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From a chaos of half-open boxes and piled-up scores, order has yet to emerge. Leonard Slatkin, just a few weeks before officially assuming his role as the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director, has only recently begun to settle into his new, rather unimposing office. For the past two years, Slatkin has conducted the NSO on a part-time basis, but it is with this season that the full significance of his tenure will begin to make itself felt and Slatkin will make himself at home. Tucked within the vast expanses of the Kennedy Center, there are no window views, no grand vistas overlooking the city. Atop his desk rests a wood carving of frolicking penguins. Because of the animal’s likeness to a conductor wearing tails, it has become a signature emblem for Slatkin. Soon, other samples from his staggering collection of variations on the theme will add to the decor.

Leonard Slatkin has secured a stellar reputation, here and abroad, during a time in which the classical music world’s basic identity has become uncertain. In 28 years with the St. Louis Symphony—the last 17 as principal music director—he not only brought its level of playing up to a par with the top-rank American orchestras but became renowned for winning over audiences with programs offering an insightful blend of traditional and contemporary—particularly American—composers. At 52, the mild-mannered, highly articulate Slatkin exhibits none of the ostentatiousness or fanatical power-hunger that journalist Norman Lebrecht exposes in his scabrous, wicked, richly detailed book, The Maestro Myth. Even on the podium, Slatkin’s reserve is apparent in the lack of flamboyant gestures and acrobatic frenzy. He puts it simply: “I like to think I have a clear baton technique, that my body language reflects the emotional and spiritual content of the music, whether old or new.”

“Up until now, the music director has not had an office. Rostropovich used a cubicle down in the basement,” Slatkin notes incredulously. Actually, that’s not so surprising, considering that for Slatkin’s predecessor, a jet-setter in the mold of many a postwar conductor, D.C. was essentially a pied-à-terre.

The resulting lack of focus did little to reverse the NSO’s already lingering reputation as a bland, mediocre ensemble lacking a coherent character. Under Rostropovich, there were occasionally superb performances—mostly of Russian works—but few will disagree that his genius for the cello far outweighs his legacy on the podium.

According to Slatkin, the NSO’s musicianship has been unfairly criticized. “There’s been so much of a negative nature about the orchestra that I was dreading what I was walking into. Musically, I found myself in a better circumstance than many people had led me to believe. The ability of the orchestra to adjust from one style to another has been very pleasing, especially in pieces they don’t know.” Part of the problem he attributes to the unwieldy acoustics of the hall. “The nature of the hall plays against the orchestra. Onstage, nobody can hear each other.” Fortunately, the renovations that are currently under way in the Kennedy Center will include a major acoustic overhaul of the concert hall set to begin in 1997. (While the work is in progress the NSO will appear elsewhere at the Center.) “As it is now, the hall makes the sound more hard-edged.” After the improvements are in place, Slatkin is hoping for “a lusher sonority, a much fuller sound, especially at the low bass end.”

But improved acoustics alone will hardly solve the much more fundamental crisis that the 100-member NSO, in common with orchestras across the United States, is facing. With drastic cuts in funding sources, precarious deficits have become the norm (reported to be around $4 million annually, the NSO’s is unusually high); many long-established institutions have already gone under, while others are on the verge of collapse. Most distressing of all for the future of classical music in this country is the withering of the audience base, which has been described elsewhere as “white, rich, and almost dead.” “I think it’s crucial,” Slatkin observes, “that we set an example for all those other places that are falling apart. Our job is to get to the people on a very basic level.”

At issue then is not just how well the orchestra plays, but what it plays. During his tenure with the St. Louis Symphony, Slatkin proved his ability to attract an intensely loyal following through—rather than in spite of—innovative, colorful programming. But his approach is far from iconoclastic. “We’re not going to abandon Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. But what the repertoire seems to need is the infusion of other works to supplement what already exists.” A typical Slatkin concert will pair a canonical opus with neglected or new creations, not as a safe way of paying lip service to the latter, but rather so that both expand perceptions of what music can express. (For example, this season audiences can hear a warhorse like Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony on the same night as the world premiere of a symphony by Peter Schickele.) “It’s a side-by-side issue,” Slatkin explains. “The most important thing is the contrast between the works, not the similarities, so you don’t go away saying one’s better than the other. Beethoven stands comfortably with a new piece that’s been completed.”

One emphasis will be on American music—both its evolution and its contemporary expressions. As to the latter, Slatkin has built up an impressive track record of commissions and performances that he plans to continue with the NSO. An intriguing foretaste of this came in last year’s series of 25 commissioned fanfares that spotlighted an enormous range of American composers active today, including D.C.’s Anne LeBaron. Another was Slatkin’s shattering rendition of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, an epic, brilliantly scored outpouring of “rage and remembrance” in response to the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. Significantly, the NSO’s first recording with Slatkin, to be released this fall, is of the Corigliano. “It was easily the best performance I’ve had, and this is a work I’ve done in a lot of places,” Slatkin says. “There was a commitment and a degree of integrity that everybody wanted to bring to it that really came through.”

For this season’s schedule of concerts, the American angle can be heard in a miniseries exploring “a diversity of works created and inspired by America in the concerto format.” There will also be opportunities to hear how composers in the ’90s are rethinking what an orchestra is all about, such as “African Portraits,” a multicultural fusion of symphonic and jazz elements that features a griot storyteller by the visionary “musical archaeologist” and poet known as Hannibal.

Slatkin reflects on why potential audiences often seem to feel intimidated by the prospect of concert music: “One assumption is that so-called classical music is so divorced from the popular culture, that there’s nothing in common. But the history of music, at least in the last century, was that they were one and the same. The borrowing of materials from one medium to another was constant. Well, that was the past. What about today?” He points to a shift that he is convinced took place with the mid-’70s premiere of David del Tredici’s “Final Alice,” part of a series of symphonic meditations for amplified soprano and orchestra inspired by Lewis Carroll. “With this hourlong work for huge forces, [it] was as if a beacon had been lit.” By “thumbing his nose” at a host of modernists—“Elliott Carter and Co.”—whose beliefs Slatkin feels had made new music all but inaccessible, del Tredici found a way again “to communicate with the audience on first hearing in a way nobody thought possible back then. A stream of composers—from dyed-in-the-wool serialists to minimalists—began to follow suit. Now you see a lot of composers reaching into the popular mainstream for their devices, trying to find a language that speaks to their generation. It’s so clear now that you don’t have to have a background in musicology to enjoy a concert.”

At the same time, Slatkin has little patience for “composers who play down to an audience, who simplify, as opposed to using existing materials and finding their own language. Music without face,”—here he’s referring to a good deal of minimalism—“where I can’t identify who wrote it, is annoying to me.” And Slatkin sees freak megasellers like Chant or Górecki’s Third Symphony as “passing fads, products that tell us more about the record industry than about the state of music and that generally don’t translate into concert sales.”

But will the diversity of programming Slatkin envisages translate into diversity of audience? Away from the podium, where he is fond of leading pre- and postconcert discussions of the music played, Slatkin is eager to expand the NSO’s educational outreach activities to schools and communities throughout the D.C. area. His plans to make a personal connection by “going out into the schools and talking about what it’s like being a musician” are typical of Slatkin’s pragmatic, down-to-earth approach. “I love the idea that I can help to shape a younger generation’s view of what music is, how we perceive it. The major agenda is to say that this is available to you. You might not pursue it as your life activity, but you need to know it’s there.” He is keen on finding ways to diversify the audience by looking beyond the traditional subscription base. “Rather than one kind of concert to meet everybody’s needs, there will be several kinds of concerts to meet several audience needs.”

Unlike a number of musicians who keep themselves confined within the domains of their respective genres, it’s clear that Slatkin listens to everything and is fascinated by modern music’s polyglot expressions. He is unimpressed by attempts at trendy genre-tagging, at categorizing the Babel of current styles; he resists the term “classical” when discussing today’s orchestral composers. “Maybe what we’re looking at in the popular culture and in the concert hall is: Where is it all going to meet? Is there going to be a point where a few defining artists find a way to pull it all together?” Referring to such artists as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he notes, “I don’t like some elements of the visual imagery, but it’s an interesting direction musically,” adding, “I think Arrested Development was the first group for me that showed signs of trying to borrow several elements from the popular culture with a possibility of succeeding. Melissa Etheridge has a chance to connect with several different audiences.” Slatkin recalls a conversation about music he had with N.W.A. in an airport lounge and is clearly bemused that anyone would find that unusual. There is one kind of music, however, that he admits to hating: “Any form of background music. It’s gotten to the point where I can no longer listen to Pachelbel’s Canon or the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Hearing them makes me think I’m in a hotel lobby.”

Links between the concert experience and visual imagery, Slatkin thinks, can invigorate audiences’ response to music. “Music and imagery go hand in hand. There’s a definite relationship from the eye to the ear.” He is enthusiastic about fostering cooperation with the many arts institutions in D.C. “We’re trying to collaborate with the Library of Congress on some joint projects. They will provide us with some original manuscripts that are going to be on display to the audience—perhaps projected on a screen—so they can actually see the sense of struggle or ease with which a composer wrote a work. Very few audiences have had the experience of following a whole score along with the music.”

When the topic of St. Louis comes up, Slatkin bristles slightly, clearly wanting to get beyond the inevitable comparisons with what he was able to achieve there so he can face a fresh start. A fresh start doesn’t necessarily mean a clean break, though. As a fan whose passion for baseball rivals that for music, Slatkin concedes that following the Cardinals will be “one of my three remaining ties with St. Louis, along with a local pasta sauce and root beer that I’ll have sent to me.”CP

Slatkin and the NSO, with tenor Jon Garrison and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, repeat their Sept. 12 opening-night performance Friday, Sept. 13, at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 14, at 8:30 p.m., and Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 7:00 p.m. See Listings for details.