Legacy Conversations: Leonard Slatkin

Photo by David Duchon-Doris

Internationally acclaimed American conductor talks about the music of John Williams and his friendship with the Maestro

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto

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Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Leonard Slatkin comes from a very distinguished musical family: he is the son of violinist Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, founding members of the Hollywood String Quartet, the most acclaimed chamber music group working in the United States during the 1940s and ’50s; it was regarded “as the first American-born chamber music group to rise to international prominence”. Leonard’s father, Felix Slatkin, was concertmaster of the 20th Century Fox Studio Orchestra under the great Alfred Newman and performed in countless film scores, (including How Green Was My Valley, How To Marry a Millionaire and The Robe) while his mother Eleanor was cellist of the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra and worked with virtually all the great Golden Age composers, including Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Together, the Slatkins encompassed all the glory and beauty of Hollywood music of the heydays and the vivacity of the Los Angeles music scene.

The Hollywood String Quartet (left to right): Felix Slatkin, Paul C. Shure, Alvin Dinkin, Eleanor Aller

Within such an environment, young Leonard soon became enamored with music and was able to witness the incredible musicianship of the Hollywood “golden era” within the walls of the house he grew up in. As he told in several interviews, the living room of the Slatkins frequently turned into a concert hall during many evenings, in which virtually all the great composers and musicians working in Los Angeles came to listen and perform.

Leonard Slatkin began his musical training on the violin, then studied conducting with his father and later continued with Walter Susskind at Aspen and Jean Morel at the Juilliard School of Music. His conducting debut happened in 1966 in New York and in 1968 he was named assistant conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. In 1979, he became music director of the St. Louis Symphony, a position where he spearheaded the orchestra into a greatly successful period, turning them into one of America’s most creative and innovative ensembles. From that point on, his career launched into the classical music stardom, becoming one of the most talented conductors of the international scene. He guest-conducted virtually all the greatest American orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra; he became very active in Europe as well, conducting all five London orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, Munich’s Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano ‘Giuseppe Verdi’.

Nowadays, Slatkin is Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Directeur Musical Honoraire of the Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL). He maintains a rigorous schedule of guest conducting throughout the world and is active as a composer, author, and educator. In 2017, he published Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry, a book where he collected his own many insightful ideas on music.

Leonard Slatkin conducting (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

Despite his work into the great temples of art music throughout the world, Slatkin mantained a very strong connection with the Los Angeles music scene and specifically with the film music community of composers and musicians in Hollywood. He became friend with John Williams through his mother Eleanor, who performed as cellist in many scores composed by Williams during the 1960s and 70s (among the scores where Eleanor performed were The Cowboys, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Black Sunday, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws 2 and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). The composer became a friend of the Slatkin family, cementing his bond with Leonard over the years. Once becoming assistant conductor in Saint Louis, Slatkin started to ask several of his film music friends such as Williams and Jerry Goldsmith to write concert pieces for him to conduct with the St. Louis Symphony. Together with André Previn, he was one of the very first conductors to champion the concert works of John Williams; in 1983 he also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for a beautiful recording of the Flute Concerto (with soloist Peter Lloyd) and the first version of the Violin Concerto (with violinist Mark Peskanov) released on Varèse Sarabande.

The world premiere recording of John Williams’ Violin Concerto and Flute Concerto, released by Varèse Sarabande Records in 1983

Slatkin kept a close association with the music of John Williams over the course of his entire career, performing and recording both his film music and works written for the concert hall. In 2002, when he was music director of Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra, Slatkin invited Williams to conduct a series of concerts as part of the first “film music festival” presented by a major symphony orchestra on the American soil.

Slatkin and John Williams in National Symphony Orchestra’s film music festival held in Washington D.C. in 2002 (Photo by Scott Suchman)

During his tenure as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he performed and recorded many of John Williams’ concertos for soloist and orchestra (all of them released digitally by Naxos). Slatkin believes there is a lot to discover when it comes to the music written for the concert hall by John Williams and this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the composer’s style and approach, which reveals a more personal and intimate side of Williams’ musical persona.

Leonard Slatkin, John Williams and Steven Spielberg at Tanglewood (2012)

In this exclusive interview, Maestro Slatkin talks with The Legacy of John Williams about his personal friendship with the composer, offering also thoughtful considerations about Williams’ music. He also talks about the incredible legacy of his own family and how it crossed paths with the career of John Williams himself.

Maestro Leonard Slatkin (Photo by Nico Rodamel)

Special thanks to Leslie Karr for the kind help and support in making this interview possible.

Discover Leonard Slatkin’s recordings with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (including the John Williams’ concertos) on Naxos Music: https://www.naxos.com/

Visit Leonard Slatkin’s official website for news and updates about his conducting schedule and recordings: https://www.leonardslatkin.com/

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