World-class maestro heading to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

DETROIT -- They got their maestro. He got his orchestra. And Detroit has a new musical leader, whose reputation stretches from the American heartland to the music capitals of Europe and the Far East.

Leonard Slatkin, 63, one of the most gifted American conductors of his generation, has been named the 12th music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra after a five-year search. Slatkin, the first American-born conductor to lead the orchestra in 60 years, succeeds Neeme Jarvi, who stepped down in 2005.

Slatkin's appointment, which consummates a torrid four-month courtship, is a coup for the DSO. His musicianship promises to refocus national and international attention on the orchestra while bringing to Detroit a conductor known for his enlightened leadership beyond the podium.

"Leonard will be a really good fit in Detroit," said Drew McManus, a consultant who publishes Adaptistration, a Web log focused on the orchestra business. "He has a reputation as a real orchestra builder in terms of helping a group develop a unique, original sound, building its reputation through recording, outreach and pulling in new donors."

Slatkin is known as a substantive musician with a virtuoso technique and broad repertoire, including a bent for new American music. But he also brings a zeal for music education and the nitty-gritty of audience building, fund-raising and community outreach. As American orchestras struggle to find their footing in a culture that often marginalizes classical music, conductors like Slatkin -- a road-tested veteran with a 21st century vision -- are scarce.

"I think for this orchestra my experience is going to make a big difference," said Slatkin, whose 12-year post as music director of the National Symphony in Washington concludes next spring. He previously built the Saint Louis Symphony into one of the country's best during a landmark 17-year tenure.

"I've been around this before. I've run orchestras. I'm used to it. It really is about being a leader in the community."

Slatkin, who met with the DSO musicians Sunday afternoon for the first time as their leader, was be introduced at 10 a.m. Monday at Orchestra Hall. He becomes music director designate immediately. His three-year contract begins next year, with a renewal option in 2009 for an additional two years.

He'll conduct five weeks next season. Starting in 2009-10, he'll conduct 13 weeks, half of the DSO classical subscription concerts. He'll also lead previously scheduled concerts April 3-6, 2008.

The music director heads the artistic side of an orchestra, with broad power over programming, hiring musicians and sharpening the aesthetic profile of the group. Slatkin said he would move his primary residence to metro Detroit next season.

"I'll pay taxes there," he said. "The way you get to learn a community is by being a part of it."

The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Slatkin's compensation package at the National Symphony was about $1.2 million in 2004-05 compared with Jarvi's package of about $600,000.

"We've made a very responsible contract with Leonard, " DSO President Anne Parsons said. "He and his manager were extremely cooperative."

Slatkin bolted to the top of the short list after he guest conducted in Detroit from May 31 to June 2, his first concerts with the DSO in 20 years. Slatkin didn't consider himself on the market, having filled his post-Washington dance card with guest conducting and smaller posts such as principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and principal guest conductor of London's Royal Philharmonic.

But the chemistry sizzled so intensely between Slatkin and the DSO that the players quickly began telling members of the search committee, "He's the one."

Clarinetist and committee member Doug Cornelsen said the players were captivated by Slatkin's authority, efficiency, ear for color and intonation and the flair he brought to music by Sergei Prokofiev and William Walton.

"I heard that one musician actually walked up to him as and asked, `Would you be music director here?'" Cornelsen said. "Slatkin said, `Yes, but you would have to hurry.' "

Parsons quickly re-engaged Slatkin for a weekend tryst with the DSO in July at the Meadow Brook Music Festival, where an all-Beethoven program and a pops program offered another test. Slatkin said he was struck by the players' commitment to concerts others might have treated as a summer throwaway.

"I believe all of us knew we had to consummate the deal," he said. "I haven't had that feeling with an orchestra in a long time."

While Slatkin's partnership with the Saint Louis Symphony was a triumph, his tenure in Washington has been mixed. While the orchestra has improved, there has been tension with both management and players. The DSO offers a fresh start.

Negotiations took a hiatus in August and early September while the DSO hammered out a new labor agreement. Slatkin's deal was finalized last week.

The DSO's five-year search was unusually long, slowed by a management change in 2003 and the lack of consensus candidates. The stars most desired by the musicians, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Charles Dutoit, fell off the board for various reasons, and other potentials -- Mark Wigglesworth, Andrew Davis, Hans Graf, Yan Pascal Tortelier -- never amassed enough support .

Peter Oundjian's appointment as artistic adviser in 2006 bought the search more time by providing artistic stability. Peter Cummings, chairman emeritus and search committee member, said patience was rewarded.

"All the pieces are in place. We have great facilities ... a world-class music director, great management and a new labor contract. The tough economy is a challenge, but we're ready to move from the brink of greatness to actual greatness."

Slatkin, who will travel to Detroit frequently in the coming months for planning and auditions, said his first goal was to broaden the subscription base through varied programming and deepen the orchestra's connection with the community, especially through the DSO's extensive education programs.

The second goal, he said, was to establish a national identity, most likely through American music, especially a group of younger composers he's championing. He also wants to tap into the DSO's French tradition. He said touring and finding new ways of disseminating the DSO through recording, the Internet and television were all in play.

"This is exactly the right job for me," he said. "It plays to my strengths. I really couldn't be more delighted. If I could start tomorrow, I would."



Age: 63

New gig: Music director, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Current posts: Music director, National Symphony (1996-2008); principal guest conductor, Pittsburgh Symphony (beginning 2008); principal guest conductor, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London; music adviser, Nashville Symphony (through 2009)

Previous posts: Music director, Saint Louis Symphony, 1979-96. Also held titles with Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl, Philharmonia Orchestra (London) and others.

Recordings: More than 100 CDs with orchestras worldwide and five Grammy s

Guest conducting: Appearances with nearly every major orchestra worldwide, including the leading ensembles in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Berlin

Principal teachers: Walter Susskind and Jean Morel at Aspen and Juilliard School.

Born: Los Angeles, 1944, into a family of famous studio musicians. His father was Felix Slatkin, concertmaster (first violinist) at 20th Century Fox. His mother, Eleanor Aller, was principal cellist at Warner Bros. They were in the Hollywood String Quartet.

Family: Married to soprano Linda Hohenfeld; son Daniel, 13

Residence: Potomac, Md., but plans to move to metro Detroit.

Music he'd take to a desert island (limit five): Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations; any 1950s Sinatra LP on Capitol in which he wears a hat on the cover; Ella Fitzgerald "Songbook" recordings; conductor Fritz Reiner's recordings of Richard Strauss; Tchaikovsky's Trio in A minor performed by Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Rubinstein.

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