Leonard Slatkin prepares to leave Detroit

Leonard Slatkin prepares to leave Detroit


norman lebrecht

December 03, 2015

He has signed a one-year extension to 2018 after which he will be known as Emeritus Music Director.

Slatkin, 71, says he’s done what he can: ‘I’m very proud of what everybody has done. There wasn’t too much left to do in terms of new initiatives. This is exactly the right time to think about turning it over.’

In fact, he’s changed the weather. After surviving near-bankruptcy and a bitter strike in 2011, Slatkin and DSO president Anne Parsons rebuilt both the orchestra and its audience.

They hired 30 young players, including all principal positions, and attracted the student community with a $25 come-anytime card. They put on events for young people with disabilities. They streamed concerts worldwide and earned the Detroit Symphony its highest international profile since the auto industry heyday.

slatkin disabled

Scanning Slatkin’s 40-year career as chief conductor – St Louis, London (BBC), Washington DC, Lyon – Detroit is where he has made a lasting difference.

This weekend, he conducts Mahler’s Resurrection. That’s what he has achieved in Detroit.



  • Oscar says:

    Disagree with your declaration of Slatkin’s greater impact on Detroit over anywhere else. He was was MD in St. Louis from 1979 till 1996, but was named Assistant Conductor in 1968 (and MD of STL Youth Orchestra in 1970) — almost 30 years of
    stewardship, cultivation and orchestra building.

    In assessing the reverence in STL for Leonard Slatkin, one must also recall the history
    of the orchestra after Vladimir Golschmann’s 27 year reign ended in 1958: a period of nearly 20 years of perpetual flux and instability, musician strikes and failure. It started with the young Belgian Edouard van Remoortel, who in his first few months intended to fire 42
    of 85 musicians (tenure? ha!). He never recovered from his opening salvo and his immaturity and lack of rapport with musicians, board, and community combined to make his stay a short one, just four years.

    Then, Brazilian Eleazar de Carvalho arrived. Critical notices were not favorable for him, however, ticket sales fell, and he lasted lasted only five years.

    Walter Susskind took over during a time of concentrated activity following the move to Powell Hall during the last days of Carvalho. He did much restoration and orchestra building; concerts increased from 122 to 195 in five years; the orchestra budget tripled; and season-ticket holders more than doubled, but he stayed just seven years (and two divorces). Susskind never stayed in one place too long anyway.

    Then, the strict, perfectionist taskmaster Jerzy Semkow arrived, with high hopes for a George Szell-like renaissance in STL. But he just didn’t quite gel on a personal level with city and hated all the non-musical duties that came with an American Music Directorship. He was by all accounts a loner, newly-divorced and living alone in a hotel penthouse for weeks on end, socializing with no one. He left after four seasons.

    Finally, Slatkin took over in 1979 after nearly 20 years of instability and constant changeover, and he really was the perfect candidate for the job: devoted, inspiring, competent, an excellent spokesperson, and with a hometown pedigree, to boot (father Felix was born in St. Louis), not to mention a genuine love not only for the community but for the local ball team. No wonder the 80’s and early 90’s are now considered the glory days of the SLSO (along with, mind you, the here and now: David Robertson’s current tenure is a resounding success).

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Good points.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Thanks for the informative analysis of Leonard Slatkin’s influence in St. Louis. I would also mention the brief tenure of the late Hans Vonk who succeeded Slatin. Vonk was IMHO a remarkable but self-effacing musician, whose life was cut short by ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease).

  • Steve Wogaman says:

    You might want to listen first. As a Detroit resident I am looking forward to a conductor with greater emotional investment in the music itself. There gave been too many bland and frankly unfeeling performances. Sustained musical passion makes an orchestra a long-term success, and this audience doesn’t get it near often enough.

    • John Smith says:

      Mr. Slatkin did not hire the DSO’s principal harpist, Patty Maris-Fletcher. She was hired by Günther Herbig, well before Mr. Slatkin came to Detroit.

      • MacroV says:

        On that note can we please remind that in general music directors don’t hire players? An audition committee together with the music director – the relatively degree of power varies by orchestra – makes such decisions. In addition, the standard of play among players in most orchestral auditions is so high these days that you really have to mess up not to get a great player.

        • Leonard Slatkin says:

          Depends on the orchestra. In Detroit, the Music Director has override capability over the audition committee, so it actually does come down to that person’s decision as to who does or does not get the job.