Two SLSO musicians appointed by Leonard Slatkin reflect on the Conductor Laureate ahead of the two-week celebration of his 50-year partnership with the SLSO
Thomas Drake was appointed the SLSO’s Assistant Principal Trumpet in 1987. Felicia Foland joined the SLSO in 1990 as part of the bassoon section. Both were appointed by SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin during his 17-year tenure as Music Director.
Drake and Foland have appeared on many SLSO recordings under Slatkin’s direction, toured with the orchestra internationally, and have participated in education and community programs championed and expanded under Slatkin’s leadership.
Drake and Foland reflected on their experiences with Slatkin ahead of the Conductor Laureate’s two-week engagement with the SLSO, April 27 to May 4. During those two weeks, Slatkin leads two programs with pieces, soloists, and composers close to his heart.
How would you characterize Leonard’s leadership style?
Drake: In my experience, Leonard's leadership style can be characterized in one word – trust. In the course of a week of rehearsals and performances, Leonard would rarely, if at all, suggest to a player how to phrase a solo. He would let the player work the passage throughout the week and trust that they would find their musical “comfort level.” He would then adjust accompaniments accordingly if necessary. Tuttis (meaning “all instruments together”) were, of course, a different matter. He shapes phrases and sound character to his interpretation, then trusts a player's musical judgment to work within that sound if they have a solo passage that emanates from the tutti. It keeps everyone listening and helps build a cohesive sound of orchestral voices.
Foland: When I think of how few American “Maestros” there were anywhere in the world when Leonard began his tenure as Music Director of the SLSO, I concur that he invented what may be considered the American Orchestra Maestro role himself. It consisted of all the European hallmarks of artistic excellence for an orchestra along with working as a partner with other St. Louis-area musicians found in churches, schools, choruses, and colleges. This was a huge departure and the birth of an era of renewed relevance for the orchestra. I can not imagine how less rich my work would be without the IN UNISON Chorus concerts or our Community Partnership concerts and educational programs.
What do you see as Leonard’s biggest legacy with the SLSO?
Drake: Leonard's legacy is two-fold. First, he put the SLSO on the national and international stage with tours of the Far East, Europe, along with both coasts of the United States, weekly national radio broadcasts on NPR, and an extraordinary amount of recording. Secondly, his deep interest in "forgotten" American composers led to many Grammy-nominated recordings, thereby leading to a resurgence of interest in music which might have gone unnoticed and ignored. The orchestra recorded extensively under his tenure with many different labels, at one time releasing as many as six CDs a year.
Foland: I think of two features when I consider Leonard’s legacy with the SLSO. One feature that has become a beacon for area regional young musicians is, of course, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, which Leonard founded in 1970. This one orchestra, the “YO,” as we refer to it, feeds orchestras far beyond our city with its alumni, while nourishing young minds with the satisfaction of learning to make music and play an instrument. I cannot think of a better way for a young person to spend their time, nor a better investment in our future generations.
Leonard also introduced the orchestra to the world with recordings (Grammy Award-winning recordings), tours, and press. The orchestra was always exceptional, yet not well known before Leonard shared us with the world. This is, in part, why tours and recording are so very vital to the health of an orchestra. It also allows and enables us to share what is among the best of St. Louis with the world!
Is there any particular performance Leonard led with the SLSO that left you moved? What was special about that performance?
Drake: I remember a performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring performed in the Berlin Philharmonie while on tour. The stage is tiered. The trumpets were on the second to last tier right in front of the bass drum and timpani. This is a piece that Leonard does particularly well and the performance was going very well. Rite is an extremely dynamic piece – very loud, very soft. In Part II, we get to the 11/4 bar which is scored for timpani, bass drum, and strings – with eleven quarter notes in succession. All forte or fortissimo depending on your instrument. Notice that I said bass DRUM. Leonard wanted TWO! Or at least he didn't object when former SLSO percussionist John Kasica played it that way. The sound was beyond thrilling. It rattled the soul.
Foland: I have many very wonderful memories of great concerts with Leonard, including a stunning The Rite of Spring in Berlin. The orchestra was so very vibrant and Leonard’s Rite was live, fresh, and truly exciting. Stravinsky would have loved it.
How would you describe Leonard’s personality?
Foland: Leonard is one very smart guy and has a good sense of humor. Over the years, I have seen an increasingly playful and warm person emerge. I have a special fondness for Leonard as he accepted me in the Youth Orchestra when I was 14, then accepted me in the SLSO when I was 32! I have seen him grow over the years, as he has me. I am not unbiased!
Any other Leonard memory that sticks out in your mind?
Drake: During my first season with the orchestra, we were to take Stravinsky's Petrushka on an East Coast tour from Florida to Carnegie Hall. There's a part toward the end that calls for two very high trumpets to answer each other. For various reasons, I was asked to play both parts, doubling the difficulty. It went well in rehearsals, but by the time the first performance in St. Louis came, I had run out of good luck. It didn't go very well. Nor did it on the second night… or on the first performance of the tour. We were to take two programs on tour and before a performance of the second program, Leonard summoned me into his dressing room. I was ready to be fired. On the contrary, Leonard offered me a "pep talk" explaining how he knew that I could play the passage and to trust myself. From then on, with his encouragement and that of my colleagues, performances went very well for the remainder of the tour – and taught me a very humbling lesson.
Foland: My favorite memory I have of Leonard that best illuminates something about him and his work was a concert at Powell Hall years ago on the night a beloved stage hand, Marty McManiss, retired from his work. Marty was a big, gruff, teddy-bear of a guy who sort of looked like a rock and was a sweetheart underneath. Leonard called Marty to the stage after the applause, introduced him to the audience, and then gave him his retirement gift, which was a performance of “Danny Boy.” Marty cried like a baby from the front of the stage and it was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed on stage. It said a lot about both Leonard and Marty while displaying the power of music.
To learn more about Slatkin’s two-week engagement with the SLSO, click here.