Reflections on a Half-Century Relationship with the SLSO

By Leonard Slatkin


They say that time flies when you are having fun. If that is true, time went by at supersonic speed.


Leonard Slatkin, SLSO Conductor Laureate

It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago that I first stepped on the podium at Powell Hall. At age 23, I was now in the same city that my grandparents immigrated to in 1911 – the same city where my father started his incredible, albeit brief, career as a violinist, conductor, composer, producer and arranger.


The same city that catered to my alternate passion, baseball.


Walter Susskind had brought me to the Arch during his first season Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. How much I learned from him, the administration and the members of the orchestra! Being allowed much more freedom and flexibility than most in the assistant conductor role, I proudly founded the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. After listening to about 650 aspiring musicians, it would not be an understatement to say that the first sounds the audition winners played may have been the sweetest music I ever heard.

When I became Music Director, the legendary Principal Double Bassist Henry Loew said during my first rehearsal, “Maestro, would you like that note long or short?”


My response was, “Henry, we have known each other too long now. ‘Leonard’ will be just fine.” And the combination of collaboration, respect, and good humor prevailed throughout my 17-year Music Director tenure.


Sure, there were some tough moments. But through it all, everyone worked toward one goal: to be the best orchestra we could be. Triumphs in New York, Europe, and Asia, lucrative recording contracts, and strong attendance numbers gave the SLSO a prominent place in the musical world.


When, in 1983, Time Magazine proclaimed that we were the second-best orchestra in the country, our reaction was that we needed to do better. Hosting the best guest artists and attracting great musicians to play in the SLSO were our goals, and for the most part, we achieved what we set out to do. My successors, Hans Vonk and David Robertson, continued to bring energy and enthusiasm to the hall. In a very nice coincidence, the SLSO’s new music director, Stéphane Denève, is a conductor whom I gave a U.S debut in Washington, D.C.


This past summer I returned as a full-time St. Louis resident, and it is my hope to contribute in any way I can to the city that started it all. My wife, Cindy, and I are thrilled to be part of the fabric of St. Louis. After all, we met here back in the ‘80s. My son was born here, making four generations of Slatkins who have strong connections to the fleur-de-lys.


But one question still lingers: has anyone spotted the ghost that roams the Powell Hall dungeons at night? Maybe I need another half-century to find out.


Read more about the 50th anniversary of the debut of Leonard Slatkin here.

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