The Orchestra That Does Things Differently

By Doyle Armbrust

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 edition of Playbill.

SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin

I’ve had the good fortune—and occasional breathtaking misfortune—of interviewing some of the most prominent figures in classical music. So SLSO fans, let me dish you the unvarnished, behind-the-curtain scoop on your Conductor Laureate: He’s a treasure.


Conductors are often the most unpredictable beasts populating the musician phylum, coaxing a genuine response from them—one that doesn’t feel pre-glazed for an eventual donut of a memoir—can be an elusive bit of business.


The truth is, my first interaction with Leonard Slatkin played like one of those cherished, setting-the-world-to-rights conversations that are more at home in a pub than, say, in different time zones by way of a pair of glowing, overpriced rectangles. The maestro is disarming and easy with conversation, resolute in his convictions, and inspiringly curious.


Here’s the other headline: he loves St. Louis. In the interview below and even amongst the comments lost to the cutting room floor, Leonard Slatkin’s admiration, gratitude, and fondness for the city is unequivocal.

Doyle Armbrust: You strike me as someone whose sights are set in front of you, so I’m wondering how it feels when the occasion calls for looking back.


Leonard Slatkin: I tend not to look back—I guess when you’ve been doing this job as long as I have, you tend to focus on what you did right versus what you did wrong. Especially the years in St. Louis—it was a remarkable time—which was one reason my wife and I decided to move back to the city. It’s where my career started, and it’s even where my family started, when they came over from Russia in 1913. There are four generations of Slatkins that have St. Louis ties.


DA: I’m surprised to hear you say that, given where you are in your career, you’re able to focus on what you did right. I feel that, along with my musician colleagues, all we can do after a concert is obsess about what tiny thing went wrong rather than celebrating what went right.

LS: But in the grand scheme of things, it winds up after all this time, those are just small blips on the radar. Of course, we always want to improve, but when people ask, “What would you do differently?”, my answer is, “Not much!”


DA: What strikes you as unique to the St. Louis audience, specifically?


LS: While I was working here, I found it a very loyal audience—very devoted to the arts scene. They are aware of the history of the orchestra and what it’s meant for the community. I was very fortunate that while I was here, we established ourselves as an important force around the country and the world. St. Louis strikes a balance between an urban way of living and the rural life of the Midwest. I loved being at the grocery or the ballgame, with people always coming up to greet me—it was sweet and honest.


DA: Were there moments during your tenure that you felt as though you were challenging or coaxing your audience toward music they hadn’t yet encountered?


LS: I considered it all a big adventure for everybody, including myself. I tried to give the orchestra and the community more of a sense of belonging to our country. My question was, What could we do that wasn’t being done by other orchestras? I didn’t abandon Beethoven and Mahler, but to gain a national presence, we would perform American, Russian, and English works being ignored in other cities. It was our calling card. We were the orchestra that tried to do things differently.


DA: Would you consider that your legacy with the SLSO?


LS: One of them. If I had to identify something that I did that was meaningful—really meaningful—it was the formation of the youth orchestra. Nothing makes me prouder than the fact that it is still not only viable, but an important organization that continues to do very well. Several members of the youth orchestra went on to become members of the SLSO itself, and there are many in other orchestras around the country.


Leonard Slatkin working with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra in 1975 and 2019.


DA: It’s amazing how that experience of being in a youth orchestra is so essential in their development as artists, whether or not they go on to be orchestral musicians.


LS: Not just as an artist, but a human being. These young people are learning how to communicate.


DA: Is there anything else you’re particularly proud of?


LS: Back then, there was very little work being done by orchestras to connect with their communities beyond the concert hall. In St. Louis, we started IN UNISON, and I remember distinctly going into African American Baptist churches on Sundays to experience the role that music played in the church services and to understand what music meant to their communities. Being Jewish, I didn’t quite understand it before. In each of the congregations, music was truly savored, and that became a focal point for me.


DA: I’d imagine that outreach has changed quite a bit since your early days.


LS: Well, we’ve had 40 years of music education deteriorating in the school system. In my first year I did 83 young people’s concerts. 83! This is something that we have to think about in general: How do we teach young people to value the arts in general, and not just classical music?


DA: To jump back in time for a moment, do you remember the experience of first being offered your job in St. Louis?


LS: I was a student from 1964 to 1968, at Juilliard during the school year and at Aspen in the summer. In my third year, I became the assistant to Aspen’s music director, Walter Susskind, and it was announced that he’d be going to St. Louis for the 1968/1969 season. That summer

I led a performance and after I finished, Susskind and the executive director of the SLSO came up to congratulate me and to offer me the position of assistant conductor in St. Louis. It happened literally right after I performed. I made a grand total of $8,000 that first year... [laughs]...I was living in luxury!


LS: I was overwhelmed and didn’t expect to have a job at 22. I figured that I’d be going on to some graduate degree. But for musicians, if you get the opportunity, the opportunity outweighs the piece of paper with a degree on it.

Doyle Armbrust is a founding member of the Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet, and his writing can be found in Chicago Magazine, WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Time Out Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune. When not abusing his viola by way of a new commission for his quartet, he can usually be located kayaking among the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior.