Oregon Cultural Trust

Footloose and fancy free: Leonard Slatkin with Oregon Symphony

After a gap of many years, the conductor/composer/author returns to Portland for a concert of Mason Bates, Beethoven, and Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto’ with Joshua Roman.

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Leonard Slatkin. Photo by Cindy McTee.
Leonard Slatkin. Photo by Cindy McTee.

Leonard Slatkin is footloose and fancy free. No longer tethered to the music directorship of a particular orchestra, the internationally acclaimed conductor can pick and choose which orchestra he gets to lead. This weekend (October 14-16), it will be the Oregon Symphony in a program that includes works by Beethoven, Elgar, and American composer Mason Bates.

Over a 50-plus-year career, Slatkin has racked up six Grammy awards, 35 Grammy nominations, over 100 recordings, and directed every major orchestra around the world. And the concerts in Portland are not the first time that he has visited the Rose City. 

“My parents were members of the Hollywood String Quartet and used to play a series in Portland,” he said in a Zoom conversation. “That would have been in the ‘50s. I know that I came to Portland with them at least once.” 

A bit of research quickly revealed (via Wikipedia) that the LA-based Hollywood String Quartet was founded by violinist-conductor Felix Slatkin and his wife cellist Eleanor Aller Slatkin. “The Hollywood String Quartet is considered by scholars to be the first American-born and -trained classical music chamber group to make an international impact, mainly through its landmark recordings.”

But Slatkin returned to Portland later to conduct the Portland Symphony (the former name of the Oregon Symphony).

“In the 70s, I conducted in Portland twice. One time was with the Portland Symphony with, I believe, Eileen Farrell. It might have been an all-Wagner program. She did the immolation scene and ‘O mio babbino caro’ as an encore. Another time in Portland, I conducted an all-state orchestra.”

Slatkin evidently made a big impression.

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“I was offered the music directorship in Portland,” he noted, “but at the time, I just didn’t feel ready to take on an orchestra. There’s so much to learn. Conducting is one thing, but to be the head of an organization is an entirely different matter.”

Since that time, Slatkin went on to become the MD of the New Orleans Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the National Symphony, the Orchestre National de Lyon, and the Detroit Symphony. 

“I haven’t been a music director now for about five years,” remarked Slatkin. “I am grateful and happy to stop doing it. So, I am focusing on just the music making and other projects. I am visiting or revisiting orchestras that I think are interesting things. I do a lot of writing of books and music now. Portland has been very good about promoting American composers, and I am happy to participate in that.”

Based in St. Louis, where he is the laureate conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, Slatkin often uses his stature to promote new music. For his concert with the Oregon Symphony, he has selected the Anthology of Fantastic Zoology by Mason Bates, whose opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs won a Grammy in 2019.

Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is the first piece of his that didn’t use electronics,” said Slatkin. “Mason has this alternate life where he is a disc jockey, and he has become a highly sought-after DJ.”

“The Anthology of Fantastic Zoology was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony,” continued Slatkin, “It is a highly virtuosic work that really tests an orchestra’s chops. It is purely orchestral, about a half hour long. Mason has a wonderful ear for color and orchestral sonority. You are always wondering what he’s going to do next with the sounds. These are imaginary creatures and animals from a mythology created by Borges. It is a Carnival of the Animals where the animals are really weird. He gets marvelous effects, where, for example, there are lots of solos for the strings – and they are scattered all through the string section – some come from the fifth stand of the violins or the third stand of the violas or the last stand of the double basses. There’s a ridiculous passage for three clarinets and marvelous percussion effects.”

“The Bates piece will appeal to those who don’t like contemporary music,” added Slatkin. “It has some minimalism, which gives it a sense of continuity. But there is lyricism. There is formal structure, because each of the creatures will come back and pay a visit at the end.”

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Slatkin likes what he has seen in the programming of our hometown band.

“I’ve been fascinated by how the Oregon Symphony has been in the forefront of promoting large-scale American music,” said Slatkin. “These are pieces that should be on the second half of the program – instead of the first half.”

The orchestra’s program will also feature the virtuoso cellist Joshua Roman, who will perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. He wrote it in 1919, when the ashes of the First World War were still smoldering. 

“The Elgar is a giant of the repertoire,” said Roman during a phone call. “It has an all-encompassing view of the human condition. The breadth of emotion and the scope that he captured in this piece is amazing. A hundred years have passed since he wrote it, and it still resonates strongly.”

Cellist Joshua Roman.
Cellist Joshua Roman.

“The Elgar goes a lot of places,” “You want the audience to feel the depth of the first movement, Then you have the bright, virtuosic, almost lovely second movement, which is in huge contrast to the tenderness and especially the darkness of the first movement. The piece has a lot of challenges. For example, the fourth movement has a long stretch of sixteenth notes that’s just supporting material to the melody, which has been fragmented and passed around to various sections of the orchestra, but as the soloist you have to make something of the passage and shape it.”

The performance will mark Roman’s debut with the Oregon Symphony, and also his first appearance in Portland. He will be taking the train from Seattle where he has been visiting friends. 

“The cello always gets the window seat,” he said with a laugh.

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The concert will open with the Leonore Overture No. 3, which Beethoven wrote for his only opera, Fidelio. It centers around the courageous Leonore, who rescues her husband Florestan, who is a political prisoner. After an unsuccessful premiere, Beethoven wrote three versions of the overture

“The third version is the best of the three and the most popular,” noted Slatkin. “It’s a great piece with lots of drama and emotion.”

Slatkin, who has just turned 80, has devoted more time to composing. 

“Right now, I am writing a set of transcriptions for symphonic wind ensemble,” he said. “They are transcriptions of Scarlatti sonatas. I am also working on a piece for the 200th anniversary of Schubert’s death.”

He has also been writing books.

“I have a new series that explores music,” noted Slatkin. “There’s so much to research. I just discovered a 1909 film called Origin of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. There’s no sound with the film. So it was done with a live piano or orchestra. Do you know who the director was? It was Thomas Edison.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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