Maybe it was his heart attack during a concert in Rotterdam in 2009, or perhaps it’s just a matter of aging, but conductor Leonard Slatkin, a venerable fixture with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl for many years, is now thinking about summer as vacation time.
“I’m thinking about stopping conducting in the summers,” Slatkin, 67, said speaking on the phone from Detroit, where he has been music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 2008. “I’m not sure if this summer will be my last at the Bowl. A conductor’s life is really about getting off the plane, ordering from hotel room service, rehearsing and doing the concerts. We never have time to see the places we go to.”
One plan, he said, is to take advantage of his recent appointment as music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon. “I have a flat there,” he said. “It gives me a very good base to go and visit all the places on the European continent that I never had time to see.”
But before the new plan kicks in, Slatkin will open the Bowl’s classical schedule on July 10, conducting three short works by contemporary women composers, as well as Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony. Two days later, he leads the Phil at the Bowl in a different program, including Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Daniel Hope.
Beethoven’s Ninth has frequently been used to mark or celebrate personal and public occasions. Its uplifting message of freedom and brotherhood in the “Ode to Joy” choral finale never fails to move audiences.
But this time, the composer’s powerful finale will be accompanied by Herman Kolgen’s video imagery celebrating the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt’s birth and inspired by his Beethoven Frieze.
Slatkin said he agreed to the pairing “as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the music. … I’m not a big fan of visuals when they accompany works not intended to have them. But it’s interesting to see someone’s particular take on it.”
Slatkin said that the Bowl is the perfect place for such an experiment. “The majority of people in the audience, unless they have binoculars, can’t see the stage. So they rely on seeing the two screens on either side. So why not use the screens in a different way?”
The conductor said he hopes the visuals will offer some sort of timed frame of reference to the music that will adjust if he “decides to be somewhat free and flexible with tempos.”
Since his 1968 debut at age 23 with the St. Louis Symphony, Slatkin has conducted Beethoven’s Ninth many times. Over the years, he says, his approach has changed. “When we’re young, we love the last movement and, like the audience, can’t wait to get to it. Now I’m more in love with the first three movements.”
He said that when he’s presenting Beethoven’s titanic Ninth, he likes to program short works that offer contrast. “The Ninth has a pretty good built-in audience, so why not give them a chance to hear something a bit different?” Besides, Slatkin added: “I don’t know how many women composers have been played in the Bowl, but certainly not three in a row.”
That part of the Bowl program will begin with Anna Clyne’s “Rewind,” a quasi-minimalist electronic work, followed by Anne LeBaron’s “American Icons,” an homage to music of the 1920s. The third score offers an interesting twist with Cindy McTee’s “Tempus Fugit,” which Slatkin commissioned. McTee also happens to now be Slatkin’s wife.
“After she wrote it, we got involved, and she became literally my composer-in-residence,” Slatkin said with a laugh. “Her piece is a jazzy riff on Charles Ives’ ‘Unanswered Question.’ ”
His relationship with McTee is doubtless one reason Slatkin has been able to maintain his positive attitude to life. Another concerns a teaching of Judaism, or as he called it, “the faith.”
“There was no epiphany when I had my close encounter,” Slatkin said, referring to his heart attack. “But the faith has a great deal to do with doing the best that you can while you’re here, because you can’t control what’s going to happen when you’re gone.”
Perhaps it was that attitude that helped Slatkin endure a mini-scandal in 2010 when Metropolitan Opera management asked him to resign from its run of “La Traviata.”
“Everybody made a bigger deal out of it than it was,” he said. “After all those years, one performance that got trashed is going to ruin me? I don’t think so. I feel right now I’m conducting as well, if not better, than I ever have.”
But he admits, “It’s one of those things where people want to hear what really happened, and they will.” The conductor includes a chapter about the incident in his new book, “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro,” due out in July.
For Slatkin, music and religion are both about coming together. In April, he conducted Dvorak’s “New World” symphony at Congregation Shaarey Zedek as part of the Detroit orchestra’s Neighborhood Concert Series, a program designed to help build relationships throughout Southeast Michigan.
He is also proud of an ongoing recording project of Jewish and Israel-related music, scheduled for release next year. “We were recording Bloch’s ‘Schelomo’ with cellist Sol Gabetta,” he said.” It’s a work I’ve always loved. When I was a kid, you heard this piece every season. And when we were recording the Bruch ‘Kol Nidre,’ I realized that I used to go hear my parents play it in temple.”
Slatkin also used to go hear his parents perform on the Hollywood Bowl stage. Father Felix was a violinist, who, with his cellist wife, Eleanor Aller, founded the legendary Hollywood String Quartet.
“I’ve become very proud of the heritage,” he said, referring to his family’s Jewish roots. “Going back to the ‘Schelomo’ I did a few months ago with Sol. Here we were playing it with the Deutsche Symphony, a German orchestra, and in Vienna, with a cellist from Argentina and the conductor was a Jew from Hollywood. That was a real coming-together. Does it get any better than that?”
Leonard Slatkin conducts at the Hollywood Bowl on July 10 and July 12. For information and tickets, visit hollywoodbowl.com/tickets.