Reading the Score, And So Much More
Slatkin's National Conducting Institute Prepares Musicians
to Direct an Orchestra
Tim PageWashington Post Staff
June 24, 2001; Page G10
Conducting an orchestra is the most mysterious of musical
vocations, demanding that a practitioner combine the attributes of
coach, shaman, psychologist and traffic cop, all in quest of an
It is an exceedingly difficult talent to develop, and it is
especially challenging to make the transition from student to
young maestro. Leonard Slatkin knows this firsthand; when the
National Symphony Orchestra's music director was starting his
career 30 years ago and stood before the Philadelphia Orchestra as
a guest conductor, he was immediately aware that he was in over
"Those first experiences were terrifying," he recalled with
a shudder. "I simply waved my arms and kept my mouth shut, hoping
that would be enough to carry me through. I'd been raised in a
family of musicians and I'd led orchestras at Juilliard and
elsewhere. But it's a very different matter when you're working
with professionals, who are much more knowledgeable and
responsive. They can give you exactly what you ask for, so you'd
better be sure of what you want and what you're communicating."
Last year, in cooperation with the NSO and the American
Symphony Orchestra League, Slatkin founded the National
Conducting Institute to prepare gifted young artists
for some of the challenges that may lie ahead. This week, the
second annual Institute comes to an end, and four mid-level
conductors will be given the opportunity to share a program
leading the NSO at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday night
at 6. Admission is free.
Slatkin believes the Institute presents special
opportunities for its participants -- notably the opportunity to
lead a full professional orchestra. "Even the high-profile program
at Tanglewood, with its outstanding conducting staff and wonderful
student orchestra, doesn't get to the heart of the problem," he
explained. "Their trainees never stand in front of the Boston
Symphony. It is one thing for a young conductor to have an
opportunity at universities and conservatories to tell other
students what to do, but it is quite another matter to direct
"To remedy the situation, we developed a three-week program
in which four or five conductors based in the United States would
come to Washington and experience the challenge of being
confronted by a world-class, knowledgeable ensemble," Slatkin
continued. "They would spend several days with me and with members
of the National Symphony, trying to sort out the skills that would
be required when they finally had their turn on the podium of a
major orchestra. This would not be about learning how to keep time
or how to read a score. Rather, it would be about what an
orchestra needs from them and how a conductor must relate to the
And so it came to pass that four participants, as well as
six auditors (who would attend all the meetings but never take the
podium) were selected from a pool of 70 applicants. They met for
the first time in the Chinese Lounge of the Kennedy Center Concert
Hall in late April for the first of a dozen all-day programs. It
was a promising group. Eugene Castillo, 33, is already in his
fourth season as music director of the Camellia Symphony Orchestra
in Sacramento as well as the staff conductor of the San Francisco
Ballet. Paul Haas, 30, is the principal pops conductor of the
Corpus Christi (Tex.) Symphony Orchestra this summer and the
assistant conductor of the Haddonfield (N.J.) Symphony. And
Kenneth Allen Woods, 33, is the music director of the Oregon East
Symphony Orchestra and the Grande Ronde Symphony.
The last of the participants, Awadagin Pratt, 35, stood out
-- and not merely because of the long, intricately braided
dreadlocks that make him look more like a reggae musician than a
traditional classical "longhair." Pratt has been a leading pianist
for the better part of a decade now, since winning the prestigious
Naumberg Award. Yet from the beginning of his career, he has been
open about his ambitions. "I would like to have a dual career as a
pianist and conductor," he told The Washington Post in 1993.
"I never changed my mind," he said during the Institute.
"In an ideal world, I think I'd like to spend 70 or 80 percent of
my time conducting. I don't want to fall off the map as a pianist,
because I think I'm still developing there, too. But my principal
interest is now conducting. I'd like to do something along the
lines of what Leonard did in St. Louis or what Gerard Schwarz did
in Seattle -- go in and build up a musical tradition that is
unique to its time and place. I'd rather do that than go someplace
where everything is all established -- like Cleveland, say."
Pratt grinned. "Not that I'd mind conducting the Cleveland
Orchestra, of course!"
Slatkin seems to offer a model for these young artists.
They admire his energy, his commitment to new and American music,
and the way he elevated the St. Louis Symphony from a respectable
position in the second rank of American ensembles to world
"I like Slatkin's practicality," Castillo said. "To build a
career, you need much more than vision, charisma, or even talent.
This is about dedication, about details. This gives us the
opportunity to observe the day-to-day duties of a music director,
which are a lot more than just conducting."
Woods concurred. "This is the best thing to come along for
conductors during my time in the field," he said. "I can't believe
it -- I'm actually going to be able to conduct the NSO!" Yet he is
in no hurry to move on from his present positions. "I want to stay
put, the way Slatkin stayed put in St. Louis all that time. In
five years, I like to hope that the orchestras I'm with now will
be on an entirely different level. I have a very deep commitment
to those orchestras, and I want to leave something behind. I want
to make music with the best musicians I can -- and learn and grow
The opening session of the Institute was called "The
Structure of the Orchestra," a group meeting with those members of
the NSO who don't play instruments for a living -- representatives
from the library, operations, marketing and public relations
departments and the board of directors.
Over lunch, NSO President Bob Jones offered several reasons
why affluent concertgoers can sometimes be persuaded to join
symphony boards. "First and foremost, these people love the arts
and want to do something to support them," he said. "Second, they
want to give something good to their community. And finally, a lot
of the time there is some sort of social role, whether parties or
galas or something else." An ideal board president will
"fundraise, fundraise and fundraise some more," he said. The
cardinal sin for a board president, in Jones's estimation, is
"I believe in letting my colleagues do their work," he
said. "I step in only when I am needed."
Stephen Jenks, a management consultant and a former faculty
member at the business school of the University of New Hampshire,
gave a hardheaded talk about the mechanics of running a company
and how they apply to the orchestral world. "It used to be that
somebody would join Exxon right out of college and stay there
until retirement," he said. "No more. People move around a lot
more. Now the average UNH faculty member has about the same length
of tenure as the average student."
Orchestras, however, are an exception. "You look at the
major American symphonies and you will find a lot of people who
have been there for 25 years or more. They have seen and heard a
great deal. And so you have to ask yourself: Why are you there?
What are you going to give them?"
Richard Evans, an orchestra consultant based in Bristol,
England, stressed "courtesy and cooperation." "You must respect
the musicians as artists," he said. "Obviously you can't solicit
total input from 107 musicians, but some sense that you are in
this together will make a difference."
Jesse Rosen, vice president of management development of
the American Symphony Orchestra League, picked up on this point.
"In general, established orchestras are not interested in change,
while smaller ones just might give a young conductor more freedom.
They just might give you a chance to show what you're made of."
After a time, the participants broke into groups to discuss
the problems of a made-up "Bay City Symphony." They debated the
proper way to build a season that would satisfy a conservative
audience yet stimulate interest from critics and tastemakers. They
wondered what sort of orchestra might be appropriate for this
mythical medium-size American city, with a foundering economy and
a limited endowment. They offered possible ways to deal with a
fictional feud between a beneficent donor and an estranged
president. It was the music management equivalent of strategic war
games -- and it served the purpose of putting would-be conductors
directly into situations that they might well be playing out in
In late May, the conductors and auditors returned to
Washington to meet with Slatkin. The Kennedy Center British
Festival was about to begin and a furious week was in store.
Slatkin was dressed casually, in slacks and a plaid shirt; the
mood at the meetings was both informal and intense as the group
addressed some of the purely musical issues that come with a music
"We have more than a dozen pieces to perform in the next
few days," Slatkin said, "and it means that I have to be
unbelievably clear in both my gestures and in what I say to the
orchestra. Nuts and bolts. This is not the week to give long
soliloquies about the meaning of life or in exactly which measure
the sun comes out. No. We only have time to lay out the music,
learn it and play it -- period.
"Professional musicians want to see the goods, through your
hands and gestures," he continued. "They don't want lectures. They
need to hear from you what is wrong -- and why. They're not so
concerned with what is right -- although a compliment here and
there never hurts. They want you to tell them about the balances,
about whether a note is sharp or flat. If something isn't
together, you have to tell them why that is and offer a solution.
And that's not always so easy.
"Remember that the musicians know a lot of the music in the
repertory very well. If you are going to do something radically
different with a famous piece, you want to let them know right
away. In some ways, a newer piece gives you more freedom, because
you'll be learning the piece together."
The talk turned to the Elgar Violin Concerto, which Slatkin
was slated to conduct with the prodigiously gifted Hilary Hahn.
"This is a very tough concerto," Slatkin said. "There is a trap in
every measure -- it's a very quirky piece and you can't relax for
a moment. And I wanted to make sure that Hilary didn't try to
drown out the orchestra. Some soloists do that, and it can be
exciting but it would be fatal in this piece. So I asked Hilary to
play fairly softly and bring the orchestra down to the volume
level she wanted. The NSO is full of good supportive musicians and
they can do that. But it means you have to watch the balances very
"The art of practical collaboration with a soloist is very
important -- a much more important test of your abilities as a
conductor than, say, proving that you have a really profound
vision of the Mahler Sixth."
Talk turns to Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 -- a brisk,
vigorous, good-humored and deeply classical opus that is too often
overshadowed by some of the composer's grander creations.
"Okay," Slatkin said, his eyes darting from conductor to
conductor. "What is the very first question you have to address in
Hmmmm. The edition?
"That's right! What edition are you going to use? There's a
scholarly edition now, with all sorts of corrections in the text,
but buying a new score is expensive and if an orchestra already
has 70 copies of the older edition in its library, you may not
have a choice in the matter. All right. What do you address next?
That's right. You have to decide what size orchestra you want to
use, and how many string players will play each part. How do you
decide? Well, you think about the other pieces on the program. You
think about the size of the hall -- obviously, a small orchestra
can get lost in a big auditorium. You think about how you want to
seat the players -- the first and second violin sections divided
stereophonically or all on the left side of the conductor. All of
these should be taken into consideration.
"Now Beethoven might have had about 50 players in his
orchestra," he continued. "Does that mean you should stick to 50
players? Not necessarily. I believe in knowing about historical
and musicological study, but I have a real problem with the
attitude that 'Oh, this is the way it sounded in Beethoven's day.'
We can't expect the audiences to listen in the same manner they
did 200 years ago. Everything has changed." Only after talking for
some 20 minutes about these concerns did Slatkin begin to address
the actual conducting of the score. And then he went through it,
bar by bar, pointing out trouble spots, suggesting ways of
counting out the phrases, ways to make the music come to life.
"Remember, always correct the orchestra constructively,"
Slatkin said. "Put the performance together like a puzzle, with
everything in proportion. And always assume it is your fault if
there are mistakes in the first rehearsals. You can slowly shift
the blame if the mistakes continue, but you don't want to
embarrass anybody or come off as a showoff."
Slatkin asked all the participants to introduce themselves.
"Well, I grew up in Los Angeles," an auditor named Brian Stone
"No, no -- I spent my childhood there, too, but one doesn't
grow up in Los Angeles," Slatkin corrected him with a laugh. "One
has to leave Los Angeles for that."
Pratt noticed that Slatkin had rehearsed a piece with nine
violinists but then used only eight for the final performance.
"Good for you!" Slatkin said. "I did that because it was
fairly unfamiliar material and if anybody got sick, I wanted to
have a substitute right there on hand. It isn't always necessary,
but it can't hurt."
Slatkin was asked about the pros and cons of pre-concert
chats with the audience. "I think that you should do them if you
are comfortable with them and have something to say," he replied.
"You don't want to bore people, but, especially in a new work, you
want to take things to the point where an audience member might
leave saying, 'Well, maybe I didn't like it all that much, but I
think I understood a little bit of what the composer was trying to
do.' Sometimes that's the best you can hope for."
Of such minutiae are music directors born. The final part
of the Institute -- the actual hands-on work with the NSO in
preparation for Saturday's concert -- begins Thursday afternoon.
It will be followed by a viewing of videotaped rehearsal footage
from each conductor, with commentary by Slatkin, and then another
rehearsal. And then, on Saturday night, Castillo, Haas, Woods and
Pratt will make their Kennedy Center conducting debuts.
"What do I hope for these conductors?" Slatkin asked
rhetorically. "Everything good. They are fine musicians and I'd
love to see four more American conductors join the ranks -- there
aren't very many, as you know. Now they'll know what it is like to
conduct a great symphony orchestra. And, with any luck, they'll
get to do it again."
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