Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Industry, by Leonard Slatkin

September 20, 2018

Leading TonesLeading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Industry, by Leonard Slatkin

Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2017. viii + 304 pp. ISBN: 9781495091896. $27.99.

American conductor Leonard Slatkin has been a prominent figure on international concert stages for four decades, following a storied career as a champion of contemporary music via music directorships in Washington, DC, St. Louis, London, and Lyon. This, his second collection of stories and musings about life in the orchestra business, was released as Slatkin concluded his ten-year tenure as music director of the Detroit Symphony during the 2017-2018 season. The values he espoused in Detroit are discussed throughout this book. Slatkin’s decade in Detroit was marked by major new digital and audience engagement initiatives that revitalized the orchestra’s relevance nationally, in turn advancing the organization’s financial stability. He devoted his music directorship to reimagining the business model of an historically significant American orchestra, enabling it to continue its relevance well into the twenty-first century.

As with Slatkin’s first book, Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro (Amadeus Press, 2012), Leading Tones offers an informal narrative style that lends itself to the main ideas and goals of the book. Through conversational vignettes, Slatkin engages in a free-form discussion of what it means to him to be an effective conductor and leader in the current climate of orchestral music-making. He digests a life in music into three areas: a life-long passion for music, interactions with impactful musicians, and the business side of music. These topics form the first three sections of the book, and a fourth section comprises broader pronouncements about Slatkin’s life and the orchestra world. Through his stories, Slatkin presents his ideas of how to approach professional challenges as a music director of a major orchestra and how to operate with integrity in a complicated and often treacherous profession. Slatkin wishes to impart the wisdom he has gained through decades of successes and occasional missteps to future generations of conductors, orchestral musicians, arts administrators, and music-lovers.

Slatkin also discusses ten orchestral masterworks that are his favorite to conduct (including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 55, “Eroica”) and recollects lessons learned and relationships with great musical figures Eugene Ormandy, Nathan Milstein, John Browning, Isaac Stern, Gilbert Kaplan, and John Williams. The closing section, “Wrapping Up,” features answers to a series of questions that Slatkin feels he is rarely asked in interviews. He discusses a wide range of topics—including what he believes will be his legacy, as well as diversity in orchestras—that can only be described as a series of reflections. The answers are short and anecdotal, suggesting the author wanted merely to touch on those subjects without elevating them to topics of more robust discussion. This section contrasts with the equivalent section of his first book, which consisted of answers to frequently asked questions.

Conductors and orchestral musicians are the audiences most likely to find value in Slatkin’s second collection of auto-biographical reflections. Slatkin is clear about what he thinks musicians (and especially conductors) need to do in order to be successful with their chosen career paths. The chapter on orchestral auditions provides a solid snapshot of the complexities of the audition process and may be of great aid to young professionals beginning to audition for major orchestras. The marketing of this book suggests that it will be of great interest to general music-lovers, however this is a stretch. It may be of interest to the orchestral audiences in the cities where Slatkin has held conducting posts, however the stories about interactions with major musical icons have a limited broader appeal.

Slatkin’s first-person narrative succeeds in drawing the reader into the book, creating an informal and unpretentious atmosphere (in some ways contrary values to those espoused by mainstream orchestral culture). While Leading Tones does not claim to be anything other than autobiographical, many of the stories that Slatkin shares would be served by the inclusion of formal citations and greater contextual detail. There is no need for this book to attempt to pose as rigorous scholarship, however its value as a primary source could be enhanced with more specific evidence to support the anecdotes and reflections. For example, Slatkin discusses specific commissions or new works that were important to his music directorships. The discussion should be expanded to include more information about the reception history of each piece, in order to contextualize Slatkin’s own views.

Slatkin follows a long line of major conductors who have published books about their profession. Some conductors have pursued technical and pedagogical texts (e.g. Gustav Meier, Dianne Wittry, and Max Rudolf), others have proselytized about the profession (e.g. Richard Wagner), and others blend the two types (e.g. Gunther Schuller and Erich Leinsdorf). Slatkin’s book is similar to an interview-style book featuring the reflections of conductor Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (by Haruki Murakami, Knopf, 2016). Both titles aggregate a collection of reflections that convey the personalities and professional values of their conductor subjects. This type of book does little more than provide the conductor-author with a platform for giving permanence to their thoughts. Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor (Oxford University Press, 1998) is a much more impactful work, because it blends anecdotes and auto-biographical narrative with serious musicological analysis and detailed technical guidance for conductors.

Leading Tones is effective as a snapshot of one conductor’s perspectives on his role and profession at this moment in history. The book does not offer ground-breaking discoveries or recommendations, but rather offers readers a chance to get to know Slatkin. Much of the narrative is shared as if Slatkin were sitting down socially with the reader. This style can be effective for reaching some audiences, while simultaneously turning off others. The macro structure of the book is clear, but occasional random thoughts are included as asides (with minimal rhyme or reason), which diminishes the flow of the story-telling. One section veers off into a discussion of how male conductors should button their jackets in order to avoid distracting the orchestra while conducting. This type of advice is important for conductors to receive, but does nothing to serve the broader audiences that the book aims to reach.


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