe go to Pittsburgh for a couple of weeks. With travel getting more complicated, this scheduling simplifies my life. Some people will look at my schedule and say I’m working harder than ever. The answer might be yes in terms of the conducting itself, but as long as I keep the travel down, I don’t feel it’s that complicated at all.

JN: What went into your decision to accept another three years in Detroit?

LS: The same things that went into my decision to accept it in the first place. The orchestra’s great. The hall’s fantastic. The public is supportive. The challenges are what I thrive on. I live by things that have to be solved. For me, trying to create a remarkable environment for music and a model for other institutions around this country struck me as exactly the kind of challenge I wanted to have.

JN: Do you have other new ventures in mind for the orchestra as you begin your new contract?

LS: Right now, it’s a matter of seeing what works in what we’ve already proposed. Just like in any economic situation, you have to see, over the course of a couple of years, what is effective and what isn’t. Even though things are going well — with a 40 percent increase in ticket sales and donations starting to turn around — there has to be a consistent level. Once we see that it’s going forward on a steady basis, then we’ll begin to do other things, including the presentation of concert opera and perhaps collaboration with other arts institutions in our city.

JN: Any upcoming recordings?

LS: We’re continuing our Rachmaninoff cycles for release about a year from now. Later in the season, we’ll do some recordings of music by my wife, Cindy McTee. There will be another installment in our John Williams concerto series, and we’re in negotiations for other projects.

JN: As you’ve settled into Michigan, did you find special places that you frequent?

LS: My kitchen. We just bought a house in Bloomfield Hills, and I finally have the kitchen I wanted. I had such a great day puttering around making Thanksgiving dinner for about four people. When I have free time, I go to the movies or walk around Birmingham and Royal Oak. There are some restaurants we go to on a frequent basis, but it would be unfair to name my favorite haunts.

JN: Are you involved with any Jewish activities?

LS: I was not raised in a particularly religious environment although the whole family is Jewish, and I respect and love my heritage. I do try to make special appearances with Jewish-based institutions when it comes to speaking to groups to discuss elements about culture.

JN: How are you feeling?

LS: I feel great. It’s been a little over two years since I had the heart attack, and I’m doing well. The doctor gave me a clean bill of health two weeks ago. My wife had surgery recently. She helped me through the heart attack, and I’m helping her out during this time. Somehow, the bond of a health crisis, helping each other through it, makes a huge difference in life.

JN: Do you and your wife have similar affinities for music?

LS: We have similar tastes and a broad sense of the repertoire. Once in a while, we disagree. Her world deals more with the creative aspect, and mine is more re-creative. Her world is about making music from nothing, while I take what other people have done and try to look at it in a creative way. She loves coming to the concerts.

JN: Does your son have any interest in a musical career?

LS: He’s trying to go into college as a music major and then switch over to business.

JN: What’s your outlook as the DSO season unfolds?

LS: We’re certainly back as an orchestra. We’re in great shape. There’s an energy and excitement that hasn’t been felt here in a very long time. We want everybody to use the opportunity with the lower prices and new-found feeling of community to visit us; and if they can’t do that, we’ll probably be coming to neighborhoods near them.

Neighborhood Concert Series Schedule

The Neighborhood Concert Series, running December through June, will be offered at the locations listed below. While individual tickets cost $25, subscriptions are $75 per neighborhood, making four concerts the price of three.

Besides Leonard Slatkin, conductors include Joseph Silverstein, Elizabeth Schulze and Hans Graf. The various works cover a broad classical range representing numerous composers, such as Vivaldi, Schubert and Dvorak.

A complete listing of conductors, featured musicians and programs is available at For ticket information, call (313) 576-5111 or visit the website.

West Bloomfield

Berman Center for the Performing Arts, Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple

7:30 p.m. Thursdays: Jan. 5, Feb. 2, March 8, April 26


Congregation Shaarey Zedek, 27375 Bell Road

7:30 p.m. Thursdays: Jan. 26, March 22, April 19, May 10

Beverly Hills

Seligman Performing Arts Center, 22305 W. 13 Mile

3 p.m. Sundays: Dec. 11, Jan. 29, March 25, April 22

Bloomfield Hills

Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church, 1340 W. Long Lake Road

8 p.m. Saturdays: Jan. 7, Feb. 4, March 10, April 28


Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, 15801 Michigan Ave.

10:45 a.m. Fridays: Dec. 9, Jan. 27, March 23, June 8

Grosse Pointe

Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, 16 Lakeshore Drive

3 p.m. Sundays: Jan. 8, Feb. 5, March 11, April 29

 By Suzanne Chessler| Contributing Writer



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