More a mountain of chaff than a memoir Review

Leonard Slatkin conducts the Orchestre National de Lyon.
Photo by KokotheDog / Wikimedia Commons

Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians and the Music Industry by Leonard Slatkin. Milwaukee: Amaedus Press, 2017. 304 pages, $27.99.

“Leading Tones,” by the conductor Leonard Slatkin, is the quintessential hodgepodge. Among its many unrelated, randomly strewn bits, we find facts about the career of Slatkin, who led our own National Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2008. He also headed 35 other orchestras and conducted 220 world premieres, 1,204 works by American composers and 754 pieces by living composers, in addition to “a very healthy representation of the symphonic canon,” the author notes.

He has made 250 recordings in various formats, including LPs, eight-track cartridges, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, downloading and streaming and won seven Grammys. In addition, as music director, he says, he turned Orchestre National de Lyon (France) from what seemed like “a provincial ensemble … into a major force on the French musical scene.”

Yes, this is a memoir, so I suppose it’s permissible for the artist to kvell about his accomplishments. But, this is the maestro’s second memoir — the first, “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro,” was published in 2012.

There’s a mountain of chaff here, but if the reader carefully sifts through it, he or she will be rewarded with a delectable morsel here and there.

For example, Slatkin discusses Gilbert Kaplan among six musicians he has known and admired.

Actually, the author explains, Kaplan was a businessman with an overwhelming passion for Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. In 1981, he called the conductor, knowing that Slatkin was slated to conduct the work in a few months. Kaplan asked if he could observe the rehearsals and the concert and told Slatkin he wanted to learn to conduct the work.

“The fact that he had no special training as a conductor, or even as a musician, sent up red flags immediately,” Slatkin writes. “But as Kaplan continued to talk, I became intrigued by the audacity of what he was attempting.”

So he invited Kaplin for a visit and was impressed by his guest’s knowledge and perseverance.

Slatkin spent more than a week during the rehearsal tutoring Kaplan on the art of conducting and, when they parted after the performance, the master told his pupil to keep on working — he was studying with others, as well — and that he believed Kaplan would be able to conduct the symphony.

Eventually, Kaplan conducted more than 100 performances of that work.

The author’s discussion of the unseen world of auditions for orchestras is perhaps the highlight of the book. It used to be that the leader of the group had complete control of the hiring process, he notes.

Today, it is much more complicated.

He takes us through the audition process for “Susan,” a violinist, compassionately showing the anxieties a musician experiences and the barriers he or she must overcome to join an orchestra.

As to the business of music, Slatkin notes that orchestras all over the world are suffering from budgetary problems. At the same time, many orchestras are criticized for lack of programming variety.

“There must be some form of artistic vision that can be coupled with fiscal responsibility,” the author writes.

With the Detroit Symphony, Slatkin started putting on concerts in the suburbs, offering cut-rate prices for students and presenting free concerts online.

Those initiatives helped the orchestra thrive, he says.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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