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Thursday, 14 June, 2001, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
BBC Proms conductor Leonard Slatkin quizzed
To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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This year's 107th season of the BBC Proms kicks off next month.

Advertised as 'the world's greatest music festival', it aims to make great performances of classical music available to everyone.

As one of America's outstanding conductors, Leonard Slatkin was appointed as Chief Conductor to the BBC Symphony Orchestra from the beginning of the 2000-01 season.

Leonard Slatkin has a long-standing relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra which dates back to 1973, his first professional engagement in London.

Born in Los Angeles into a family of musicians. His parents were founding members of the Hollywood String Quartet. His first teacher was his father and later Walter Susskind at Aspen and Jean Morel at Juilliard.

How does he feel to be the first American conductor of the First and Last night of the Proms? What have been his greatest achievements?

Leonard Slatkin joined us for a live forum on Thursday.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Mr Slatkin, thank you for joining us. I will go straight in with the first question which comes from Simon Baynham from Cardiff, Wales, he asks: I'm sure you're justly proud to be at the helm of such a hugely successful festival. But why do you think that the Proms is able to consistently attract big crowds in such a huge hall, while smaller venues in London often struggle?


Leonard Slatkin :

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that you are able to have a tourist population that comes to London in the summer, not to mention the fact that the prices, night after night, are very reasonable. Not that the other venues don't provide listings at the prices people can afford but there is something very special about the Proms. It doesn't feel like just another concert.


Newshost:

Do you think it is something to do with the kind of programme that is put on?


Leonard Slatkin :

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Some of the programmes are very adventurous, sometimes they are very traditional. Remember this goes on for many concerts every night. So the variety that it offers to so many people is quite different than anything any other festival offers.


Newshost:

I have a question from Rod Wallace in St. Louis, Missouri USA - where I believe you were music director for the St. Louis Symphony - is that right?


Leonard Slatkin :

Yes for 17 years.


Newshost:

He asks: Are the BBC Proms an appropriate venue for new artists, given the fact that you have supported many contemporary composers over the years?


Leonard Slatkin :

In fact the BBC is of course the leading advocate of new composers, both British and otherwise. The commissioning track record of the orchestra is astonishing. The Proms itself goes for the widest diversity possible in terms of composition. So it is not just new compositions and new artists but traditions as well. It is about the best combination of both worlds.


Newshost:

Nathan Hamer, Wales asks: What's it really like to perform in the Albert Hall? When I've attended concerts there, the acoustic sounds really empty, and as a brass player, I can envisage it as quite challenging to fill with sound.


Leonard Slatkin :

Surprisingly the concert platform is quite decent. We probably have the best seats in the house. It is not easy to fill a venue which seats 5,000 people. But on the other hand, there are improvements being made to the Albert Hall - there are things being put in above in the ceilings to help reflect the sound more to the audience. I agree though that there is a definite acoustic problem in the hall for the listener - not so much for the orchestra though.


Newshost:

The last night at the Proms is seen as a very British occasion, how do you approach it as an American?


Leonard Slatkin :

I think you started off by saying there was a time when Britannia did rule the waves, well it also ruled America didn't it? So I think there is a nice connection to be made between the two countries. I have been long associated with British music. I have favoured it as my alternate music next to American. I think there are very few people complaining about the fact that it is a non-Brit doing this. I will keep all the traditions in place but there will be a few surprises as well and perhaps it is in the keeping of the Proms now that it expands to a slightly more world-based orientation.


Newshost:

Are you looking forward to giving a speech on the final night?


Leonard Slatkin :

Yes, but again there is going to be a slight difference but I can't tell you what it is. The speech is going to be there but it will be supplemented throughout the evening in different ways. It will be quite a different evening but the traditions will be there.


Newshost:

The Promenaders at the concert are quite unique of course - how important is the audience to a concert performance?


Leonard Slatkin :

In the case of the Proms it is vital. There is an interaction between audience and stage that I know of no place else existing as it does at the Proms. I enjoy the idea that there can be repartee between the audience and the stage - that there are certain traditions the audience knows about as well as the orchestra and other performers. I think it is very special and perhaps - going back to an earlier question - another reason that so many people are attracted to it. Not just to see what is going on on stage - many people buy tickets to watch the Promenaders themselves.


Newshost:

Of course there is a lot more to the Proms than just the last night and you have been responsible for bringing so much new American music to audiences - will you be doing the same during the Proms season?


Leonard Slatkin :

Yes and it will be diverse as well. The very opening concert begins with the premier of a new fanfare. We thought it would be appropriate to have a brand new piece. We will introduce works by Christopher Rouse, the American composer, but we will introducing new works by others as well. So it will be a combination of American and British music with one interesting late night prom, which I think is going to be fascinating which deals with the combination and juxtaposition of jazz in the concert hall. For this we will reach not only to the traditions of American jazz but Latino jazz as well.


Newshost:

John Durbin in Cardiff, UK, asks: You are conducting a lot of American music, and we know you are very fond of British music. What do you think gives music its national characteristic?


Leonard Slatkin :

Probably from the language and the way it is spoken in different regions as well as, of course, the folk heritage. In some ways I believe music is the more convincing communicator of ideas than words. For instance we can hear of Kordaly and Bartok and recognise them as Hungarian but very few of us speak Hungarian but the music itself speaks to more people. So I think the combination of the way the language is set to the music and the folk heritage.


Newshost:

Dominic Nudd from London UK, asks: Are there any American composers, not well known here that you would like to champion in this country?


Leonard Slatkin :

There are many. Joan Tower leaps to mind, Donald Erb another one, Claude Baker is a third. There are so many fine American composers especially from the younger generation that are emerging that I hope over the course of my years of association with the BBC, people here will have a chance to listen to.


Newshost:

David Murphy from Huddersfield, England asks: Are you able to pick out a favourite composer of all time?


Leonard Slatkin :

The best I can do is to say that late at night, if I happen to be awake and there is no one around, I will go to the piano and play Bach. But that is the closest I can get to saying a favourite. There is something special about the music that perhaps is not touched by anyone else. But of course there are very few works for orchestra so I don't get to conduct very much Bach.


Newshost:

I also know that you are very keen fan on pop music and you like Randy Newman very much, is that right?


Leonard Slatkin :

Randy Newman and I grew up together in Los Angeles. We are both products of the film studio era. Randy is one of the great songwriters of our time and one of the fun people to be with.


Newshost:

Catherine Evans in the, UK, asks: Why do you think that the world of conducting is still largely dominated, at least at international level, by men?


Leonard Slatkin :

I agree and I don't think it should be the case. There are more women actively involved in conducting these days. Women are beginning to emerge - it has been a male-dominated trend which has been unfortunate but I think now we are beginning to see women come into their own. I suspect that within the next ten years you will see a woman as head of one the major orchestras in the world.


Newshost:

What makes a great conductor?


Leonard Slatkin :

Probably communication skills with the orchestra, maybe that indefinable and untranslatable something that communicates the spirit of the music to the musicians and the audience. I think everybody has to decide for themselves what constitutes greatness.


Newshost:

You come from a musical family. Your father Felix was a violinist and conductor and your mother a cellist. Do you think music ability is genetic or can it be taught?


Leonard Slatkin :

I think it can be taught but it doesn't hurt to have it in the family. On the other hand my father, who was possibly the most musical of anyone in our family, came from a decidedly unmusical household. He happened to pass down his genes and I have a 7 year-old son who is turning out to be quite a talented young pianist - whether he pursues it or not is another matter. But I do think people can come from backgrounds devoid of music and if they have the interest and love there they can develop it.


Newshost:

When did conducting become part of your life? I believe it was quite early on.


Leonard Slatkin :

The first time was more or less in high school when I was arranging shows for the Spring musical and then officially when I was about 19 years old I made my debut with the Youth Orchestra in Los Angeles and went on to study at the Julliard School in New York and made my Carnegie Hall debut when I was 23 years old and then one year later I became the assistant conductor in St. Louis.


Newshost:

I also understand that you had to stand in for Carlo De Muti with the New York Philharmonic?


Leonard Slatkin :

Yes that was in 1974 and Mr Muti was supposed to make his Philharmonic debut and when his plane arrived in New York, he wasn't on it and nobody could find him. They called me on a Sunday and said could I get there for Tuesday morning rehearsal. I picked up the programme as he had planned it and fortunately it all went very well.


Newshost:

It must have been an amazing experience especially for whom you were standing in for and the orchestra as well.


Leonard Slatkin :

My father taught me something a long time ago about being nervous when I asked him did he experience this and he said no and I said how come - everybody else says they are nervous all the time. He said if you are prepared and you have worked hard you have to go out there and do your best and if you can come off saying you have tried your best then you have no reason to be nervous because you have prepared - if you have not prepared you have no reason being on the stage.

See also:

14 Oct 99 | Entertainment
American accent at the Proms
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