Leonard Slatkin lets rip at Tommasini and pals

Leonard Slatkin lets rip at Tommasini and pals


norman lebrecht

September 24, 2017

In his refreshingly candid new book, Leading Tones (Amadeus Press), the leading US conductor has a go at inaccurate reporting on the the New York Times.

After an unhappy La Traviata at the Met in March 2010, Anthony Tommasini, the Times chief music critic, irritated the conductor by reporting: ‘The problem was that the conductor Leonard Slatkin, appearing at the Met for the first time in 12 years, showed up at rehearsals not fully knowing the score. You did not have to believe the reports that spread on opera chat lines to know this. Mr Slatkin conceded as much on his personal Web site, leonardslatkin.com.’

Slatkin says he conceded nothing of the sort. He now responds: ‘Opera chat lines? Tommasini had admittedly relied on anonymous bloggers for some of his information, not the best idea. Both he and the blogger got the facts wrong. I knew the score intimately and could have conducted it from memory. And nowhere on my blog did I say, or mean to imply, that I did not know the score.’

Unfortunately Slatkin’s current website does not go back as far as 2010. Slatkin alleges collusion between certain writers on the Times and a colourful opera blogger. He may not be far wrong.

Read the book. There are several more correctives to received media wisdom.





  • Ungeheuer says:

    Mr. Slatkin has hit a nerve and he is right. Bottom line is the classical music critics currently employed by the NYT are hardly that; more agenda-driven hacks than anything.

  • Olassus says:

    The “colorful” blogger is James Jorden, of Parterre.com, always knocking Slipped Disc but a reader anyway, and lately of the failing New York Times, where his buddy, the inexperienced Zachary Woolfe, serves as “classical music editor.”

    Slatkin deserved much better — from the Met press office as much as from the Gray Lady — and would have been justified in suing for defamation.

    • Tuttiflutie says:

      Zachary Woolfe. Boo. Will never forgive him for his ignorant & cruel criticism of master flutist Emmanuel Pahud at hisl last NY concert. Woolfe is a self serving novice.

    • MWnyc says:

      That’s one (minor) inaccuracy in Slatkin’s recollection: La Cieca (James Jorden) has never really been anonymous.

  • Coney Island says:

    I was there the first day of Met Traviata rehearsals, present in the rehearsal room. Mr Slatkin didn’t know how to pronounce Brindisi and said Brin-DEE-si multiple times, instead of BRIN-di-si. Just a fact.

    Does this mean he knew the score? If he doesn’t know the pronunciation of the Italian in the libretto? He also conducted in the way that suggested a lack of knowledge of the piece, and not just that day. But if you want to go back to something absolutely objective, read the first paragraph of my comment. Don’t blame the messenger, friends.

    • Robin Worth says:

      I speak the language too and this mistake is one of the easiest for an anglophone to make : you hear it all the time on classic fm. Stressing the penultimate syllable does not come easily to them.

      But you hear the umlaut ignored in German pronunciation just as often And how many native English speakers can pronounce a French “r” ?

      None of this means that Slatkin does not know the score. Judge him on the music and only that.

      • Una says:

        We make that mistake all the time in England with Brindisi and Modena, and a whole host of odd Italian words where the emphasis is suddenly and uncharacteristically on the front of the word than the penultimate syllable, and that does not indicate anything about Slatkin not knowing his score. I’m lucky I speak the language but still can make mistakes, even in my own language!

    • herrera says:

      God help us if a conductor’s accent in a foreign language is used to judge whether or not s/he knows the score!

      As Rostropovich said to a Vienna Philharmonic player who said his Strauss didn’t sound Viennese,”If I have to listen to your Tchaikovsky, you can listen to my Strauss.”

      How good is James Levine’s pronunciation of the libretti of Eugene Onegin?

    • Respect says:

      You are aware that the supposedly greatest of Wagner maestri , James Levine, doesn’t speak German, I assume? I was shocked to listen to a rehearsal he was leading with the Vienna Philharmonic where he rehearsed entirely and English. Slatkin, at least, doesn’t pretend to be a specialist in this repertoire, unlike Levine.

      • Coney Island says:

        Speaking and pronouncing a foreign language is a totally different game, à propos the Levine example. Like I said, they were other clues that Slatkin was unprepared and / or incompetent. For example, he also couldn’t get the stage together with the orchestra repeatedly.

        But this is a nice exercise in psychology. I was there, went in open minded, hoping he was going to do it great job. He didn’t, and didn’t know what the Drinking Song was called / pronounced in Italian, c’mon guys! We were all stunned. Didn’t he say in his quote that he could have conducted it by heart? But you clearly know better.

        • Novagerio says:

          A question to the Met-insider: How could Slatkin not get the stage together with the orchestra repeatedly, and still conduct Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (propably the hardest Puccini opera for the conductor) with such admirable command and assurance, as he did in the late 1990’s? …One assumes that the Met orchestra hardly needs a “conductor” for Traviata…

        • Mark Mortimer says:

          Coney Island- this is your impression & if thats what you heard in rehearsals- then its OK. But I would ask- have you conducted in the theatre ever? Well I have- & its one of the hardest things in the world. Primas Donnas have a habit, collectively, of pulling the music around something chronic- often against the express wishes of the composer- just to wow everyone with their held high notes. Even worse- some singers, blessed from birth with a great set of vocal cords, are not equally endowed with rhythm. In fact- quite a number of them are totally arrhythmic. Orchestras & conductors often do a wonderful emergency job in saving them from their foibles & ensuing disaster. I’ve seen LS a lot in London with The Philharmonia orchestra amongst others. He’s technically one of the best in the business & the results are often fantastic. So, even though he readily admits that Verdi is not really his thing, I find it hard to believe he lacked the skills to coordinate pit & stage.

          • MWnyc says:

            “Primas Donnas have a habit, collectively, of pulling the music around something chronic- often against the express wishes of the composer- just to wow everyone with their held high notes.”

            All the more reason, Mark, that a conductor (even a brilliant one) shouldn’t be conducting an opera for the very first time – one that’s not in his area of expertise and that he wasn’t initially contracted for, let alone when saddled with a lead soprano notorious for doing that very thing – at the most high-profile opera house in the world.

        • MWnyc says:

          Coney Island, if you had written only, “I was there the first day of Met Traviata rehearsals, present in the rehearsal room. Mr Slatkin conducted in the way that suggested a lack of knowledge of the piece, and not just that day,” others here would be doubting you a lot less than they are now. The pronunciation of “Brindisi” just isn’t a big enough deal to count as evidence.

          I believe you myself because I remember when all that happened. I wasn’t present for any rehearsals, but there were complaints flying around New York, and the Internet, throughout the entire rehearsal period that Slatkin did not know Traviata well enough to be conducting it at the Metropolitan Opera. Worse, as the blog post Scott Chamberlain unearthed reveals, Slatkin clearly thought this was not a problem.

    • Anonymouse says:

      This made me laugh out loud. If you believe Leonard Slatkin’s pronunciation of Brindisi is a test of his knowing the score, then thank God you never listened to Solti conduct anything Italian. Or Beecham, indeed.

      As for Zachary Woolf, his reviews of Otello at Covent Garden had me banging my head against the wall…

  • David A McKellar says:

    Everyone with half a brain knows the “media” get it wrong from time to time. I tend to believe Mr Slatkin on this matter.

  • Sue says:

    I suspect Slatkin just doesn’t have the right kind of political ideology, if you drill right down into it.

  • Gary Hoffman says:

    Have you looked at the archives of OPERA-L?

  • La Verita says:

    Slatkin need not get his knickers in a twist over Anthony Tommasini – a pedestrian academic amateur who is hopelessly overly impressed with himself. Slatkin’s many achievements speak for themselves, as do Tommasini’s agenda-laden reviews – which expose his limited knowledge.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    This skirmish isn’t actually going to be remembered in fifty years. It falls into the category of reviews like the Lexicon of the Modern Invective. However, I would like to see a comprehensive list of conductors and music directors of any symphony orchestras anywhere in the world from the 1970s to the present, listing the compositions they have helped commission, co-commission, premiere and/or record, and witness the number of composers and compositions Leonard Slatkin has devoted his life to getting heard and recorded. It is astounding. Not just because he is a friend, and that we recorded once and performed together once, but because his commitment to new music is unchallenged and his legacy is certain. For me, this is the most respectable accomplishment any musician or conductor can accomplish, and he has contributed to the future of performances of this music created due in large to his passion and higher calling. There should be nothing but praise for this man. Period.

    • Steven Honigberg says:

      I agree with you Jeffrey even if he was a more than a tad aloof during his Washington DC years. Who cares what the critic has written. Isn’t there usually an agenda anyway? Leonard’s scope, talent and knowledge of music is phenomenal and remains a presence.

    • herrera says:

      Good point, which begs the question: Why the heck was Slatkin tapped to conduct Traviata at the Met anyway? What an enormous waste of his talent and loss of opportunity for the Met to have done a new American opera production with Slatkin at the helm.

      @Coney Island, above, it’d be like engaging Riccardo Muti to conduct Porgy and Bess at the Met and then panning him for mispronouncing the lyrics of “Summer Time” as not Black enough.

      • MWnyc says:

        Check the old Slatkin blog post that Scott Chamberlain posted below (and which I recognize from the time in question).

        Slatkin was engaged to do a new — well, new-ish — American opera: he was to conduct a revival of The Ghosts of Versailles.

        Some time later, the Met decided it couldn’t afford to proceed with Ghosts; rather than buy the artists contracted for Ghosts out of their contracts (after all, the company were trying to save money), the Met decided to reassign them to Traviata, the opera it put into Ghosts‘ slot in the schedule. (That way, any artists that didn’t want to do Traviata would leave without the Met having to buy them out.)

        Hiring Muti to conduct Porgy and Bess would be a bad idea, at the Met or anywhere else. Someone shaking his head over the idea might point to the way Muti would pronounce “Bess, you is my woman now” or “It ain’t necessarily so” as a little detail emblematic of why hiring Muti to conduct Porgy and Bess was a bad idea.

        But you’re right that singling out that detail, the pronunciation mistake, would be unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already know that Muti, gifted though he is, is no expert in Gershwin or African-American culture. Just as singling out Slatkin’s mispronunciation of “Brindisi” is unconvincing, and Coney Island would have done better simply to say that he/she was there in the rehearsal room and Slatkin did not appear to know the Traviata score well enough.

    • MWnyc says:

      Jeffrey, I agree with you that Leonard Slatkin’s services to classical music in the United States have been IMMENSE.

      But the statement “There should be nothing but praise for this man [or woman or gender non-binary person]. Period.” is never true of any person anywhere (very much including myself).

      And overconfidence, ego, and selective memory can occasionally get the better of everyone, even gifted, hardworking people. Slatkin’s statement on his blog at the time that

      “this is an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met. But after a while, I concluded that since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters. There was a lot of digging for me to do. … Listening to a few recordings was helpful but confusing.”

      versus his statement in his new book that “I knew the score intimately and could have conducted it from memory” would indicate to me that this is one of those unfortunate occasions.

  • Scott Chamberlain says:

    Well, for what it’s worth, nothing really vanishes from the internet–a quick look at a cached version of Mr. Slaktin’s website, with that blogpost in question, reveals:

    “So why would I pick La Traviata, of all works, this time?
    At first, it was not my choice. Originally, I had been asked to conduct a revival of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. This is an opera that the Met premiered a while back, and that I had conducted in Chicago. Our cast was to have included Angela Gheorgiu, Tom Hampson and Kristen Chenoweth. But the budget devils had their way with this and decided that it could not be afforded. The curtain came down and Traviata was put in its place. Angela and Tom stayed but Kristen went over to Broadway to do Promises, Promises.
    At first, I said I would not do the switch. After all, this is an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met. But after a while, I concluded that since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters. There was a lot of digging for me to do. I consumed books about the composer and the work’s history. Listening to a few recordings was helpful but confusing. What constituted tradition and why? This was a question I would ask often during rehearsals.”

    It continues from there, with a blow-by-blow of the rehearsal process.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    As it happens in today’s N Y Times (Sept. 25) Anthony Tommasini attempts to describe exactly what it is that a music critic does. Page 2 of the paper.

    • Steinway Fanatic says:

      Yes, and how embarrassing it is, as Tommasini lists his “credentials” – which are identical to those of every other serious music student. His skills, and his background – are patently unexceptional.

  • Ira Lieberman says:

    From a forthcoming book by Ira Lieberman, PhD musicology and for 35 years a member of the first violin section of the Met Opera Orchestra

    In 2010 Leonard Slatkin, scheduled to conduct a revival of John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles at the Met, took on the substitute production of La Traviata. It was an opera he hadn’t conducted before, and since it was a familiar Zeffirelli production there was a short rehearsal period. Some of his singers missed coachings and rehearsals owing to illness. This led to his meeting them for the first time at a run-through on stage with orchestra. He subsequently wrote in his blog:

    “Not only was the work new to me, but also I had never even met the soprano! It is a very good thing that the orchestra is used to changes such as this. They negotiated every turn with an amazing ease, saving me in a couple of critical moments. I apologized just before Act 2 and thanked them.

    “’Welcome to our world,’ was the response.” [Slatkin. Conducting Business, 214f.]

    His body language, at times tentative, bespoke someone who was learning the score but who misunderstood the fundamental requirements of opera conducting: to create a secure musical environment in the pit for singers who are at some distance from the orchestral sound and, at the same time, to inspire them with a sense of mission as embodiments of the composer’s intent. Without either security or inspiration, singers often decide to shift for themselves, relying on previous experience with the role to “get through the thing” and devil take the hindmost. This is especially true when the singers in question are highly experienced and perhaps a bit temperamental.

    Author and critic Joseph Horowitz (in his weblog 4/11, 2010) spoke to the conductor’s real task, referring to the legendary conductor Ettore Panizza:

    Reports that Slatkin failed to “support” his singers (I wasn’t there) skirt the heart of the matter. Panizza doesn’t merely support Tibbett and Ponselle – he instructs, he challenges, he ignites them. Obviously, one listens to this astounding performance gripped by Germont and Violetta, by Tibbett and Ponselle. Which is as it should be. But listen again and pay attention to what’s happening in the pit.

  • Mark Stryker says:

    A few weeks after the Met debacle, Slatkin gave his first – and most extensive — interview about what happened from his point of view to the Detroit Free Press, where I was the classical music critic and arts reporter. He spoke in detail about his conflict with Angela Gheorghiu, the problems on opening night that led to the Times’ review and what he saw as the abdication of responsibility on the part of Met management in not stepping into the breach. This latter point is particularly interesting to me, because whether you think Slatkin did or did not know the score or that Gheorghiu sabotaged the conductor or not, it was obvious to Met leadership that there was a problem before the production opened. Slatkin’s account suggests that Met general manager Peter Gelb’s unwillingness to broker a compromise or solution -– even if it meant replacing the conductor at the 11th hour -– was tantamount to allowing the fuse of a stick of dynamite to continue burning. We all know how that turned out.

    Here’s the story from June 6, 2010.

    It wasn’t the devastating reviews and Internet gossip per se that most upset Leonard Slatkin in the wake of his controversial departure from the Metropolitan Opera’s “La Traviata” in April. It was the widely repeated assumption — influenced, he says, by a major misreading of his online diary — that he arrived unprepared to conduct Verdi’s masterpiece.

    “I never said that,” said Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, speaking in his office at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. “I was maybe even too prepared. I knew this opera inside out; I could have almost conducted from memory.”

    Slatkin, 65, who withdrew from “La Traviata” after one performance, became a lightning rod for criticism and the brouhaha was a public relations embarrassment. He addressed the issue for the first time in an interview Monday with the Free Press, dissecting the opening night debacle, defending his preparation and detailing the conflict with the gifted but temperamental Romanian superstar soprano Angela Gheorghiu.

    Slatkin did not completely absolve himself from blame and admitted he made mistakes opening night. But what he called Gheorghiu’s “unprofessional behavior” — blocking his view of other singers, taking outrageous liberties that went beyond liberal notions of expressive phrasing, entering early and ignoring cut-offs — so unnerved him that he lost his cool in the second act.

    “It rarely happens to me, but I got thrown,” said Slatkin. “All of a sudden, I was saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ and there were places where I knew I was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty much up in the air.

    “At the end of the second act, there is a big ensemble number. It is one place where everybody needs to look at the conductor. They’re all holding notes and I give the cut-offs. She held on past everybody on every one. I can’t say it was on purpose because I don’t know. But it was not in league at all with what anybody else was doing. There was no feeling of cohesion.”

    Slatkin’s career has been a roller coaster recently. He suffered a heart attack in November but recovered to lead the DSO on a successful Florida tour in February and signed a two-year extension to his contract. The Met was a low point, but last week he added the music directorship of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France to his portfolio.

    The Met fallout diverted attention from the transformative leadership he has brought to the DSO, and it may slow the rehabilitation of his national image, which slipped when his tenure at the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., ended lukewarmly.

    The saga began when the Met canceled a revival of John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles,” a contemporary work Slatkin was scheduled to conduct. Slatkin was instead offered “La Traviata.”

    “At first, I said I would not do the switch,” he wrote on his blog, leonardslatkin.com. Then came the words that would be widely quoted as evidence that he arrived unprepared.

    “After all, this is an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met. But after a while, I concluded that since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters. There was a lot of digging for me to do. I consumed books about the composer and the work’s history. Listening to a few recordings was helpful but confusing. What constituted tradition and why? This was a question I would ask often during rehearsals.”

    New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in a strongly worded, influential review that he had “seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and cast at the Met.” He put the blame mostly on Slatkin for showing up at rehearsals “not fully knowing the score” and for his awkward handling of accompaniment patterns key to Verdi’s style.

    Slatkin said Monday that his reference to learning from the masters — in this case Gheorghiu and baritone Thomas Hampson — did not mean he needed them to learn the music but only that he wanted to absorb their experience and command of tradition. Slatkin said he entered rehearsals with his own ideas, from treating the Prelude in a more restrained manner than usual to other decisions about mood, pacing and phrasing. While many ran counter to convention, he said they were met with open minds from the cast, artistic staff and orchestra.

    Slatkin said Gheorghiu was spot-on at early rehearsals but trouble began when he stepped beyond music and made a suggestion about the staging of her character’s death scene. After Violetta dies, Slatkin proposed that to animate the final bars, the last gesture should be left to Alfredo, who would look up to God as if to say, “Why me?”

    “Angela was having none of that,” said Slatkin. “The last gesture should be hers. It didn’t seem like a big thing at the time, but I think it was.”

    Gheorghiu, 44, is regarded as one of the world’s leading sopranos, but she has also earned a reputation as a willful artist with a history of diva behavior resulting in firings, cancellations and other imbroglios. Speaking for the singer, her general manager Jack Mastroianni, senior vice president at IMG Artists, declined to respond to Slatkin’s version of what happened.

    “Angela Gheorghiu respects Leonard Slatkin.” he said in a statement. “She enthusiastically welcomed a collaboration when she learned the maestro was to conduct John Corigliano’s ‘The Ghost of Versailles’ as the Metropolitan Opera originally scheduled. What happened when the Met switched the opera to Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ is factually described by maestro Slatkin in his personal blog and reported in detail by Anthony Tommasini, New York Times chief music critic.”

    Hampson was traveling in Russia and could not be reached for comment.

    Gheorghiu later skipped a key rehearsal claiming fatigue and at the dress rehearsal, said Slatkin, “went off the charts” — singing flat, missing entrances and distorting phrases beyond recognition. Slatkin faults Met management for not stepping in to broker a musical resolution.

    “If we still couldn’t work it out, then one of us would have had to go, but it should have happened after the dress rehearsal,” he said.

    Instead, Slatkin said he was reassured that everything was fine by Met officials, including general manager Peter Gelb, who met him in the pit after the rehearsal. “I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ ” Slatkin recalled. “And he said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, just keep it that way. I know she’s difficult, but you’re doing fine.’ ”

    Met press director Peter Clark said the company would not comment on questions posed by the Free Press, including why officials didn’t act aggressively to resolve the problems and whether Gheorghiu threatened to walk out of the opera if Slatkin remained.

    Slatkin went to see Gheorghiu just before the performance to ask if there was anything specific she wished him to do. He said she mentioned two spots in the score but otherwise told him to “listen and watch.” The first act went fine, he said, but in the second she reverted to her dress rehearsal behavior.

    “I was so focused on trying to keep together with her, I forgot about other people on stage at times,” said Slatkin. “At one point, I completely missed a cadence with Tom.”

    Slatkin said he resigned because of the barrage of negative coverage and his feeling that the situation would not improve. R. Douglas Sheldon, Slatkin’s manager and senior vice president and director at Columbia Artists Management, said the conductor was never specifically asked to leave but Met officials intimated to Sheldon that it would be best if Slatkin withdrew. Met officials declined comment.

    Slatkin said he is not bitter about the experience but especially regrets that because of his association with the DSO the situation reflected poorly on Detroit. But he is ready to move on.

    “If you can’t recover from negatives you shouldn’t be in this business,” he said. “I’ve had enough negatives, but I’ve had a lot more positives.”