In Praise of the Seconds in Command

In Praise of the Seconds in Command
August 20, 2018 leonard slatkin

It all looks so easy. The door opens, the music director enters, the orchestra stands, then they sit, and the conductor starts the concert. Granted, there is a lot of study, preparation and rehearsal before the audience hears one note. But even the members of the band often do not realize the importance of the music director’s assistant in making this all come together.

I am not speaking of an assistant conductor, the one desperately waiting for the boss to come down with something nasty enough to put him or her out of commission for at least one program. That hope of jumping in at the last minute is a dream of so many who have mounted the podium. I should know. In 1974, I took over for three maestri, albeit in different cities. Mostly, at least in the early days, it was my job to learn all the music, observe the rehearsals and give relevant comments about balance to the person conducting.

No, the assistant I am referring to is the one whose job it is to take care of most everything besides the actual music making. They are the people who sit behind desks, run around backstage and even help when there might be a wardrobe malfunction. You never read about them in the program book, but if it were not for their keen sense of observation, perception of what the conductor needs, and ability to serve as a go-between communicator, everything could easily fall apart.

It has been my good fortune to have had some of the very best during my 40-year tenure as a music director. I was reminded of this when Cindy and I invited my former longtime assistant and her husband over to the new house for dinner. When Suzanne Leek (née Hartin) began her stint with me in St. Louis, she seemed to have little knowledge of what her job would actually entail. But I knew that there was something special about her. Perhaps it was her spirit and desire to be truly helpful, as well as a trustworthiness absolutely necessary for this position. The literal translation from middle English tells us that the word secretary really means “a person entrusted with a secret.” And Suzanne had to keep a lot of them.

There were countless pieces of correspondence that flowed between artists, agents and me. Many of them contained detailed information about financial arrangements for various engagements. Even the people on the staff of the SLSO, those who literally sat five feet away, were not privy to any of this information. Suzanne also helped out with personal matters such as watching over Margie, my Brittany Spaniel, when the hound would come to visit Powell Hall. I tried not to bother Suzanne too much in the way of shopping, but once she had to come to my rescue.

One day, in the mid-afternoon, I arrived in St. Louis, but my luggage did not. This was a problem because at 6:30 that night, I was to be the guest of honor at a rather large function at which formal wear was required. I explained it all to Suzanne, who had picked me up at the airport as usual. With just an hour and a half before showtime, she organized a visit to a department store where all the accoutrements needed were awaiting me to try on. A team of people were on hand to hem and haw, and we arrived, in full regalia, three minutes ahead of the event’s scheduled commencement.

Then there was the time when we were in my office looking for some music. There is a door that is rarely used—usually only by stage hands—because it opens to an area that is directly above the stage. In we went, standing on what was basically a catwalk, when we heard an ominous click. The door had closed, and we were now trapped in the celestial realm. It was very late in the afternoon, and the staff, including the stage crew, had left for the day. There were no cell phones at the time, so we screamed our heads off in the hope that perhaps the security guard would hear us and come to the rescue.

Eventually someone answered our pleas, figured out where we were, and released us from the heights. But how were we going to tell anyone about this? I could see the headlines: “Conductor caught with secretary in secret tryst.” “The Maestro and his imprisoned paramour.” “Guard catches them unguarded.” We never told this story while I was music director, but it would later prove to be quite amusing over post-concert dinners.

For 13 of my 17 years as music director, Suzanne served me and the St. Louis Symphony with dignity, humor and honor. She would continue to work for the organization during the tenures of Hans Vonk and David Robertson. At the end of August, Suzanne will retire, bringing to a close this remarkable woman’s career in the service of music. David reached out to me, and the two of us plotted a way to present her with something to remember us by. With the help of others on the staff, we purchased a bracelet, complete with accessories noting her special relationship with the two of us. Since she will remain a resident of St. Louis, it will seem to us as if she never left.

In Washington, there were several people who filled this role, as Suzanne decided to get married and stay in the Archway city. Each of the assistants did a great job working with me, but sadly, not one of them stayed around for more than three years. Still, juggling all the dignitaries, parties, White House invitations, wardrobe casualties and sometimes difficult times with the board was not an easy task. On more than one occasion, these remarkable assistants came to my rescue and handled the challenging act of balancing the priorities of the NSO and the Kennedy Center board.

There was one more set of helpers during my ten years in Detroit. It took a little while to find the right person for the job. After a couple seasons I was able to bring Deb Fleitz to the D from Bowling Green. She had a great sense of humor and had worked for my former agent in NY, Lee Lamont. Anyone who survived that had to be good! Sadly, about three years later, Deb succumbed to cancer. I knew that she had been battling with the disease when I hired her, but Deb’s spirit was so strong that I believed she would win the fight. That was not to be.

Following Deb’s passing, it was decided that, partially due to staff cutbacks, I would still have an assistant but that his or her time would be shared with the DSO. Alice Sauro filled in very capably until we decided to look for a full-time person.

Both Cindy and I knew during her interview that Leslie Karr was the right person for the job. In fact, she had worked for the DSO in a different capacity earlier in her career.

Leslie could spot a fiscal anomaly from a mile away. Many were the times when she saved not only me, but also my agencies, a lot of money by pouring over the contracts and agreements, catching things that even experienced accountants missed. She made several decisions on my behalf and always took great care to get me to the right place at the right time. As with most of my other assistants, she always knew what to do and commanded the highest respect from everyone.

She showed remarkable ingenuity no matter what she was involved in. We were performing The Carnival of the Animals in a totally overdone manner. I had gone to a couple places to get stuffed animals, which I would use as props. Leslie decided that they were not funny enough to get the response I wanted from the audience. The day of the first performance, she had spent time locating the perfect species to make the show work fabulously.

Even at the final event, a gala that honored me among others, she was Leslie on the spot. I had not been around Orchestra Hall following my bypass surgery, so upon my return, which began with an hour-long cocktail reception, well-wishers were coming up to me by the dozens. It was made clear that I was to be told nothing of what would take place during the concert. Scattered around the atrium were copies of the program book, which listed the works to be performed. At that point, with just a few minutes to go, I figured there should be no problem to take a peek, so I picked up one of the books. Before I could open it to the first page, there was Leslie, grabbing it out of my hands and saying, “You cannot take one of these, and every time you try, I will just pull it away.” The reason became apparent when my son was announced as the composer of one of the pieces and then proceeded to walk onto the stage and conduct his new work. There are some things that really are best left as surprises.

When I decided it was time to leave orchestral administration by ceasing to be a music director, I had a lot of decisions to make. One of them was deciding whether or not I still needed assistance of the sort Leslie had so capably provided. Given a full schedule of upcoming guest conducting dates and no time for additional work, Cindy and I decided to ask Leslie if she would continue to help us.

Given her keen business acumen and desire to become more independent, it made perfect sense for her to create her own company, Leslie Karr Artist Services. It is in this capacity that she will continue to assist us, working from Detroit with the occasional trip to St. Louis as needed. Her job also requires her to work even closer with my three agents, each located in a different part of the world. Perhaps Leslie will have other artists of her own in the future. All I know is that she has my back, and sometimes my tux.

So I salute all those wonderful folks who have made my life so much easier. Every music director should be as lucky as I have been. It may be true that good help is hard to find, but for those of us in the music business, great help is paramount to success.

See you soon,

Leonard