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March 19, 2016

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Maestro sings praises of musical diversity

AMERICAN conductor and composer Leonard Slatkin will stage a concert tonight with Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

The show will include pieces from Shostakovich and Ravel, as well as lesser-known works like Samuel Barber’s “Symphony No.1” and “Circuit” by Cindy McTee, who is married to Slatkin.

“I picked ‘Circuit’ not because it is my wife’s work, but (because) I want to introduce her music to Chinese audiences,” says Slatkin. “The piece is full of energy ... I believe it will work very well to start the concert.”

Slatkin started his career in music back in 1966 when he was appointed artistic director of the New York Youth Symphony. Since then, he has worked with many of the world’s top orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. He is also the winner of seven Grammy awards, having been nominated an impressive 64 times.

These days, the 72-year-old Slatkin is worried about what he sees as the homogenization of the world’s orchestras. He’s optimistic though that this trend will change as more Asian musicians enter the field.

“There have been an increasing number of Chinese musicians coming to the US over the past 40-50 years. They come here and express music through the cultural heritage of their home country and also where they live at the moment. That will bring good changes,” says Slatkin.

As he prepared for his upcoming performance, Slatkin was kind enough to agree to an interview with Shanghai Daily.

Q: How was your rehearsal with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra?

A: It was good. We are musicians, and we communicate with the same language.

What I did here was just like what I did with any other orchestra in the world. At the beginning, I had the orchestra play the pieces without stopping or talking, just to see how the Orchestra is playing.

The orchestra learned fast, though some of the chosen pieces are not that familiar to them.

It will be a great concert.

Q: Many say the world’s orchestras are losing their individuality. How would you respond to such claims?

A: Yes, it is a problem that a very limited number of orchestras today still have distinguishable personalities in their sound.

There are orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony that still sound unique, but many orchestras today sound alike, especially in the US.

I was a lucky boy to have grown up in a musical family, with access to the old school of Russian playing. So, I can understand the importance of the particular sound of an orchestra. I tried to encourage every orchestra that I worked with to establish their own sound.

But it is getting difficult today. Sometimes, when I ask for a particular sound from the strings, the musicians just look at me and show that they don’t understand.

When look at the orchestras in the US, you see musicians from all over the world coming to play. Everybody has his or her way of playing, due to their different educational or training backgrounds.

It is true that it is more difficult to coordinate these musicians into one particular personality for an orchestra; but it is also true that conductors today don’t think as much about individuality as they used to. Many of them focus just on the techniques.

The conductor can have an important role in altering this situation, though it is harder now.

Q: How do you help create individuality of an orchestra?

A: While working with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, I couldn’t help thinking that if there was a Chinese orchestra, with only Chinese musicians trained only in China, what would it sound like?

I am very interested, though I do not have the answer yet. Quite a number of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra musicians have studied abroad, which is understandable due to the limited history of classic music in China.

In my view, the sound of an orchestra begins with the string section. The sound of the strings is like a carpet in the room where every other furnishing or decorations stand on.

In rehearsals, I often have the strings playing while the others are listening. We work on the string section first. And when that is done, the job of other sections is just to fit into the ready texture.

Q: Do you have preference for particular music styles when composing?

A: No, I don’t. I wrote music simply because I had an idea and wanted to write it down.

The last two pieces are quite short pieces, and I am surprised that some conductors have started to play my music.

In my opinion, there is really no such thing as “new music.” There is nothing new. What we do today is just about taking what exists and manipulating it in a different way.

Take McTee’s work for example. It may sound a bit like Gershwin or Shostakovich, but she found a way to put them together and it sounds just like McTee.


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