Photo: Leonard Slatkin conducting

Leonard Slatkin talks his new book, his career and entering his final year as music director of the DSO

The Jewish News
Suzanne Chessler

Suzanne Chessler

Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) audiences regularly see the serious side of conductor Leonard Slatkin, but now they also can gain some insight into his sense of humor. Both come across through anecdotes in his new book, Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry (Amadeus Press).

While the text reveals insider stories, it also addresses issues that have to do with orchestral administration from his point of view, some in the headlines and others behind the scenes. There also are lists with explanations — his favorite pieces to conduct, things musicians don’t want audiences to know and more.

The book is being released to coincide with the beginning of various orchestra seasons as he tours to New York, Washington and St. Louis, and it will be available as transition dominates Slatkin’s thoughts. Beginning his 10th and final year as music director of the DSO, he looks ahead to independent touring, teaching, writing his third book and deciding whether to continue living in Michigan.

Among his most satisfying accomplishments have been community concerts, which increased the attendance base by 3,500 people and gave the DSO a chance to play more classical music than most other United States orchestras, and the discounted price of the Soundcard, which brought more young people into the audience and was adapted by other orchestras.

Slatkin — who holds seven Grammys and has directed orchestras in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Lyon, France — talked about the book and his future with the Jewish News:

JN: What do you like about the book?

LS: The people who know me will recognize my voice, especially the storytelling. There’s no ghostwriter. Doing the reminiscences of six people [including Isaac Stern and Gilbert Kaplan] was fun. Taking the time to go back and research my dealings with 40 different orchestras [helped explain] how I got wherever I landed.

JN: How does this book differ from your previous book (Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro)?

LS: I didn’t editorialize much in the first book, but this time, I do. I give suggestions for solving some of the problems. Anytime I go critically into matters, like labor negotiations, I do it as I would like to see it go. I put down what I’ve seen and things I think need to be worked on.

JN: Which sections were easier to write and which harder to write?

LS: The one about six musicians was easy because I have told many of those stories to people. Getting all the information from orchestras — how many premieres did I do, how much American music did I play — was more time-consuming. The humor chapters and the short anecdotes were easy to do. The think pieces, the ones delving into issues confronting concert hall culture, were hard because things are changing all the time.

JN: What compelled you to write this book?

LS: A lot of people have heard me speak on numerous occasions. I just go and talk about whatever I feel like talking about. I usually tell a lot of stories and inject some humor. People kept saying I should put these down in a book. That got me started. The first book sold very well, and the publisher asked if I would be interested in doing another. It seemed the right time. The next book might be geared toward musicians themselves, probably based on videos I do for the website (

JN: How long did it take you to write it, and did you have a writing routine?

LS: It probably took a year and a half. The routine developed out of what my own schedule happened to be. I probably did about half of the book at my computer here at the house, and the other half was at hotel rooms or on the airplane.

JN: Did you ever keep a journal or did you trust your memory?

LS: Mostly trusting the memory. Since I’ve been writing pieces on the web, I think starting in 2008, that’s been a form of a diary. I can go back and look at those. When the chapters I wrote had potential hot points, I corroborated information from two sources.

JN: Did your repertoire priority modify while you were in Detroit?

LS: No. Ever since I started, one of the goals has been proselytizing for American composers both past and present, and I’ve done that with all my positions. I’m saying to younger conductors [that they should] find some repertoire very few others perform and make a mark within a repertoire of some kind.

JN: What have been your experiences with the Jewish community, especially because you have Jewish heritage?

LS: One of the most moving experiences I had was last year, when we premiered a cello concerto by an Arab-American composer at Shaarey Zedek. I was trying to send a message that music transcends the boundaries of the place where you present it. The audience could not have been more enthusiastic and wonderful, and maybe we opened a few doors. I fought to have my friend Murray Sidlin do The Defiant Requiem. That was a definite outreach into the Jewish community. If it can help create bonds between communities that may not have known they existed, we’ve done more than our share of opening lines of communication.

JN: Have you appeared in Israel since the difficult time described in your book? (After about five appearances in Israel, Slatkin canceled an appearance during a period of Mideast hostilities.)

LS: I’ve not been asked back. I put that at the end of the book because that was a time when artists were canceling Israel [performances]. When the Secretary of State [Colin Powell] says you shouldn’t go, you probably shouldn’t go.

JN: Do you have any specific ideas for what you’d like to do outside of conducting?

LS: I’ve already started teaching at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. I’m engaged in writing some arrangements for a vocal group. Then, there’s my own individual composing. I’m 73 and would like to take 20 weeks a year without conducting. Not consecutively. I’d like to explore and go places in the world that I’d just like to see.

JN: How do you look back on your years with the DSO?

LS: I think I accomplished the majority of the goals I set out. I feel it’s time to turn this over to somebody else and let that person see what to do. I’m very proud of the growth we made after the strike. We were one of the leaders in the community to help put Detroit back on the map. During [the times of] web broadcasts, concerts in the communities and the tours, the orchestra’s name came to be on most music lovers’ lips.

JN: What has been your experience with the musicians?

LS: There is a special bond and fellowship among the musicians. They’re very flexible and easy to work with. I always look forward to stepping on the stage giving the downbeat and hearing this magical sound come out in this incredible hall, one of the greats in the world. When we do a big tour, I can’t wait to get back to Orchestra Hall.

JN: What are your wife and son doing as you move on?

LS: Cindy (McTee) is doing some writing. My son, Daniel, who’s now 23, is in Los Angeles and is just beginning his career as a television and film composer. I can’t wait to go to a movie theater and watch his name come up. It may be the proudest moment I will ever experience.  

Leonard Slatkin conducting
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