Leonard Slatkin: US orchestras lack boldness

Leonard Slatkin: US orchestras lack boldness


norman lebrecht

June 09, 2021

The maestro has written to the New York Times in response to Zachary Woolfe’s article on the failure of US orchestras to promote their assistant conductors. His letter was savagely truncated to 250 words.

Slippedisc.com can now publish the full letter below, for the greater edification:

Letter to the Editor

In his excellent and timely article from June 4, 2021, Zachary Woolfe writes of the many hurdles facing conductors in the United States, most of them regarding the opportunity to lead major orchestras in the country. As he rightfully points out, the pandemic has created a series of new challenges that could benefit and change the landscape in the near future.

Referencing Leonard Bernstein’s leap to conductorial stardom as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Bruno Walter in 1943, Mr. Woolfe shows us one path to a future on the podium. The same happened to me and provided a jolt to my career: In 1974, I was the associate conductor of the St. Louis Symphony when I received calls to fill in for Riccardo Muti at the New York Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Sir Adrian Boult at the Royal Philharmonic in London during that one season.

These opportunities were made possible because of my time serving in secondary positions with an orchestra in the middle of the country. In 1968, my first year on the job, my functions were similar to those described in the article. I did not lead any subscription programs for two seasons, when the music director and musicians thought I was finally ready. Up until then, I attended every rehearsal and performance, led eighty-three children’s concerts, and conducted the occasional run-out date. The early years of an assistant were about watching, listening, and learning.

Those days are long gone. Even among the aspirants named in the piece, most of them are already getting engagements on the road. The task of absorbing an incredible amount of information, both musical and managerial, is daunting at best. Heading up an orchestra in this part of the twenty-first century is much more complex than it was when I began. Young baton wielders need to be careful not to move too quickly, as that potential star can burn out just as fast as it ascends.

But there is a point that Mr. Woolfe makes which is troublesome, at least on one level. He writes, “When Marin Alsop steps down from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this summer, it will leave the top tier of American ensembles as it was before she took the post in 2007: without a single female music director.” True, but that assessment is missing another key ingredient. It will leave the top tier American ensembles without an American music director, period. At the moment, there are at least four vacancies for the top jobs in the United States. One only need look at the conductors on the schedule for the 21-22 season to find out if we will have a native-born director in the foreseeable future.

During the last part of the twentieth century and well into this one, conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas, Gerard Schwarz, David Zinman, Robert Spano, David Robertson, Marin Alsop, myself, and others, were all music directors of important orchestras. And we were all regulars on the guest conducting circuit. Some of us served as assistant conductors in the States and some did not. But all of us were guided by mentors who looked after us. These were not agents or managers but rather people connected to the music industry who had a birds-eye view of the entire landscape.

My own advice for the current crop of assistants is simple: stay put for a little while. I know you are all anxious to lead Mahler 2, Salome or Sacre. Much of your repertoire will come later. Develop your communication style, as this is a critical part of the profession today. Reach deep into your communities, doing work that the music director usually cannot. When possible, go to other orchestras, not to conduct but to observe, listen, and learn.

Boards and administrators must also play a crucial part. After all, they make the decisions as to who will lead their orchestras. Clearly the priority is on music-making when determining who is best qualified to become music director. But part of that decision must also be about boldness—finding the person who has innovative ideas, connects with both the orchestra and community, and can create a truly individual identity for the organization.

Possibly, that person has been in sight all along.

—Leonard Slatkin
Music Director Laureate, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Laureate, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Author of Classical Crossroads: The Path Forward for Music in the 21st Century



  • Gustavo says:

    Haitink’s conducting debut with the Concertgebouw was 1956 (substituting for Carlo Maria Giulini) while second conductor of Radio Filharmonisch Orkest.

  • Patrick says:

    Wise words from one of the greatest conductors of all time. Thank you!

    • Amos says:

      Mr. Slatkin has had a long career leading a handful of orchestras as MD or PGC. Since most of us have only experienced his work via recordings please name 1 that has ever been regarded as seminal or even among the “greatest”. The closest candidates are likely his role as accompanist in the Barber violin and piano concerti. The former imo has more to do with soloist Elmar Oliveira whose playing is superb and the latter is not in the same league with GS/CO and the same soloist. In the piano concerto, ignoring the differences in orchestral players, within the first 90 seconds of the first movement GS’s more dynamic accents alone enlivens the piece in a manner never achieved by Mr. Slatkin. The live 1965 recording by JB/GS/CO from the Concertgebouw, which can be found online, is imo even more convincing.

      • David A Williams says:

        I disagree.

        Slatkin’s recordings of Copland’s music with St. Louis SO are some of the best (particularly compared to Bernstein). The Symphony No. 3 is astonishingly clear and concise. The Music for a Great City is witty and provocative. Slatkin is equally good in William Schuman’s Symphony No. 10. Indeed, he has made a career of recording the American tonalists from the mid-20th century. I can hardly think of a recording that wasn’t compelling.

        The disc of Joan Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra is memorable.

        His recordings of Corigliano are even better. Not just the Symphony No. 1, but the Fantasia on an Ostinato is spectacular (from the disc with Barry Douglas playing the Piano Concerto).

        Even Slatkin’s recordings of the Vaughan Williams Symphonies are worthy. They may not be quite as good as Previn’s but I would listen to them over just about any conductor.

        If you want to hear how good a conductor Slatkin was, check out his recording of John Williams’s Concerto for Flute, Percussion, and Strings with the LOndon SO (it is on a disc with the Violin Concerto).

        • Amos says:

          If you prefer Mr. Slatkin’s approach to early Bernstein performances of 20th-century American music and that of Boult & Davis in the music of Vaughn Williams then we are polar opposites in what we look for in performing classical music. Rather than try to articulate those differences I would offer this example of Mr. Slatkin’s performance of Elgar at the Proms. There are few pieces and occasions that lend themselves to vital music-making and yet despite large physical gestures from the podium the performance itself is imo deadly dull. Faster and louder is not an acceptable substitute for a thoughtful interpretation but neither is wit and subtlety where vitality and vehemence are called for.


  • fflambeau says:

    Very good ideas beautifully put.

    Let’s face it: most “gatekeepers” whether they are decision makers in radio, or on boards of symphonies, think that foreign is always better. My own very good public radio system seems to think so: almost all American works are performed by foreign symphonies and conductors except for “black” works which are doubly suspect anyway so it makes no difference to them. Besides, the LPO is not known for its renditions of juba dances.

    • So many recordings of American works are performed by foreign orchestras not because American orchestras don’t want to, necessarily; it is because the cost of doing so in America is exorbitant and that makes it nearly impossible to do so here without serious underwriting. Securing that kind of underwriting is like finding a unicorn.

      • fflambeau says:

        Actually John McLaughlin, all the American works I enjoy (and that’s most) are performed by American groups. They are not played because of monetary reasons but because “gatekeepers” think foreign is better.

  • mary says:

    I wonder what Mr. Slatkin thinks of Alan Gilbert’s appointment and tenure at the NYP.

    It was, at best, a missed opportunity for both maestro and conductor to have done something with that ballyhooed American nexus.

    Prior to NY, Gilbert was a second tier conductor directing a second tier orchestra. After NY, Gilbert is still a second tier conductor directing a second tier orchestra.

    • Monsoon says:

      Gilbert did a lot of interesting and inventive programs while at the NYP, but the NYC audiences seemed indifferent to them.

      • John Porter says:

        The Orchestra grew very tired of Gilbert, as they do with every one of their conductors. This is an orchestra that grew tired of Lenny, then desperately wanted him back (no dice), then tired of Boulez, tired of Mehta…I can go on. Perhaps the only one they didn’t grow tired of was Bruno Walter, since they didn’t have him around long enough and he was never the music director.

    • MacroV says:

      You’re calling the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic a second-tier orchestra? Have you ever HEARD the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic?

      I would say that leading the Swedish Opera and the Elbephilharmonie are two pretty sweet gigs – on top of which he’s a welcome guest at the Berlin Phil and other A-list orchestras. Just try to see if he’s available to guest with your local orchestra.

    • freddynyc says:

      You are awfully generous in referring to him as a second tier conductor……

  • Hayne says:

    As an aside, what’s with music critics and their fixation on what’s between one’s legs and skin color for conductors?

    • BRUCEB says:

      In fairness, the critics’ interest comes from orchestras’ even greater interest. Critics aren’t the ones deciding what conductors are hired.

      To his credit, Slatkin mentions race not at all, and sex only once: in a quote from Woolfe, which he promptly waves aside with a “yes, but” and then focuses mainly on the process of building a viable career as a conductor in this country.

      • Hayne says:

        My comment wasn’t about maestro Slatkin but your point about orchestras’ discrimination culpabilities is valid. I was pointing out the NYT’s music critic’s opinion and another well known one here:)

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Perfectly stated based on experience. The same can be said for solo instrumentalists, many who win competitions and go from teacher’s studios to big stages. Develop as wide a repertoire as possible, be patient (yes, Leonard, your advice to me many years ago), and don’t rush to let the Star burn out. A powerful manager who ran one of the top two firms in the US once said, ” There are no Cinderella stories. Careers are built over time.”

  • Anon says:

    That’s possible. Maybe nearly every young American conductor is simply terrible because they aren’t ready to be up there.

  • Chicagorat says:

    I disagree. The CSO is very bold in keeping Muti at the helm.

    Today, let’s not mention Muti’s Clinton-style office behavior, cheered and admired by half the orchestra (the male, over 50 half), with the tacit approval of the CSO President, Jeff Alexander.

    Think about it: he is the man who, according to Italian newspapers, made a mocking impression of disabled conductor Jeffrey Tate (wasn’t Trump the one mocking disabled reporters?) and made homophobic comments towards distinguished composer Jennifer Higson and Maestro Nézet-Séguin.

    The CSO is not afraid of making bold choices. Not the choices you would advise. But bold nonetheless.

    • Gustavo says:

      Maestro bashing is bold.

    • Lothario Hunter says:

      Cigar? Or baton?

    • Minnesota says:

      Dear Church Lady: You should try to get a job with a British tabloid. I doubt that very many people other than you think, much less worry about people leaving Michigan offices at the same time. Some people just might be going for lunch.

      • Lothario Hunter says:

        mhhh you should run a British tea house instead!

        3-6pm is tea time, not lunch .. wouldn’t you think?

        Group nap time maybe? Exercise?

  • J Barcelo says:

    That there are no American conductors in charge of American orchestras is very frustrating. Are they not as well trained? Is the European (and Venezuelan!) competition just too good? Sure, there are American conductors of second and third tier orchestras, but why not at the top? I don’t get it.

    I hope Mr Slatkin can answer another related question that has been bothering a lot of us: are there any younger conductors out there who have the ability, talent and desire to be great orchestra builders? Looking back over the 20th c there were the likes of Dorati, Rodzinski, Szell, MItropoulos and others who were able to take a 2nd rate group and transform it to perfection. Who out there today are up to the job?

    • Ludwig's Van says:

      Slatkin raised the stature of St. Louis Symphony, yet he was overlooked by the NY Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra & Los Angeles Philharmonic – positions he richly deserved.

      • MacroV says:

        I’m an admirer of Leonard Slatkin (and appreciate his occasional contributions here), but I’ve always found him more of a thoughtful institutional leader than a compelling interpreter.

        At the time he left St. Louis (1995), none of the three orchestras you mention were in the market (all having hired MDs around 1990), so whether or not he deserved them, he wasn’t available. And his tenure at the NSO, probably by his own admission, was less than inspired (though I’ll lay that somewhat at the feet of the overall NSO/KC culture and hidebound Washington audience). It’s not any kind of slight to say his legacy will be St. Louis.

      • Another player says:

        No, he didn’t “richly” deserve to be music director of any of those orchestras. He’s alright as a guest and can get through most of the repertoire, but he would never be a contender for music director in the places you mention. I don’t want to be mean, so I won’t go into the reasons, but it’s definitely not because he’s American.

    • Monsoon says:

      I think this is more of a function of so little turnover with these positions. It’s pretty rare that a music director tenure isn’t at least 10 years, and near-20 year terms are pretty frequent. So maybe there’s a vacancy at a top 20 U.S. orchestra once every three or four years?

    • Meri says:

      Well…if ‘orchestra builder’ is synonymous with orchestra tyrant, you would have a point. Szell, Rodzinski, Dorati, and Mitropoulos were all known as severe taskmasters. They demanded results and they received them. The same behavior is not tolerated today and I do hope you are not suggesting it should be?

      I believe the problem lies with what American orchestras are looking for in a conductor, it is not always ability and talent unfortunately. Many want credentials on paper, how many Grammys have they won, how many books published, what about published revisions to scores, can they work a room of wealthy donors, do they get along with the musicians, etc…
      If ability and talent were the first on the list then we may see some dramatic results among American orchestras.

  • drummerman says:

    Agree with Maestro Slatkin one hundred per cent but wonder whether or not the current lack of American music directors with the top orchestras is more a matter of “timing,” for lack of a better word than anything else? In other words, these appointments may come in cycles, a few close together, then none for a couple of years, then another group, etc. Just a hunch, or is he suggesting that Americans are being deliberately excluded?

    • Peter San Diego says:

      The question would then be why there are no cycles in hiring of European conductors. Why should the hiring of conductors of any nationality (or other not-directly-musical quality) be cyclical?

  • David K. Nelson says:

    All good and valid points, and Mr Slatkin might also have included Walter Hendl in his list of successful former assistant/associate conductors, although if Hendl never rose to the same heights, the bottle was more to blame than disdain for former assistant conductors.

    Indeed, it is an irony, at least I think it is, that we probably hold assistant and associate conductors in higher esteem as potential candidates for top tier positions, than we do conductors who actually have their own orchestras but the orchestras, often very good ones, are more regional or below the second tier (however those tiers are determined). These are conductors who may actually HAVE conducted, in Slatkin’s phrase, “Mahler 2, Salome or Sacre.”

    Opportunities for conductors seem to come at unexpected times and in unforeseen ways. I have been (re)reading Erich Leinsdorf’s autobiography, “Cadenza,” and the early chapters are filled with his stories of the odd happenstances, totally coincidental meetings, and lucky chances that created his early breaks, which included a what now would look like a shockingly early position with the Metropolitan Opera, all of which came about while he was basically just waiting for something good to happen but always willing to play piano when needed. Indeed his entire early history in music was an embodiment of “they also serve who only stand and wait” but the recommendations and mentoring (a word he does not use) that resulted were crucial.

    And interestingly, one of Leinsdorf’s (many) beefs about the Boston Symphony Orchestra is that they were one of the few majors that did NOT have a practice of retaining a genuine assistant conductor, instead relying on a section member of the violins, Harry Ellis Dickson, who was mainly Arthur Fiedler’s assistant for the Pops but was the closest the BSO had as an assistant conductor for Leinsdorf, who wrote rather dismissively about Dickson (who did after all study conducting under Pierre Monteux).

    That changed soon enough at the BSO and hence we all know of Michael Tilson Thomas.

    I suppose the other side of the coin has to be mentioned as well however. It’s possible for an assistant/associate conductor to be not much but, and as respected a musician as William Smith was, that was his fate in Philadelphia. So to Slatkin’s advice I’d add “but don’t get too comfortable at it.”

    • Amos says:

      I think the best example of your “don’t get too comfortable at it” would be Louis Lane. His recordings with both the CO and ASO are imo first-rate but after ~ 24 years as an assistant/associate in Cleveland he never went to the next level. Although clearly not practical in today’s arts world I wish someone would discuss the European regional opera houses of yore that gave rise to so many of the conductors from the “Golden Age”.

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Actually the BSO did employ an assistant conductor during the Leinsdorf era and his name was Charles Wilson. He was allotted one subscription concert per season. After Boston Wilson wound up, I think, at the Mannes School in New York. He did not pursue a conducting career as far as I know.

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Actually the BSO did employ an assistant conductor during the Leinsdorf years and his name was Charles Wilson. He was allotted one subscription concert per year, if my memory serves. After Boston I think he went on to the Mannes School in New York. As far as I know he did not pursue a conducting career.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Mr. Slatkin, thank you for sharing your valuable insights. What opportunities did assistant conductors have at the Detroit Symphony in recent years?

  • John Kelly says:

    Well Maestro Slatkin makes a bunch of very good points (and it’s ridiculous and disgraceful that the NYT edited this down, it’s not as if they have a bunch of great Arts Coverage competing for space………). I tend to believe that ultimately great talent will manifest itself sooner or later, but maybe I am wrong about that………..the lack of American Music Directors in US orchestras (after having quite a few) puts me in mind of Beecham’s notion in the UK “why employ all these third rate foreign conductors when we have so many second rate ones of our own”. But these US conductors, in my experience are mostly terrific. Slatkin doesn’t have space to mention many others – Litton, Dennis Russell Davies, Hugh Wolff…….etc etc etc

    • Peter San Diego says:

      If one submits a letter to the editor, one should be aware of the limits on the form, which is explicitly limited to 250 words. I suggest that Maestro Slatkin’s informed and thoughtful comments should have been submitted as a guest column (if such a thing exists). His article’s truncation is not the fault of the Letters section editors.

      • Nemo says:

        The restriction I’ve seen from editors of letters sections, both in our local newspaper and in the Wall Street Journal, is 271 words – the length of the Gettysburg Address. It is possible to be expressive in so few words, even profound, but one has to work at it.

  • sabrinensis says:

    Orchestras should look on Facebook; they’ll find plenty of conductors there with real skills and number of particularly talented black conductors who have been toiling away in the backwoods. While they’re at it, they should drop that 20-something age range; it’s costing them viable candidates.

  • NotToneDeaf says:

    Mr. Slatkin makes many excellent points and his suggestions are helpful. He does forget one item and that is that the music directors of these orchestras with promising staff conductors no longer do a thing to help their assistants with their careers. The MDs are almost always absent when the staff conductor is leading the orchestra – so there’s no feedback or critiques. And whether these “leaders” are jealous, insecure or just lazy, they rarely lift a finger to recommend their assistants, to help them be seen by their agent, or to advocate for them in any other way. I’ve worked with many young conductors who feel completely unsupported by their music directors and end up being frustrated by their lack of mentoring. It’s yet one more example of how so many MDs don’t invest in their communities or the work of their own orchestras. For them, it all about ME, ME, ME.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      Still, Rossen Milanov and Cristian Macelaru are example of conductors who did their stints as assistant and then associate conductors of the Philadelphia Orchestra and went on to at least respectable careers.

    • David Rohde says:

      This observation by NotToneDeaf is very insightful, and I would only add that it’s not just the fault of the MDs themselves. It’s a question of what American orchestra boards are going for when they hire a music director in the first place. Do they want to make a splash in the global world of classical music, presumably including in the comment threads here? Or do they want to build something in their communities, critically including all the people who are not YET attending orchestra concerts? It’s asking a lot of a music director to truly mentor and promote assistants when the MD himself is off doing five other things elsewhere in the world.

      I’ve previously used the analogy that “the conductor” of the local symphony orchestra – I’m deliberately using the most generic possible term instead of “music director” – should be something like the manager of the city’s major league baseball team. You might not go the games – at least not yet, or not very often – but you recognize his name when it comes on the news. And there’s a staff of coaches who may eventually get the manager’s job, either on that team or one of the 29 others around the country.

      Paradoxically, to think this way actually requires a certain level of optimism about classical music. It’s an orientation that yes, the people who aren’t coming to concerts might do so in the future. It’s also an orientation that yes, an American-born and trained conductor (of any American ethnic background) isn’t consigning himself or herself to a permanent second-class career by taking an assistant or staff job at a big-city symphony orchestra.

      For you Brits, if there’s any parallel situation over there, I’d be happy to suggest that you substitute the manager of English Premier League clubs for my analogy to major league baseball managers – except that so many of your managers aren’t even English!

      • NotToneDeaf says:

        It simply comes down to this: An MD is hired for an exorbitant amount of money to be on the podium for – what? maybe 10-15 weeks (providing it’s even a full-time orchestra). (S)he is supposed to set and lead the direction of the orchestra – which is actually done by staff members (and more and more, by the musicians), and oh yes, let’s give him/her permission to have AT LEAST one other “full-time” job – which is almost always going to require a full day of travel. (Which then allows the MD to bitch and moan about being tired and having jet lag.) What other profession in the entire world would allow such a thing from the big boss? And we wonder why orchestras are in crisis. RE: board decisions on hiring – the more exotic the name and accent, the more attractive the candidate. Good hair helps, too, but isn’t essential.

        • Nemo says:

          NTD: Follow the money. The board is trying to stay solvent, which means selling tickets and attracting big donations, while trying to appease powerful unions – the stage hands as well as the musicians. That means having an MD with star power. A stepped-up assistant MD, no matter how talented, just isn’t going to cut it. As long as our orchestras are privately funded, that situation is not going to change. Also, those big-name Europeans aren’t going to hang around in what they regard as “the sticks” to develop musicians or audience: why should they, when they can fly in, wave the stick for a few nights, collect a fat paycheck, then grab the next plane home? Again, as long as the board depends on those big names to sell tickets and attract donations, those big names will be able to name their own terms. Follow the money.

      • Saxon says:

        The major teams in the English Premier League pretty much always prefer exotic foreign managers than English managers from further down the food-chain.

  • MR says:

    There exists a stereotype that American orchestras lack authenticity because they are essentially performing European music of past centuries. What I can say is that after hearing a momentous performance of the Mahler Ninth by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, even that superb effort was completely overtaken by a performance of the same work given by the Frankfort Radio Symphony in Carnegie Hall later the same year in terms of rasa or expressive essence. One felt strongly how the German orchestra had entered into the true import of the music transcending all other considerations. The fact that I don’t recall the German conductor seems to stress how the performance was more about Mahler than it was about the interpreters. Perhaps American orchestras are hiring European (including Russia, of course) conductors in pursuit of that elusive quality. Leonard Slatkin’s performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland with the Minnesota Orchestra is a revelation.

    • John Kelly says:

      Eliahu Inbal perhaps the conductor you couldn’t recall?

      • Gustavo says:

        Inbal is an Israeli conductor.

        Bernstein endorsed a scholarship for Inbal to study conducting at the Conservatoire de Paris.

        Inbal also took courses with Celibidache.

      • MR says:

        Yes, it must have been Eliahu Inbal. Thank you for pointing this out. I apologize for being too lazy to research online who it might have been. (Perhaps absolute confirmation with the orchestra or Carnegie Hall would be best.) Glad to learn Inbal is still with us. I was just thinking of my father, and like how his name, Eli, is similar to Eliahu.

        • Gustavo says:

          His Mahler cycle with the Frankfurters was great, his Bruckner even greater, especially 3rd Urfassung.

          I once saw him doing Turangalila with Tonhalle Zurich. It was orgiastic.

        • Don Ciccio says:

          Why don’t you go directly to the source: the Carnegie Hall database: https://www.carnegiehall.org/About/History/Performance-History-Search.

          It does indeed show a 1980 performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony by Eliahu Inbal and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra.

          • MR says:

            Brilliant – thank you. The Leonard Bernstein BSO performance was during the summer of 1979, so the Eliahu Inbal FRSO was actually early the following year, January 1980. I heard yet another Gustav Mahler Ninth with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic later in 1980 that was utterly mesmeric and inspirational. I certainly treasured his recording of the Mahler Ninth with the Chicago Symphony.

          • Don Ciccio says:

            In fact, the Boston Symphony has it’s own performance archive database, and indeed it shows the Bernstein Tanglewood Mahler 9: https://archives.bso.org/.

            I only wish more orchestras had these kind of online databases. There is no reason why they shouldn’t.

  • BRUCEB says:

    I remember reading a quote by, I think it was Thomas Beecham, bemoaning the same state of affairs in the UK: something like “I don’t understand why we keep hiring third-rate Europeans to conduct our orchestras, when we have so many second-rate conductors here at home.”

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Beecham was witty but, sadly, that’s about all.

      • J Barcelo says:

        Say what? Beecham, at least on recording, was one of the best! What he was good at he was unmatched. His Beethoven 7th, all of the Haydn. Delius. Scheherazade, the Carmen suites, the Balakirev 1st…superb conductor.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      Some of the so-called “third-rate Europeans” that worked in England while Beecham was alive: Klemperer, Mengelberg, Monteux, Krips, Kubelik, Solti, Silvestri, van Beinum, Steinberg, Karajan, Cantelli, Giulini, Horenstein, Ansermet, Walter, Furtwängler, de Sabata, Celibidache, Krauss, Koussevitzky, Stokowski – should I continue?

      Not all of them had permanent posts with English orchestras but they appeared regularly in London and other cities.

  • CarlD says:

    The headline misrepresents the main thrust of the maestro’s message, which clearly is that assistant conductors shouldn’t be afraid to stay put longer than may feel comfortable.

  • Thank you all for your comments. Many of your questions are answered in my forthcoming book, “Classical Crossroads,” which comes out Sept. 15th. However, it might be worthwhile for me to try and answer a few of the queries. I will do that in my next web piece, probably in a week or so.

  • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

    It seems that some core issues broached by Maestro Slatkin were overlooked by his readers.

    Here is my choice paragraph:

    “My own advice for the current crop of assistants is simple: stay put for a little while. I know you are all anxious to lead Mahler 2, Salome or Sacre. Much of your repertoire will come later. Develop your communication style, as this is a critical part of the profession today. Reach deep into your communities, doing work that the music director usually cannot. When possible, go to other orchestras, not to conduct but to OBSERVE, LISTEN and LEARN.”

    You see, at the heart of this controversy lies a simple fact that has nothing to do with race or gender: EXPERIENCE CANNOT BE TAUGHT! Most of these so-called “bright young stars” do not realize they know little about music, and knowing music goes far beyond memorizing the order of sharps or flats.

    What was that Berlioz said about the ultra-precocious Camille Saint-Säens? “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

  • Paganono says:

    It is puzzling that, as America’s best conductor of his generation, Slatkin was never appointed MD of any of the top-5 US orchestras. One assumes that it was because he wasn’t managed by Ronald Wilford. Slatkin remained faithful to his manager Lee Lamont, and he paid a huge price for it.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    An interesting read. And Mr Slatkin is indeed correct that much of what a staff conductor has to do is to listen, observe and be of assistance.

    An in that role, he/she can interact with the orchestra (and learn how it operates as a work culture), attend board meetings (if invited), and study, study and study scores.

    Learn music history, the history of orchestras, and the entire repertoire (concerti, symphonies, opera, and oratorios). Not all of them but the great ones. Learn to work with a choir and to accompany a soloist (esp vocal).

    What I have found is that most young conductors want to spend most of their time on their career. There is little time for introspection. Many lack the basics of understanding transpositions, keyboard harmony, and learning that less movement is actually more. Don’t flail away when a little gesture can bring the same result.

    I do agree with others on this board. Talent eventually rises to the top and these days women and minorities are being given some good opportunities to at least show if they have what it takes to start the long journey.

    Having worked with some talented young American conductors, I can assure you they are out there and hopefully we will see and hear more of them as the older ranks retire and orchestras struggling with budgets and identities look to domestic music directors as a possible solution to their woes.

  • Another excellent analysis from the maestro!

  • Anon says:

    So many unfounded comments on this site with claims of how many great candidates there are in the young American trained category of conductor, and hardly anyone ever backs it up by mentioning names.

    • minacciosa says:

      What’s your name?

    • David K. Nelson says:

      A fair point to make. Here’s one: Elizabeth Schulze.

      • Save the MET says:

        Nah, won’t put butts in seats at this point. That’s the magic the top conductors with names have. She’s with the Maryland Symphony now, a small regional and needs to show her mettle for a few years and we shall see.

  • Ah Orchestral conducting…….the ultimate ego trip in Continental Europe and the USA.

  • Save the MET says:

    Here is the problem, last minute substitutions happen all the time and assistant conductors fill in for their bosses and for guest conductors at the drop of a hat, usually because they have been involved in the rehearsals, know the works and the musicians.

    Bernstein is not a great example, he had unusually strong charisma. Most assistant conductors do not even possess a fraction of the chutzpah that Lennie had. His rise was an aberration, because he was unusual. His charm and charisma during that performance led to guest appearances with other orchestras, however, he continued to live in the sturm und drang, conducting The New York Symphony for a few years, spent time studying with Koussevitszky, took a few professorships and other jobs while continuing to conduct guest appearances. He did not achieve the Music Directorship of the New York Philharmonic until 14 years after that debut.

    Gustavo Dudamel is the one fairly young conductor today who had the charm and charisma of Bernstein and he’s still a fraction of the musician that Lennie was.

    It would be great to see assistant conductors rise more often. However, there needs to be a reason and it is not just musicianship that does it. There are lots of young conductors in the smaller regional orchestras around the country, but I don’t see any that could take the place of Muti in Chicago, Nelsons in Boston, Dudamel in LA, or Van Zweden in New York. Fabio Luisi who is a world beating conductor is the MD of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, one of our better regional orchestras and not at the helm of one of the top orchestras. Salonen just took the open position in San Francisco. Charisma, charm and musicianship leads to the major spots and puts butts in seats. Dull assistant conductors who can get the job done, but don’t inspire greatness don’t. Keep in mind, even Lennie needed 14 years of seasoning before one of the top orchestras was willing to take him on as MD.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    I suspect maestro Slatkin is talking about the US- which at least- is better in this regard than the UK. Opportunities for aspiring conductors with first rate orchestras are pretty non-existent. If you have any aspirations to conduct The Philharmonia for instance- live the dream & you might get lucky- otherwise get a job in a supermarket.

  • fflambeau says:

    While it is true that many orchestras gloss over their assistant and associate conductors, many of these people end up with top jobs elsewhere.

    The talented Francesco Lecce-Chong, for instance, served as Associate Conductor with the Milwaukee Symphony under Edo de Waart and the Pittsburgh Symphony under Manfred Honeck. He is now Music Director of the Eugene Symphony and the Santa Rosa Symphony in California.

    Ken-David Masur was an Associate Conductor with the BSO and now is Music Director in Milwaukee and with the Chicago Civic orchestra.

    A bigger problem, rightly identified by Maestro Slatkin, is the lack of American-born people leading American orchestras. I think this is due to what has been called, “The Cultural Cringe. ” This was a seminal 1950 essay by the Australian writer A.A. Phillips. The term, which he coined, refers to an inferiority complex that causes people to overvalue artists in other countries and undervalue those in their own. This is very true of American cultural institutions and especially in music. We have many fine schools, talented conductors but they are not hired at home.

    Perhaps one way to end this practice is to hire far more Americans in Assistant and Associate conductor ranks and then they will move up.