Conducting Business by Leonard Slatkin gives a unique look inside a unique profession. Slatkin recently sat down with Stay Thirsty Magazine to answer some questions about his book and how he himself rose to the position of maestro. You can read the rest of the interview here!
I’d like to begin with a biographical note from your 2012 publication, Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro (Amadeus Press). You were effectively assured of victory had you entered the international competition to determine an assistant conductor for the NY Philharmonic. This was back in the 1960’s, when Leonard Bernstein was at the podium and arguably at the height of his popularity (via the Young People’s Concerts, which ran on CBS from 1958 to 1972). Essentially, you “turned him down.” Did you ever fear repercussions in your career? Also, what are your thoughts vis-à-vis competitions for conductors?
At the time, I was still a student, and I really hadn’t thought about my career. I had a number of options to consider, beginning with getting drafted! I might have been in the army, in which case I would have been an arranger for NORAD. I was also offered the opportunity to become the assistant conductor at St. Louis, and I had this chance to go to the Mitropoulos Competition. The latter, however, I had to turn down, because I simply did not want to be in a position that I hadn’t earned legitimately. No, I didn’t really “think about it” all that much. It bothered me; it disturbed me. I realized I could win the competition not for what I could do, but simply for who I was. I found that notion annoying. I should append that to this day I generally recoil at the idea of competitions as the way to “spot a talent,” even though I’m involved with one – the Van Cliburn Competition. Moreover, there will be an announcement fairly soon about my relationship with that organization, and it will become clear why I have chosen to accept it.
Competitions are arguably more suited for athletics, and the similarity dissipates pretty quickly. Of course, we “play” music or some sport, and the competitor is deemed only as “good” as he is on that particular day. However, we really need the “long-term” to be able to judge, particularly with a conductor. How does the individual relate to the orchestra? Other questions arise as well – knowledge of the score, technical command, and ability to garner the respect of the orchestral musicians. It’s really pretty difficult, if not impossible, to tell that in a conducting competition, and I hope I never have to be in the position of judging one.
Of course, I do have to judge other conductors, especially when we audition assistant conductors, but usually I can start that process during the course of an interview that takes place. Obviously, one needs to be able to conduct and relate well to the orchestra, but I want to see what other things the applicants bring to the table – communication skills; whether they write well and speak well; the ideas they may have for educational programs: in other words, the “total package.” However, these intangibles are not what judges score, and so I’m decidedly not a fan of conducting competitions, since I feel I can’t really learn anything substantive from them.
I agree. In fact, I am reminded of Arthur Rubinstein’s famous quote, “Competitions are for horses, not people.”
I suppose that for some it’s a necessary evil. There are those who attune their entire mentalities toward the objective of winning a competition. However, what do they do for the rest of their lives?