Leonard Slatkin Musician as CEO


Corp! caught up with Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s music director Leonard Slatkin (via his iPhone) as he was in Seattle, Wash. preparing to rehearse for a program with its symphony orchestra.

The iPhone is an important part of his life, it turns out. Not only does it keep track of his schedule -“ he’s booked through 2011 -“ but it keeps him on top of Detroit Tiger games via an Internet connection. He threw out the first pitch at a Tiger home game earlier this season.

When asked about the difference between a conductor and a musical director Slatkin explained: “There are two kinds of conductors: one is a music director and the other is just a conductor. So, when I’m here in Seattle, for instance, I’m just a conductor. I’m here for a week, conduct one program, and then I leave. I don’t have to make any decisions about the personnel in the orchestra, I don’t have to be concerned about anybody else’s program other than my own, I don’t have to be thinking about the administrative side at all. The questions I ask here are ‘where do I go to eat? where are the good restaurants?'” Slatkin laughed and then continued, “A music director, though, has to be in touch with everyone on the staff, plan the season, determine the artists who are going to come, the conductors, weigh how everything impacts the budget, see what is feasible with marketing, do pretty much what the CEO of a company does. Anything that you can think of that applies in a business model is what I do in Detroit,” he said.

Another analogy occurred to him, “It’s like the being manager of a sports team. Say I’ve got a hundred musicians on the stage -“ somebody has to say ‘this is what happens at any given moment, this is how loud it’s going to be, this is how fast it’s going to go, this is how short or long we’re going to play’ those kinds of things.”


Orchestra violist Caroline Coade, who is one of two orchestra members to serve on the Symphony’s executive committee, concurs with the sports idea. “We’re a world-class major league team, just like Detroit’s other major league teams -“ the Tigers, the Red Wings, the Lions and Pistons. A small ensemble of the orchestra has even played at Comerica Park in short center field.”

Unlike the other big league teams in town, which are held in private hands, Slatkin has to deal with the harsh realities of Detroit’s economy. “The other part of my job as music director that obviously comes into play now is the economic situation, which is very much a problem in my field right across the United States.” Other arts organizations across the country are in dire straights according to a current story in Time magazine, and several have folded. Slatkin continues, “Among the problems we have to solve is that we don’t fall into the normal business model because we’re a nonprofit institution. Yes, we charge money for tickets, we distribute income, we get minimal support from the state, the city and the federal government, but essentially we don’t make money. No orchestra does. We all lose money.”

The big question, says Slatkin, “is how do we lose as few dollars as we can? And so, like every orchestra, we are working very hard to get a budget in line. But along the way a lot of people seem to have forgotten that orchestras never made money. And all this cost trimming, which I understand, will only work so far,” he points out. “You have an organization where the players in the orchestra are paid very well, an organization, though, that doesn’t relate -“ theoretically -“ to more than four-and-a-half or five percent of the population.” That has the potential to be a problem, Slatkin says, “There are many people who view an orchestra as an unnecessary luxury, the same ones who think that way about a museum or a dance company or a theatre group -“ unlike sports or motion pictures or almost the majority of the entertainment industry -“ because they appeal to a smaller aspect of a given population.”

So how do you cope? “You have to reach out to people and say ‘what is the value of an artistic institution, particularly an orchestra,'” Slatkin responds. “Its relationship to society has changed over the years (we’re talking centuries now) and a lot of what we do is the preservation of what has existed before, music that’s come before any of us were born. So we preserve, and try to make relevant the thoughts and feelings of people who wrote to us long ago, much in the way Shakespeare did, or Dickens.”

“But ours is abstract,” Slatkin continues, “you can go to a bookstore and buy a book and read it and you’re in touch with the author, who is communicating directly to you. In the case of an orchestra, we are in touch with the composer so we’re the vessel through which the music passes to get to the audience. There’s nothing tangible about what we do. You don’t walk out of the symphony hall with a product. You walk out with something that has hopefully stirred your soul and touched your heart in some way -“ made you angry, possibly, or made you fall in love with the person sitting next to you -“ you never know. Each person comes away with a very different sense of what happened.”

Slatkin is passionate about art education and believes that most people over 40 have benefitted from it in some way. PHOTO BY DONALD DIETZ/DETROIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

A key issue, he observes, is “What about the people who don’t come to hear us? How are we relevant to them? One thing that we’re doing in Detroit is becoming more accessible to more elements of the community. We are going out of the hall often,” he explains, “into the churches, into malls (and people loved it when we were at Somerset), and we’ll go to schools and become part of the community. Not that they will necessarily come to hear a Beethoven symphony downtown, that’s not the point,” he says. “The point is to make people understand that what we do has a direct connection with history and with spirituality -“ we’re not talking religion, here, we’re talking about something that reaches inside of people. Music that’s lasted this long has to have done that for a reason. It’s our job to make sure people understand why it’s there and what it can mean to them now.”

One way that Slatkin and the orchestra plan to appeal to a larger audience is to move beyond the traditional. Coade, the violist, talks about the orchestra’s reaction to Slatkin’s approach to programming. “It’s interesting and innovative and very difficult for the performers. He’s not picking easy repertoire, I can tell you that,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a great challenge for the orchestra, which is thrilling. It’s exciting to be asked to play your best and to play new repertoire and to stretch our audiences. What I really appreciate about his programming is that he’ll pick something new and different,” she explains. “Maybe it’s a new composer, maybe it’s a new work that nobody from this area is familiar with and then he’ll program standards around it so that it’s audience-friendly programming -“ with a twist.”

“In getting me to Detroit,” Slatkin continues, “I assume that most people who are on the board and in the orchestra who knew me and asked me to come understood that my background is such that all music that’s of quality is great music -“ so it doesn’t matter if it’s country, rock, blues, hip hop, jazz, Latin -“ it doesn’t make any difference. Yes,” he says, “there’s music I don’t like, but if it’s done with great talent and skill I have great admiration for it. I don’t expect everybody to think that way -“ most people don’t, actually -“ but if people know that I, and the members of the orchestra, are willing to embrace other forms of the musical culture then I think we have a better chance of reaching them artistically and spiritually. Consequently,” he challenges, “we ask people in the community ‘why don’t you help us out in reaching further out into the community. Help us with projects you might be interested in funding. You’ll not see a cent of profit in this, and we won’t either. What you’ll see is something that’s far reaching and has impact beyond five days or five weeks or five months -“ that means something to you five years from now.'”

Alfred R. Glancy III, chairman emeritus of the Symphony board says, “One of the things I really like about Leonard is his love for education. Peter Cummings and I are considered the ‘fathers’ of the Detroit High School for the Arts [located a short distance away from Orchestra Hall]. The correlation between music and math and science is particularly important to me. We’ve done such a terrible job in teaching that as a nation. Leonard and the orchestra are working to overcome that here.”

“There’re 500 kids there, all of them doing different forms of the arts,” Slatkin says. “We’re partnering with them, trying to move them into the professional field. I go out to schools to emphasize why I believe that the arts have a significant role to play in peoples’ lives. And, should something happen that these go away, you’ll never get them back -“ and if they did come back they’d never come back in the same way. They’d come back different, and minimized. That’s always happened. And we can’t allow that to happen, especially in a place like Detroit that’s suffering the kinds of economic ills and woes it is now.”

With Michigan cutting its arts funding, and the automotives -“ once major arts contributors -“ cutting or eliminating their contributions, that leaves a pretty big hole to fill. “There are people involved with the symphony who are not in the auto industry. I’ll be talking with them, working with them about what to do,” Slatkin says. “The state cuts — that’s a little more disturbing. Traditionally, what’s always happened is that in times of crisis the first things to go are the arts programs themselves. The next thing that happens is that the arts cuts go into the schools. These cuts aren’t much to start with, they’re more symbolic than anything else. That’s the one thing nobody can allow to happen. That’s truly awful.”

“Maybe,” he wonders, “there are tax breaks to be had. When I was a kid if you went to a concert, or bought a painting, you got a 100 percent deduction on your taxes as a contribution. Maybe some sort of tax break like that is worth looking at again.”

Loenard Slatkin with Orchestra Hall in the background. PHOTO COURTESY DETROIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Going to Lansing as an advocate for arts education is onetactic Slatkin is planning. “I haven’t met the governor yet,” he says, “or many people in the legislature. But I can be pretty effective when I speak to people in politics, having spent 12 years in Washington, so it’s not that I’m not well versed in this. I can talk and present the case.” He explains the tactics that served him well before. “I have to wait until I meet the people to see where their own personal proclivities are in terms of arts -“ was it a part of their lives when they were kids, do they have children who are interested in it -“ and that’s when you can start to make the inroads, to think about your own kids, your own family, and how the arts impacted you. Do you really want these cuts to happen to other people?” he asks.

As an example, Slatkin tells the story of the board of supervisors of Fairfax County, Va. “I posed those questions them to when they were planning to eliminate the elementary schools’ music curriculum and they reinstated the funding they had planned to eliminate. That was 12 years ago,” he reminds us, “when Fairfax County was one of the wealthiest in the United States because all of the dot-coms there. Why were they cutting the music education programs? It wasn’t logical. I just pointed out to the supervisors that ‘none of you went into music but look where you are today and what the impact the arts have had on you. Alan Greenspan was a clarinet major at Julliard, the president of the World Bank was a cellist -“ most people who succeeded in other fields had something in their backgrounds that involved the arts, particularly in music.'”

As Glancy has observed, Slatkin is passionate about arts education. “Arts education does make a difference,” Slatkin says. “And even if we can’t see it at the moment, most people over 40 have benefitted from it in some way. For the past 30 years arts education in the schools has really been on the decline and if we in the professional field let it slide, there won’t be the training necessarily to educate the younger kids in the schools now or in the future, and that’s my worry.” The symphony is doing its part locally -“ most of the members of the orchestra teach in some way -“ but there is a much greater global understanding of the importance of arts education and music education in particular, Slatkin says. “China has 40 million piano students, they know what they’re doing. Venezuela, they have a really important music education program. A hotbed of European music, guess where? Spain! Why? Because it was repressed because of the Franco years. They’re still recovering from that. The result? I’ll conduct a concert in Madrid at 7:30 in the evening and at 10 another orchestra comes in and plays to a full house, again because music was taken away. We’re talking about cultures that had repressed societies and now they’re more open and they have realized what they needed to have and the difference it makes.”

What about recording contracts? “They’re not traditional long-term contracts any more,” Slatkin tells us. “We have ‘projects’ we’re doing with record companies. We’re working with Naxos on a project by project basis. If you have a recording, it’s going to get broadcast on the radio so you don’t have to have the concerts broadcast. You have a Detroit Symphony product out there. Even though I said earlier that we’re not a tangible product, there’s still something about being able to hand people a CD. People still like to hold on to something that represents what you’ve done and has your name on it.”

Switching to his fundraising mode, Slatkin continues, “It also can represent a good investment for a company or an individual who sponsors a CD and gets their name on the cover. There are people who like to do that -“ when you watch public television you’ll see ‘this program is brought to you by such-and-such corporation’ or ‘made possible by the so-and-so family.’ A recording is the same thing, and maybe even better because you can do it over and over again. So, that’s another fundraising and giving opportunity that exists. I think we’re going to be doing two disks a year.”

The realities of new media are something Slatkin is very familiar with. “Because they’re Naxos, that means our recordings are also going to be available in the Naxos Library, a Web service that streams for free, but charges to download. There’ll still be disks, but fewer of them physically. And they’ll have the additional ability to download or stream shorter pieces. On a CD you have roughly 60 minutes on it to make it work. Naxos is going to be the only classical music company to be like iTunes and allow you to buy one track, even if it’s 25 minutes long. It’s not a bad idea,” he says. “You can record more often. You can have more variety.”

Will some of that variety include new composers or commissioned pieces? Slatkin responds, “We do commission things. We also have things that have been written that have never been played. I’ll look at it and say this is worth a hearing so we play it.”

When asked where he thinks the DSO will be in five to 10 years, Slatkin responds “I’d like to think that the DSO will continue to be one of the important forces in music in this country. We’ll be major advocates for not only the newer American composers, but part of our tradition in history as well. Composers from the 30s, 40s and 50s have been incredibly neglected and they’re important to this country -“ we can’t lose that sense of tradition -“ so that will become part of our signature. I think that the sound of the orchestra, because the hall is so great, will become a real factor. I think we’ll become the leaders in music education. That’s at the top of my agenda.”

Slatkin is hopeful. “I’m involved in all aspects of the orchestra, so it’s not just the classical subscriptions, it’s the jazz and other genres, it’s the world music people. We’ll be an institution that views music without boundaries. I think we’re going to be okay. It’s going to be tough, and take a lot of work, but if we focus and keep in front of us what’s important I do think we’re going to be okay.