Few conductors are better equipped to lead an orchestra in both a movie-music program and a classical program on the same weekend than Leonard Slatkin.
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Slatkin has become one of the most respected leaders in the world of classical music and one of its best ambassadors. His recordings have won four Grammys, two with the St. Louis Symphony, which he took from a status as a decent regional orchestra to a No. 2 ranking by Time Magazine in 1983. That bettered four of the “Big Five” orchestras, those historically considered America’s best, topping New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. “Cleveland got the No. 1 spot, and we were mad,” Slatin recalled with a laugh.
But Slatkin also grew up around pop music and specifically movie music in Los Angeles, where his parents, violinist and conductor Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, were busy studio musicians as well as half of the illustrious Hollywood String Quartet. Their home was frequented by the likes of pop entertainers Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Nat King Cole, as well as “serious” musicians like Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.
HAWAII SYMPHONY ORCHESTRAWith guest conductor Leonard Slatkin
>> Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
>> When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (music of John Williams); also 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday (music of McTee, Brahms and Sibelius, featuring violinist Elina Vahala)
>> Cost: $27-$79 (Friday), $34-$92 (Saturday and Sunday)
>> Info: 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
The family even had a Hawaii connection, visiting the islands in 1957 in preparation for making an album of Hawaiian music.
This weekend, Slatkin will be making his own debut here. he leads the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra in a concert of John Williams music.
On Saturday and Sunday, Slatkin leads the orchestra in Brahms’ pastoral “Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73” and in Sibelius’ magnificent “Violin Concerto in D Minor, op. 47” with the exciting Finnish violinist Elina Vahala. With a personal touch that distinguishes his concerts, he’ll also lead the orchestra in a work by Cindy McTee, to whom Slatkin is married.
“I don’t have any barriers between genres,” he said in a call from Maui, where he was vacationing before coming to Honolulu.
“There’s two kinds of music. There’s good music – and the other stuff. I approach all music in very much the same way, unless it goes to an extreme. I did a concert with a pop legend in Detroit, Kid Rock, and that obviously was an entirely different thing altogether. All my life I’ve combined the genres, if the music was of a quality that it deserved equal attention. You have to.”
FOR SLATKIN’S first appearance with the local symphony and at Blaisdell Concert Hall, he plans to work simply and directly, tweaking certain passages, then bringing the orchestra to Blaisdell to balance the different sections of the orchestra.
He’ll draw on his roots to bring out a desirable sound.
“I grew up in a house of string players,” he said. “I was a string player as well as a pianist. So my emphasis is in two areas: one, really achieving a unified and rich string sound, but also including a great deal of flexibility and contrast in dynamics.”
With all of his experience, he sees classical music as being in a period of transition, as it tries to develop new audiences with both the traditional and contemporary works, especially those of American composers, and competes with other forms of entertainment. The conductor’s extensive work as one of the top administrators in music, developing programs and building community relations, qualifies him to make that judgment.
Slatkin has served as music director of the National Symphony in Washington D.C. and the New Orleans Symphony; he is currently music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which he helped bring back to prominence after a crippling strike in 2010-2011.
He’s perfectly willing to use modern technology in attracting audiences to concert performances – all of the Detroit Symphony concerts are streamed live, and he’s produced an educationals series of videos on conducting. But he’s not a big fan of “tacking on” visuals to symphonic works.
“It takes away what I think is an invaluable part of the concert experience, and that is the use of your imagination,” he said. “The music itself helps you create the images, and everyone comes away with something different. If you add visual components, everybody sees the same thing.”
That stance gives Slatkin more reason to enjoy presentation of the music of John Williams — composer of soundtracks to “Star Wars,” “E.T., the Extraterrestrial” and “Indiana Jones” — without film.
As it happens, Slatkin has known Williams since he was very young, when Williams was a studio pianist in Hollywood. Slatkin will do some talk story about Williams during the concert.
Musically, Slatkin will put his own spin on Williams’ now-familiar themes. “I’m not trying to emulate John,” he said. “I might do a march a bit faster or slower than what people have heard before.”
There will be familiar pieces, but also music from lesser-known films where Williams’ music was used, such as 2013’s “The Book Thief,” a film set in Nazi Germany.
“It’s remarkable, it could stand alone,” Slatkin said of the music. “I do it quite often as a concert opener because it sounds a lot like John writing in his classical music mode.”
THE CONDUCTOR compares today’s movie music to ballet or opera music of yesteryear – compositions that came into existence as part of a larger production, but then took on their own identity.
“I’ve always felt that, ever since I was a kid, that it’s an equal art form, the music of the motion picture industry. Among the things I’m most proud of is being one of the first to start putting (Eric) Korngold, (Max) Steiner and (Dmitri) Tiomkin directly on subscription programs and treating them very much the same way you would an opera overture or a ballet sequence,” he said, praising the three noted film composers.
He is also pleased to be performing the Sibelius concerto with violinist Vahala, who among her many accolades was chosen to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2008.
“Her Sibelius is about as good as it gets,” Slatkin said. “Elina brings that extraordinary passion to this piece, and virtuosity to say the least. But she also brings something that a lot of early violinists didn’t in earlier generations, and that’s the sense of the structure of the work. She doesn’t play it as just a virtuoso showpiece, but she has a really commanding evaluation of this work from the beginning to the end. Everything makes really great sense, and her sound is magnificent.”
McTee’s work, “Finish Line,” is an “energetic, jazzy with a lot of rhythmic colors” inspired by Detroit’s auto industry. It is one of the few works by his wife that he has never conducted before. So is he under any pressure? “First time, there always is,” Slatkin said with a laugh.