Renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin has previously avoided music competitions. He writes about this decision in his book, Conducting Business. But now Slatkin is taking over conducting the final round of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. KERA’s Jerome Weeks spoke with Slatkin just before his first rehearsal in Bass Hall to ask him why.
Jerome Weeks: In Conducting Business, you recount an early experience with a conducting competition which you thought was rigged. And you declare that you’ve avoided competitions. What changed your mind?
Slatkin: I’d had a personal note from Van. We weren’t particularly close, we worked together several times and we always had a wonderful time. And I thought this would be a nice thing to do, something different for me. And I thought it’s probably not fair to say that competitions were not something I cared about very much since I haven’t done one. And maybe I’ll get a different perspective participating here.
In many ways, conducting the Cliburn is like any other guest conducting job. You work with the orchestra and the soloists to deliver the best possible performance. And you do that with six finalists. But a high-stakes competition must give it a different pressure.
Slatkin: This is very different than anything I’ve ever done. Obviously, the first job is to support the pianists, to do the best you can to get into their heads and their minds and their souls. The problems that I see potentially occurring are when two pianists play the same piece —remembering who does what and where they do it, among other things. However, one thing that is similar—and it wasn’t set that way until I asked for it—was to meet with the pianists beforehand so I really get a sense of what they want to do and how they want to do it.
It’s got to be a strange struggle constantly trying to anticipate what people are going to do on stage.
Slatkin: It is, but because I’ve been conducting now for about 45 years and none of these pieces are anything but old friends, I know where the dangers spots are, the ones where things could potentially go awry—if you didn’t meet with them in advance.
Well, Leonard Slatkin, thank you very much. Leonard Slatkin makes his conducting debut with the Van Cliburn Competition tonight in Bass Hall.
Here is the audio story from KERA: