Although most music lovers don't realize it, a number of prominent conductors were born in Los Angeles. Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, is an L.A. native, and so is Michael Tilson Thomas, who leads the San Francisco Symphony. And if we're not too technical about it, we can also include David Robertson, a rising star now at the St. Louis Symphony. He came of age in Santa Monica.
Coincidentally, Robertson's predecessor in St. Louis, Leonard Slatkin, also hails from these parts, specifically near Wilshire and La Brea. But unlike his brethren who abandoned Los Angeles, Slatkin, having gained fame and acclaim elsewhere, has returned to the City of Angels to make music.
Well, after a fashion. He doesn't have a fulltime job here. But since last year, he has been principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl (yes, that's his official title). Although he originally accepted the position for just two seasons, he and the Philharmonic soon extended his contract through 2007.
Slatkin's primary post is as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., a position he's held since 1996 and will continue to occupy through the 2007/2008 season. He's also the principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London -- the latest in a series of prestigious British gigs that have included chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2000 to 2004) and principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra (1997 to 2000).
But despite his ostensibly busy schedule, the conductor, 61, said he was happy to make room for the Bowl.
"They asked me to do three or four weeks a season, and I thought that was attractive," said Slatkin by phone from his office at the National Symphony. "I had finished with the BBC. I had Washington, but I knew I would be leaving. And I had my summers free."
One might, of course, wonder why the Philharmonic would need to create a job consisting of less than a month of concerts. After all, the orchestra -- not to be confused with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri -- has a much-admired long-serving music director in Esa-Pekka Salonen. But the Philharmonic was in need of assistance, for as Salonen's reputation as a composer grew, he requested summers off to write.
In the past, the gap was filled by multiple guest conductors, always a mainstay at the Bowl. Yet just as there is something to be said for variety, continuity also affords benefits.
"The Bowl decided that they wanted to have one person spend more time with the orchestra than they had in the past," Slatkin said. "They were looking for more stability, and they knew that I'd done summer festivals."
Prior to his Bowl duties, Slatkin's most significant summer appointment was directing the Blossom Festival, off-season home to the Cleveland Orchestra, from 1990 to 1999.
He says that the Philharmonic's decision to tap him to fill in for Salonen suggests that the orchestra "wanted to keep the level high" and that "they weren't interested in a beauty pageant." But besides the opportunity to lead one of this country's best orchestras at an iconic venue, Slatkin had nostalgic reasons for the wanting the job.
Slatkin and his brother, cellist Frederick Zlotkin, are musicians born of musicians. Their father, Felix, was an esteemed studio violinist and leader of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet, formed in 1947 and disbanded in 1961. Their mother, Eleanor Aller, played cello in the quartet and also worked for the studios.
In addition to fiddling, Felix also conducted, often at the Bowl, his programs weighted toward light music, including at least one concert with Captain Kangaroo.
"I certainly spent my childhood there," Slatkin said of the amphitheater. "I'd go at least once a week. I even applied to be an usher but was turned down."
Despite that early rejection, Slatkin has only fond memories of the place.
"I heard Heifetz and Ormandy and Solti," he said, the thrill evident in his voice. "Those people didn't play downtown so much. And I remember the New York Philharmonic coming with Bernstein. We used to pay a dime to get in. You could hear even in the high seats, though you had to strain a bit. Of course, we used to sneak down and tried not to get caught."
Now, of course, Slatkin is enjoying a very different Bowl experience. He says he mostly programs his own concerts, though he consults with the Bowl's artistic staff.
"It's not exactly where you do a Wuoroinen festival," he said, cheekily invoking one of America's brainier composers to signal that he knows that the Bowl is primarily a populist institution.
Although he had worked with the Philharmonic in the past, they had not performed together much lately. But Slatkin says he enjoyed leading the orchestra last summer and has only praise for the Bowl's new band shell and the site's other physical improvements, especially the giant video screens that now flank the amphitheater.
"I'm hoping to use the screens as a more interesting complement. The film-music program will incorporate portions of the films themselves," he said, referring to a program on Sept. 12 featuring movie music by Aaron Copland, John Corigliano and Leonard Bernstein.
Before that concert, Slatkin will have conducted programs of Beethoven (July 11), Dvorak (July 13) and Mozart (July 20). He also provides the musical accompaniment for two evenings featuring the Smothers Brothers (Aug. 25 and 26).
His last concert of the season, on Sept. 14, embraces the familiar and breaks new ground. The obvious highlight will be a fireworks-enhanced performance of Carl Orff's ubiquitous "Carmina Burana." But it will be preceded by the work of a young composer named Jefferson Friedman, a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize. Its title is "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly," and Slatkin gave the work's premiere last May with the New York Philharmonic.
"It's about a sculpture," says the conductor, referring to a vast work by James Hampton. "So I'm going to try to incorporate more visual elements."
The conductor hopes to tap that spirit of the unexpected even more in 2007, presumably his final season in this position.
"I think we can get a little more adventurous," he says. "If people begin to identify me with the Bowl, I can gain their trust, and we can experiment."
David Mermelstein is a critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to various publications, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.