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Leonard Slatkin Takes On Conducting the Cliburn

by Jerome Weeks 6 Jun 2013 8:48 AM

The multi-Grammy Award-winning conductor of the Detroit Symphony has written that he’s avoided music competitions throughout his long career. We went backstage at Bass Hall to ask him what changed his mind.


Slatkin DSO Conducting Pictures 007Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony. Photo by Donald Dietz.

The Van Cliburn Piano Competition has entered its final round, and renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin will now be leading the concert performances. Slatkin is the multi-Grammy Award-winning music director of the Detroit Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. But Slatkin is also the author of a book about being a maestro called Conducting Business. In it, he writes that through his lengthy career, he’s avoided music competitions. KERA’s Jerome Weeks spoke with Slatkin backstage at Bass Hall to ask him why he’s in Fort Worth.

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Jerome Weeks: In Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro, you recount an early experience with a conducting competition which you thought was rigged. And you declare that you’ve avoided competitions. What changed your mind?

Slatkin: I’d had a personal note from Van. We weren’t particularly close, we worked together several times and we always had a wonderful time. And I thought this would be a nice thing to do, something different for me. And I thought it’s probably not fair to say that competitions were not something I cared about very much since I haven’t done one. And maybe I’ll get a different perspective in participating here.

00333460.cx_1Weeks: In many ways, conducting the Cliburn is like any other guest conducting job. You work with the orchestra and the soloists to deliver the best possible performance. And you do that with six finalists. But a high-stakes competition must give it a different pressure.

Slatkin: This is very different than anything I’ve ever done. Obviously, the first job is to support the pianists, to do the best you can in getting into their heads and their minds and their souls. The problems that I see potentially occurring are when two pianists play the same piece – remembering who does what and where they do it, among other things. [The rehearsal schedule is also extremely tight: six finalists working on two different concerti over three and a half days. Slatkin says the rehearsals are not conventional, stop-and-start-and-take-notes deals but are more like run-throughs. He tells the orchestra what’s needed while they play.] However, one thing that is similar—and it wasn’t set that way until I asked for it – was to meet with the pianists beforehand so I really get a sense of what they want to do and how they want to do it.

Weeks: It’s got to be a strange struggle constantly trying to anticipate what people are going to do on stage.

Slatkin: It is, but because I’ve been conducting now for about 45 years and none of these pieces are anything but old friends, I know where the danger spots are, the ones where things could potentially go awry — if you didn’t meet with them in advance.

Weeks: Leonard Slatkin will be making his conducting debut with the Van Cliburn Piano Competition and the Fort Worth Symphony tonight in Bass Hall. The finals continue through Sunday with the winner announced Sunday night.