My brother, Fred, did not know that I was writing a chapter about him for inclusion in a future book, recounting events from many years ago. I meant for this to be a surprise, possibly not sharing it with him until publication.
However, on September 1, 2022, at the age of 75, he passed away unexpectedly from heart failure. Just three days later, we were planning to be together for our annual trek to Las Vegas, where he was also scheduled to give a masterclass.
The intended book may never appear publicly, but in rereading the chapter about Fred a day after his passing, I felt that it summed up so much about the brothers Slatkin. I am including it here exactly as I wrote it over the last year, dedicated to his loving children, Felix and Madeleine.
A Few Words about Fred
“Brothers are children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal
until they get together.”
He was supposed to be my sister, Francine. I was only two-and-a-half years old, so it didn’t matter to me. I don’t remember anything about his arrival into my world. He was just there. But he could not take the place of our dog, Chalkie. The malamute was much cuddlier.
Our mother’s mother, who died quite young, was named Fannie. Since my first name contained the first initial of a relative from my father’s family, Louis, it was only natural that the next born would have some relationship to a person on the maternal side. Back in 1947, it was not feasible to determine the sex of a baby until birth. Apparently, Felix and Eleanor were so certain that a girl was in the offing that they did not bother to think of the alternate possibility.
When they realized that the baby was a boy, a chain of naming events began. Our parents indeed kept the first letter F after our maternal grandmother, but my brother’s given name at birth was Freddie. That’s right, not Frederick or Fred. My brother hated this name but was stuck with it until he figured out that it was legally possible to change it. Although most people called me either Lennie or Len, at least my birth certificate said Leonard.
You can imagine my delight when I discovered a series of children’s books at the library featuring a character named Freddy the Pig. The spelling was different, but still, this was manna from heaven for someone who looked forward with glee to any opportunity to tease and taunt his sibling. There were 26 of these books, the first written in 1947, and my initiation into the talking animal universe probably came around 1952. Every time a new volume was published, I was first in line to check it out at the library, looking for passages that might annoy my brother. Although the title character is actually “the smallest and cleverest” pig on the farm, I never told Junior about the swine’s true nature.
As kids, we were not all that close, but we did look out for each other. My world revolved around music and baseball. Fred was also enchanted with the world of sound, but he was a little bit lazier. Nonetheless, I did everything I could to find ways to make him seem responsible for actions he did not take. I had the uncanny ability to make it seem as if I never did anything wrong. My personality was quiet and introverted, whereas my brother was more gregarious. It was pretty easy to have him take the fall for actions I perpetrated.
We didn’t fight, but one time, for reasons that escape me, he threw a sharpened pencil at me. The point stuck in my chest, and I was certain I would die of lead poisoning. My recuperation took all of 30 seconds, but I was able to stretch it out to a couple weeks, just to keep Fred feeling guilty.
We shared a common sense of affection for our dogs. Chalkie left the household around 1948 and starred in some commercials for dog food. There was Mimi, the boxer. Why we chose that breed is a mystery. She resisted training and kept the neighbors up at night, so after about a year, we found another household for her.
Then came Jeeves, the Bassett hound. He was a dog for the ages. When he arrived at our house on Dunsmuir, this small canine with overly large feet and long, floppy ears became the source of delight for Fred and me. If either of us was having any difficulty, more than likely we told Jeeves about it rather than our parents.
Fred began taking cello lessons around the same time that I started on piano. In both cases, our first teacher was our grandfather. It became clear that each of us needed to be separated from our family members when it came to developing our musical skills. I had abandoned the violin, as studying with my dad was simply impossible.
Grandfather Gregory, on the other hand, managed to hang on to Fred for a few years, treating my brother as harshly as he did his other students. This was “old school” Russian training. You were never told if you did something well, but rather only if you played incorrectly. I had a couple violin lessons with Dad but eventually wound up with Joachim Chassman, the original second violinist of the Hollywood String Quartet.
At the same time, Uncle Victor’s daughter began violin lessons with our father. I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. On Sundays, I would have a piano lesson in the living room with Victor. Judy studied with Dad, and Fred would be in another room with Gregory. After about an hour, the three youngsters would all meet in the living room to play trios.
At this point, our mother would show up, and all our relatives would sit on a long couch as the three fledglings pounced on some Haydn. We never got much more than a minute into any piece before the quartet on the sofa started quarreling.
“The piano is too loud!” shouted Gregory.
“Then Freddie has to play out more,” chimed Victor.
“But then Judy will get covered up in the lower ranges!” exclaimed my father.
“It doesn’t matter. All three of them sound terrible,” my mother pronounced.
It went on like that for as long as anyone could take it. The only lesson the three of us learned is that music is all about arguing.
We often played recitals and various short pieces on concerts featuring young musicians. Here is a sample program:
Please note that I am not listed as one of the “Musicians in the Making.” Instead, the credit just reads “Leonard Slatkin at the Piano,” implying that I would soon be playing in lounges. Liberace had nothing on me.
Sometimes we would do a full recital together, and occasionally, I got to show off with a solo piece or two. Of all the short pieces we performed, my favorite was something called “Allegro Appassionato” by Saint-Saëns. But the Eccles Sonata contained in the above program was also a highlight. Eventually, I would arrange it for cello solo with string accompaniment.
The undoubted apex of our early musical partnerships came in 1964 when I was just starting to think about conducting. Fred and I played in the California Junior Symphony. He was principal cellist, and I was first viola. But the conductor, Peter Meremblum, knew that standing on the podium was something I longed for. He allowed me to lead the orchestra and accompany my brother in the Lalo Cello Concerto. We had done this work often with piano, but now I had to relearn the piece. I am sure Fred was great; me, not so much, probably.
We enjoyed other shared musical experiences, but the one that Fred recalls most vividly came when we both got gigs playing in outside orchestras. Here is the story as my brother tells it:
My brother and I used to play trust fund jobs (sponsored by the local union) which paid $22.50 per concert. On one occasion we were playing for the Angel City Symphony Orchestra, a children’s concert. The conductor (his name was Leroy Hirt, believe it or not, I remember it!) informed the children that the magic word for this concert was “Abracadabra,” and that he would ask them for it when the music was about to begin. So we got to that point in the program and he said, “OK, children, say the magic word and the music will begin.” And from the viola section, Leonard whispered, “$22.50.”
The most lucrative time of year for us came during the holidays in December. Performances of Handel’s Messiah were plentiful and the monetary rewards bountiful. There was one Sunday when we actually did three presentations, one each in the morning, afternoon, and evening. I used the money to build up my steadily growing record collection. As I recall, Fred spent his on kits to build model airplanes.
Our social lives rarely overlapped. Fred had his set of friends, and I had mine. I do think that we dated the same girl once, but not at the same time! We attended the public schools, had some of the same teachers, and participated in the numerous musical activities available there.
In 1962 I graduated from Los Angeles High School and headed to Indiana University. Fred still had two more years of study to get his diploma. But we were reunited in January of 1963 when I left IU and came home. Not knowing what to do, I enrolled in City College, abandoning most of my music studies and occasionally playing the odd recital with Fred. He had grown significantly as a cellist, and I was certain he would eclipse me with his talent.
Tragedy struck with the passing of our father, Felix, in 1963 at the age of only 47. We were not a close family, but I think that I knew Dad just a little better than Fred did. Still, there was more anger than sadness at his passing. We had both witnessed Felix’s penchant for alcohol, his battle with weight, and the enormous strain associated with his workaholic tendencies.
Fred wound up devoting himself more seriously to his cello studies. I came back into the fold and picked up where our father had left off with his conducting career. My brother then went to New York and never looked back. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music with Bernard Greenhouse and later at Juilliard with Leonard Rose and Channing Robbins. He also worked in Los Angeles with Gregor Piatigorsky.
By the mid ’60s, he realized that the name Freddie would no longer cut it, so he changed it to Fred, or more formally, Frederick. We all understood. However, the question I am most asked about him is why his last name is different than mine. Here is what Fred had to say on that subject:
The original spelling of the name, from the Russian and the Hebrew inscription on our great grandfather’s tombstone, was ZLATKIN. A Russian “a” sounds more like an American “o,” hence, Zlotkin. The name was spelled Zlotchin on the ship’s passenger record, and Zlatkine when Levik (Louis) came over in ’23. It is quite plausible that Chaim changed the name to Americanize it, to forget about the hard times they had in Russia and start anew in the U.S.
Our grandmother, when asked about the original spelling of the name, simply said, “Our lives did not begin until we came to the United States. We are Slatkin.” Interestingly, I never heard anyone from that side of the family refer to themselves as Ukrainian.
Our mother was furious! She considered this an insult to the memory of Felix. Fred did not help matters when he named his firstborn child Felix Zlotkin. Mother and son did not speak to each other for a very long time. As our mom aged, having long retired from professional life, she came to accept the change, and toward the end of her life, the two of them completely reconciled.
As to why the switch in names occurred, I can only speculate. Certainly, Fred believes, as do so many others, that the best homage to one’s heritage is to honor the original family name. But I think Fred also felt as if he were following family tradition on our maternal side, which made our mother’s negative reaction to his name change even more surprising.
Our mother’s side of the family was known in Belarus as Altschuler. Many who came over to the States from that clan were musicians, including a surprising number of cellists. Gregory shortened and Americanized his name to Aller, not out of contempt but to differentiate himself from his brothers.
But my brother’s birth name, Freddie, did make its way into pop music history. Back in the very early ’60s, when he first went to New York, our family’s best friendship was with Morris Goldenberg and his brood. They had a son, Billy, who went on to be a leading figure in music composition for television, films, and Broadway. At a party, some rock-and-roll music was playing on the radio, and Fred started dancing. Billy and a couple others decided to cut a recording that featured the then-still Freddie.
Here are the memorable lyrics to this masterpiece:
Freddie played the cello, the classical way,
Bach, Stravinsky, Brahms, Bizet.
The people at Carnegie Hall would lift their wigs
“Go Freddie, Freddie
“Freddie, Freddie go
on the C-E-L-L-O.”
But after every concert that Freddie would play,
He would walk downtown a way.
And just to prove that he had soul,
He would play some rock and roll.
Allegro, not Adagio
on your C-E-L-L-O
Freddie got so famous, so famous and big,
Leonard Bernstein came to dig.
Lenny said to Freddie, “That’s a groove.
Really makes the music move.
C’mon back after Carnegie man,
Put that beat behind your stand.”
“Freddie and His Cello” never made it onto the charts. I don’t know if it was even released. I still have a copy, and if I need to blackmail my brother, I know exactly where to start.
Fred would go on to win the Geneva Music Competition, perform with leading orchestras throughout the world, and work as a chamber musician. But his most longstanding commitment was to serve for more than 45 years as principal cellist of the orchestra at the New York City Ballet. You cannot count how many performances of the Nutcracker that represents. He and his stand partner wound up playing the work from memory.
Among his numerous achievements was a recording of the Six Suites for Solo Cello by Bach. Before it became fashionable, Fred was the first to implement part of the emerging “historically informed” concepts that have become commonplace today. His contribution comprised improvised ornamentation, particularly in the repeated sections of the pieces. Fred received the highest praise from listeners and critics for this effort.
When he retired in 2021, he basically said that he had spent enough time listening to others tell him what to do. He resides in New Jersey and loves cats. Remember when I wrote about Jeeves? Well, that Bassett had a companion as well: Agnes the cat. They got along famously, except when they didn’t.
Four occasions stand out as the highlights of our time together as musicians. In the mid 1960s, I was the director of the New York Youth Symphony. We played three concerts per season at Carnegie Hall. For one of them, I decided to program Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano, and Orchestra, known as the “Triple” Concerto. Jeffrey Siegel was the pianist, the violin solo was played by Theodore Arm, and Fred filled out the trio.
Our mother came to New York to coach the group for a week, including several hours of instruction on how to take a bow when we entered. It was a reminder of the disciplined musical upbringing each of us endured. But any frustrations were eclipsed by the overwhelming feeling of walking onto that hallowed stage, and as a result, we played our hearts out.
In 1974, when I was still the assistant conductor in St. Louis, the television show All in the Family was very popular (and remains one of the iconic programs of its time). I used the title to create a concert theme with works featuring two or more family members as composers and/or performers.
I invited both my mother and brother to participate. Each of them played a solo piece with orchestra, and to end the program, I decided to write something for the two of them. Dialogue for Two Cellos and Orchestra is a 12-minute piece in which the soloists have equal billing. It was the only time that my mother and brother ever appeared together onstage. How special is that?
In 2003 I was the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We were supposed to come to the United States for a two-week tour. The budget dictated otherwise, and we needed to come up with something else to fill the time. I suggested a couple of television documentaries that tied together two film composers who had come to America from Europe, Miklós Rózsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
For the Korngold episode, the main focus was his cello concerto, written in 1947, first as part of the film Deception and then reworked into a concert piece. My mother performed on the soundtrack of the movie and played the first performance of the complete work.
In the TV program, we demonstrated how the visual effects were accomplished, especially those in which Paul Henreid appeared as if he were actually playing the cello. We also featured a complete performance of the concerto. Fred was the soloist, playing the work on the same instrument our mom did those many years ago. You can find a video of this online. It is worth the time and includes a lot of wonderful stories.
Recently, I have been spending more time arranging and composing than I would have ever predicted. In 2015, I wrote Kinah (Hebrew for lamentation) in memory of our parents. The piece was inspired by the second movement of the Brahms Double Concerto, the last work Felix and Eleanor rehearsed together; Felix died two days before the scheduled performance. Kinah includes solo lines for offstage violin and cello, and Fred once again took the place of our mother, playing on her instrument for the world premiere. It is probably the best piece I have written, and having Fred there made all the difference.
I am proud of my sibling and all he has accomplished. As with any musician, his life has been complicated but satisfying. We are closer now than ever and spend time together in Las Vegas, mostly telling tales, seeing shows, and losing just a little money.
But I know it is time to stop writing about him, as that spot where he got me with the pencil is starting to act up again.