Leonard Slatkin

Born 1944

Leonard Slatkin

Composer • Conductor


Seven-time Grammy Award winner Leonard Slatkin is the internationally acclaimed conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon. He has also served as music director for the New Orleans, St. Louis and National (Washington, D.C.) Symphonies and as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Slatkin also maintains an active schedule as a guest conductor and is an avid composer, author and educator. He has been responsible for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s return from near obliteration.

Slatkin’s musical journey began as a young boy in Los Angeles, California. He was born to Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller, founding members of the renowned Hollywood String Quartet. His father was a violinist and conductor while his mother was a cellist.

The process of choosing an instrument was quite a struggle for him. At the age of three, Leonard picked up the violin, but remembers thinking “I knew I wouldn’t be as good as my father, so I quit,” he continued, “then I took up the piano at eight, I knew I wouldn’t be as good as my uncle, so I quit. I took up the viola because nobody else in the family did that.” Later he also pursued composition and began to consider conducting.

Before he could begin on a path of conducting, his father picked up the baton and became director of the Hollywood Bowl, where he also made a number of recordings. Felix Slatkin also began arranging, but mostly music of the pop genre.

Despite considering a career as a conductor around the age of 16, Leonard Slatkin kept quiet as he did not want to have to compete with his father. Tragically, Felix died in 1963 at the age of 47 after suffering a heart attack.

Following his father’s death, Leonard withdrew from music, retuning only at the insistence of his friends. It was at this time that Leonard bittersweetly “realized that sadly, that with my father not around anymore, the field was now open to me”.

Conductors that have greatly influenced Leonard Slatkin include Toscanini, who Slatkin had the opportunity to see live in 1952 (at the age of 8) with the NBC Symphony, Fritz Reiner, Leonard Bernstein and Carlo Maria Giulini. He had the opportunity to see Reiner in Los Angeles. Reiner was with the LA Philharmonic for two weeks, before it was a top orchestra, after which Slatkin was shocked to hear that the orchestra was capable of sounding so great.

While Bernstein was the first of the American composers to become an international celebrity, Giulini was inspirational for his spiritual, but not religious, approach to music.

Slatkin began his instrumental and conducting lessons with his father, later receiving instruction from Walter Susskind at Aspen and the St. Louis Symphony and Jean Morel at Julliard.

While in St. Louis, Slatkin improved the status of the orchestra, raising them from a national to an international sensation. He also founded the city’s first youth orchestra. While his efforts in St. Louis were much appreciated, they seem to have been less appreciated in Washington D.C., where he led the National Symphony. There, he succeeded Rostropovich, and pushed for an American agenda for the orchestra. Though he himself found this to be an important point he admits “it was probably one of the things that caused my departure”. Despite this, he is still happy with his choices.

Slatkin’s task in Detroit has been quite complicated. When he began with the orchestra, they were struggling in a bad way. The subscription audience was only 62-63%, but through much hard work it is now more than 90%. During the 2010-11 season, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike for six months, during which time they did not perform at all. While the strike endured, Slatkin refused to take sides. After the conflicts were resolved and the orchestra was ready to move on, Slatkin had to face the many vacancies in the orchestra; a number of members had retired or gone on to other orchestras. Despite the odds, the orchestra has been able to attract a number of spectacular players and is now flourishing.

As a principal guest conductor, Slatkin has held positions with the Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras in London, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl and the Minnesota Orchestra. He has also held conducting positions at the Blossom Music Center, the Grant Park festival and the Great Woods festival.

Slatkin has also conducted operas globally, at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Santa Fe Opera, Vienna State Opera, Stuttgart Opera and Opéra Bastille in Paris.

More than 100 recordings feature Slatkin, who has won seven Grammy Awards and received 64 nominations. In recent years, he has recorded the works of Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Berlioz with the Orchestre National de Lyon and of Copland, Rachmaninov, Borzova, McTee and John Williams with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, all on the Naxos label. Furthermore, he has recorded the complete symphonies of Brahms, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky with Detroit. He is also featured on a London Symphony Orchestra album with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.

In addition to conducting, Slatkin is also a successful composer. He studied composing in Los Angeles and at Indiana University and the Julliard School. His first big work, The Raven, a piece for narrator and orchestra was premiered in 1971 by Vincent Price and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, for which it was written.

Slatkin’s concerto Dialogue for Two Cellos and Orchestra, which was composed for his mother and brother, was premiered in 1975, also by the St. Louis Symphony. It has since been performed by the National Symphony Orchestra with soloists Yo-Yo Ma and Sol Gabetta.

More recent works, including Fin and Endgames have been premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2004 and 2014, respectively.

Slatkin’s most recent work, Kinah, was premiered in December 2015 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This work serves as an elegy to his late parents and includes many offstage cello solos, which were performed by his brother Frederick on the cello that belonged to their mother. Themes from the Brahms Double Concerto are also present in the work, as his parents were planning to play this work for the first time, just before his father’s untimely death.

In addition to his performing and composing schedules, Slatkin is dedicated to music education and has taught and/or conducted at the Manhattan School of Music, The Julliard School, the Aspen Music School, the Jacobs School at Indiana University, the National Orchestral Institute, the Music Academy of the West and the New World Symphony.

Among his numerous awards are the National Medal of Arts from the U.S> government, the rank of Chevalier of the French National Order of the Legion of Honor, Austria’s Decoration of Honor in Silver, the League of American Orchestras’ Gold Baton Award and the 2013 ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award for his book, Conducting Business.

He also holds honorary degrees from at least eight schools, including The Julliard School, New England Conservatory, Indiana University and the University of Rochester.

Leonard Slatkin is married to the composer Cindy McTee.