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For Leonard Slatkin, Classical Music’s ‘Crossroads’ Requires Boldness

Leonard Slatkin is conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
David Duchon Doris
Leonard Slatkin is conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

In the spring of 2021, as the pandemic raged, Leonard Slatkin wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

Even the abridged version, truncated for the Gray Lady’s space limitations, showed Slatkin’s verve. But it was the complete letter, published on the classical music site Slipped Disc, that set off a conversation “unlike any other I had seen in the classical music workplace,” as Slaktin writes in his new book.

Titled “Leonard Slatkin: U.S. Orchestras Lack Boldness,” the letter was responding to the Times’ piece on the lack of diversity in major orchestras. It praised the paper’s attention to the issue before pivoting to discuss what the conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra sees as an intertwined problem: the lack of native-born music directors in American orchestras and the lack of a thoughtful career path for talented assistant conductors laboring in the trenches.

Wrote Slatkin: “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 the community, and can create a truly individual identity for the organization. Possibly, that person has been in sight all along.”

It was vintage Slatkin — analytical, provocative and deeply engaged with both the present and future of classical music.

Slatkin expands upon the argument in his book, “Classical Crossroads: The Path Forward for Music in the 21st Century,” and starts others, politely but assuredly. In the book, he lays out his vision for conducting, his analysis of the problems with orchestras today and his hopes for the future of the business he still loves.

A St. Louis resident since 2018, the Los Angeles native is also music director laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and director musical honoraire of the Orchestre National de Lyon.

He said it’s no exaggeration to say classical music is at a crossroads.

“People who used to have experience in orchestras, playing, are not staying through as long as they used to,” he explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “They're retiring earlier, creating more vacancies.

“Orchestras are trying to figure out how to reach into their communities, but they're also facing tremendous pressure for building a new audience at the same time for what we call regular concerts. Maybe the subscription format is something that's going to be on the way out. Who knows. The next six to nine months are going to be really interesting.”

Leonard Slatkin joins St. Louis on the Air

Slatkin is a lifelong moviegoer, a hobby he comes by honestly. (His father was a concertmaster at 20th Century Fox and his mom the first cellist at Warner Brothers.) But he acknowledged that the pleasures of streaming movies at home during the pandemic made him more open to eschewing the cineplex for his own television.

He worries orchestras could see a similar impact.

“Will people want to come back and renew their 18- or 24-week subscriptions? I have a feeling people are going to say: ‘You know, we did OK without it. We got used to listening on the various media [options] that are possible, watching performances from all over the world at home. Maybe we don't need to go as often as we did.’"

He continued: “I think this is a real time to say, ‘OK, how are we going to grab those audiences? How are we going to bring them into what we do, so the live performance remains important? And one way I think that it happens, especially in a community like this, is reaching out, moving away from Powell Hall, doing more things out in the community, reaching audiences where they live. I think that's going to be a key element for moving forward for orchestras of the size of the St. Louis Symphony.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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