Celebrity conductor Leonard Slatkin hopes to become fast friends with the Spokane Symphony and its audience

click to enlarge Celebrity conductor Leonard Slatkin hopes to become fast friends with the Spokane Symphony and its audience
Renowned maestro Leonard Slatkin next waves his baton in Spokane. |Lewel Li photo

To what do we owe the honor of having internationally acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin lead the Spokane Symphony in two performances at the orchestra's home venue?

Or maybe the question should be to whom.

"I was at a dinner one night after an opera with my friend Tom Hampson," Slatkin recalls, "and he just happened to ask me, 'Would you go to Spokane and conduct?'"

Having spent his formative years in Spokane, Hampson clearly maintains a soft spot for the city where he cultivated the vocal talents that would propel him to the upper echelons of the classical and operatic world. And Slatkin, who's as renowned for his musical advocacy as his professional accomplishments with first-class outfits like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, admits to harboring a "curiosity of going to places like [Spokane]" to survey the musical landscape outside of the major metropolitan powerhouses.

So he readily agreed.

"These days, now that I'm not a music director anywhere, I'm enjoying going and conducting orchestras that I haven't seen before and to get a better picture of what musical life is like in the United States right now," Slatkin says.

"What's the relationship of the boards to the members of the orchestra and to the public? Is the public turning out to hear music like they used to? All those are things I'm interested to find out."

There's also a not-so-secret ulterior motive to that line of inquiry. Slatkin's fact-finding forays to cities like ours might very well inform a sequel to his 2012 book Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro.

"I do a lot of writing now," he chuckles, adding that two books of his are in the publication pipeline at this very moment. There's also his website's online journal, where Slatkin has been providing regular updates, musings and extensive biographical insights for the better part of 15 years.

The relatively frequent guest spots with a variety of orchestras have likewise honed his technique for planning a program. For the Spokane Symphony's Masterworks 5 concert — titled, simply and definitively, "Slatkin" — on Jan. 21 and 22, he has three pieces lined up: Cindy McTee's Double Play, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

"In a way, the first consideration is, what kind of a program can I do with an orchestra that I don't know? I have several works that I kind of do when I see an orchestra for the first time. These three fall into that category. Do they really fit together? Actually, it works, but not thematically. Just musically," he says.

McTee's compositions, in particular her 1990 work Circuits, have been a staple of Slatkin's guest program with a number of orchestras. In Spokane, there's an arguable geographic link for her Double Play, given that the composer originally hails from the SeaTac area. But it doesn't hurt that she's also married to the maestro.

"Not only do we have the Washington connection, but I keep the royalty stream moving," Slatkin says wryly. "But I wouldn't do it unless she was not anything less than a fantastic composer. And she is. She writes so many works that are perfect for opening concerts. One of her signatures is presenting jazzlike rhythms and harmonies but using classical music as the basis for it."

Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, by contrast, was inspired by literature — Dante's Inferno, to be exact — in which a character of the same name finds herself in hell as a result of the passions that compelled her to commit adultery. Her tale was based on a real-life noblewoman.

"It's a work that used to be played quite frequently, and you don't hear it very often anymore. It's a great showpiece for an orchestra, and with all the notes that are in it, a challenge as well. But, that being said, it's a really good piece for me to get to know an orchestra," he says.

"It was a common work in the 1930s and '40s to find in motion picture serials. This was one of those pieces that would pop up in Flash Gordon and Captain Marvel when they didn't have original music. And to me it represents one of [Tchaikovsky's] finest works for orchestra."

The Brahms symphony that closes the concert is better known than the works in the first half, an intentional choice on Slatkin's part.

"Because the majority [of musicians] will know it, even though some will not have played it before perhaps, there is a degree of familiarity. That gives me an opportunity to get a better handle on the orchestra itself. I'll know where they are very quickly when we play it through. And this is a perfect program for that purpose," he says.

Aside from getting to know the orchestra in record time during his Spokane visit, Slatkin also has several opportunities to become better acquainted with its audiences — and vice versa. A registration-only educational lecture and soundcheck is scheduled for the evening of Thursday, Jan. 19. At noon on Friday, the maestro reads from his print works at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. And Masterworks & Mimosas on Saturday morning offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the final stages of his rehearsal process with the Spokane Symphony. And on top of that, Slatkin hosts pre-concert lectures prior to each Masterworks performance. ♦

Spokane Symphony Masterworks 5: Slatkin • Sat, Jan. 21 at 7:30 pm; Sun, Jan. 22 at 3 pm • $19-$68 • The Fox Theater • 1001 W. Sprague Ave. • foxtheaterspokane.org

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.