February 1, 2024 leonard slatkin

Although many people think of St. Louis as being in the southern part of the country, we can have some winter weather close to that of Buffalo, New York. Such was the case in the middle of January, when the temperatures dipped below zero; thankfully, the snow was minimal.

All bundled up, I began a two-week stay with my old band, the SLSO. Many things are different this year, not the least of which is that Powell Hall is under renovation and the orchestra has had to relocate. They play in two venues, one of them being the Stifel Theatre, the orchestra’s former home until 1968, when the R.K.O. St. Louis Theatre was converted from a movie palace into one of the finest concert halls in the country.

My programs took place at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts, a venue that did not exist during my 27 years in residence as SLSO assistant/associate conductor and then music director. Built on the campus of the University of Missouri—St. Louis, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. The auditorium holds 1,600 people, and each of our concerts was sold out. Acoustics are a bit on the dry side, as it is a multi-purpose theater, but the sound onstage was clear enough for the musicians to be able to hear each other well.

In D.C. and Detroit, I always felt that the weather caused many of the seats to be empty due to regular subscribers heading for warmer climes during the winter. So, I created festivals that appeared on subscription series and were also sold as a set of programs centered around a particular composer or country. For the Missourians, I chose a theme designed to help people understand how we came to have a specifically American sound in the concert hall.

Under the general heading of jazz, these concerts explored the connections between American vernacular music and classical music. Gershwin was the centerpiece of the festival, with one of his works featured on each program. Almost every other piece on the series was unfamiliar to both orchestra and audience, such as George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony, John Alden Carpenter’s Krazy Kat, and the world premiere of Jeff Beal’s violin concerto, Body in Motion. We also included works by European composers reflecting the influence of American jazz, such as Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto and Weill’s suite from The Threepenny Opera, as well as pieces by Ellington, Joplin, and Milhaud. The lengthiest work was the Zodiac Suite by Mary Lou Williams, probably the first female jazz instrumentalist to succeed in a distinctly all-male field. At first, we were only going to do eight of the twelve movements, but as we began rehearsing, I felt that some listeners might be disappointed to have their astrological sign omitted, so we wound up playing the whole lot.

The emotional highlight was unquestionably the final work on the last concert, Rhapsody in Blue, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. 50 years ago, the SLSO and I recorded it alongside the rest of Gershwin’s orchestral output. These were the first discs made by the orchestra since André Previn recorded Copland’s Red Pony Suite and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem a little over ten years beforehand.

Although I was only the associate conductor at the time, Music Director Walter Susskind knew that the orchestra needed to make a big splash for its debut on Vox Records, and he graciously encouraged the company to let me lead these recordings. They sold very well and were enthusiastically received by the public and critics alike. The recordings never went out of print but were remastered a couple of times over the years. Recently, the Vox catalog was bought by Naxos, whose production team did an incredible job with the transfers. Naxos is now in the process of re-releasing “audiophile editions” of all our collaborations on that label.

What is so emotional about that? Well, the soloist in the four pieces for piano and orchestra was my Juilliard friend and colleague Jeffrey Siegel. The SLSO musicians who participated in those sessions have all since retired, but Jeff is very much around, and I asked him to rejoin us for this concert. Half a century later, the bond between us remains as strong as ever. Even though we collectively have 161 years between us, for 20 minutes or so, we were those intrepid kids, just having a good time with great music. I was grateful for the chance to collaborate with my dearest friend again.

There was yet another event during the hectic two weeks. 54 years ago, the seeds for creating a youth orchestra in St. Louis were first planted, and after a year spent cultivating the idea, 125 young musicians gathered at Powell Hall for the first rehearsal of the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. It was possibly my proudest moment in all the time I spent in the city.

This January, for the very first time, members of the professional orchestra sat side-by-side with the SLSYO players in a performance that featured music by Brahms, Copland, and Tchaikovsky. Although we had very little rehearsal time, the concert itself was an extraordinary example of what can be accomplished when the goal is just to enjoy the music. Energy and excitement abounded throughout the full house during the hour-long concert. That same sense of pride I felt when the young people gathered so long ago returned, and I may have also shed a tear or two.

The previous day was equally emotional, as we learned of the passing of one of the finest musicians I have ever had the pleasure to know, Peter Schickele. Our story goes back quite a few years.

In 1960, when I was in my second year of public high school in Los Angeles, we had three choirs, two bands, and an orchestra, which was not unusual during this period in history. We also had a composer in residence, and it was the young Peter. He received a Ford Foundation grant to write a couple pieces for one of the vocal ensembles. It was somewhat controversial, as this was a setting of the Nativity scene, and Mary was portrayed by a black woman, pretty much unheard of at that time.

I got to know him a little bit, and we had wonderful discussions about all manner of musical subjects. Little did I realize who he would turn out to be.

When I was at Juilliard, Peter had already graduated but retained a relationship with the institution. By this time, his persona, sort-of non grata, was his creation P. D. Q. Bach. Several early performances of these hilarious sendups were done at the school and other small venues. It was decided that a larger audience would enjoy the merriment, so in 1965, a concert was arranged at The Town Hall.

For this performance, which was captured for Vanguard Records, one of the pieces included the cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn. It calls for a singer, the “bargain-counter tenor.” Peter wanted to be the soloist, but the record producers felt he needed to audition for the role. I was engaged as the accompanist, and in a small room at the school, Peter came in and did his best.

It was not good enough, and he was not given the job. Instead, the marvelous John Ferrante won out and went on to have a fine career both with and without the fabricated composer. That concert was a huge success and, to some degree, set up a conflict for Peter. He knew a good thing when he saw it, but he also realized that his character might have a bigger presence than he originally intended. Nevertheless, he was also a realist and went with the flow.

In the meantime, he continued to produce many fine compositions under his own name, thus maintaining a dual personality. When I got to St. Louis, I commissioned several pieces from Peter, including a quite popular work called A Zoo Called Earth, one of the first to address the climate situation on our planet.

He would go on to write film scores and songs for Broadway musicals, appear on talk shows, and create one of the most original radio shows ever to air, the Schickele Mix. I even base my own Slatkin Shuffle program on the pattern he laid down.

We co-curated festivals, did concerts all over the country together, and remained good friends. Peter’s creativity knew no bounds, and when you listen to music by either him or P. D. Q., you can hear signature harmonies that are distinct and original. Whether in his First Symphony or the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, his voice always comes through.

Infirmity did not stop him, and he continued to appear in concerts, no longer able to make an entrance by swinging on a rope from the balcony. He was beloved by all, and what he leaves behind is a remarkable legacy of musical brilliance, humor, and passion.

This next month is mostly devoted to teaching, with visits to three musical institutions. Comparing the schools should make for interesting future reading. In the meantime, continue to watch this space and follow my social channels for some upcoming announcements worth noting.

See you next month,