He's no stranger to the Bowl

Leonard Slatkin begins his tenure as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl tonight.

By Mark Swed
Times Staff Writer

July 12, 2005

WASHINGTON — Leonard Slatkin's ungainly new title is principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl — a position he will take up officially tonight with a mostly Gershwin program. Couldn't they just call him Prince? He is, after all, Hollywood Bowl royalty.

Slatkin's late parents were violinist-conductor Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, both Los Angeles studio musicians. "My dad worked at 20th Century Fox, my mom at Warners," he recalls. In their spare time in the 1940s, the couple formed the arrestingly luxuriant-toned Hollywood String Quartet with two other studio musicians and soon became the first internationally recognized U.S. string quartet and one of the most satisfying ever to record Beethoven.

And then there is the Bowl. In the mid-'50s, the elder Slatkin — who often conducted for Sinatra, sometimes taking over from Nelson Riddle for Riddle's more difficult arrangements — succeeded Carmen Dragon as music director of the Glendale Symphony and became the recording conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Symphony, a combination of Philharmonic and studio players.

"He only actually conducted at the Bowl a few times — mostly it was recording," Slatkin says. "But I remember he did one concert with Captain Kangaroo. I was young enough to still be star-struck, and I was highly deflated when I went backstage and saw this man with a glass of Scotch and a cigarette."

Slatkin, who turned 60 last year, has never had a particularly close connection with Los Angeles since he left it as a young adult. At the moment, he is well-ensconced in Washington as music director of the National Symphony. His other musical center is London, where he just ended one tenure as music director of the BBC Symphony and is about to begin another as principal guest conductor with the Royal Philharmonic.

But he cannot escape his roots and may at last be coming to terms with them.

We are in his office in the Kennedy Center on a muggy day in the capital to talk about the Hollywood in which Slatkin grew up and that now seems far away and long ago. Casually dressed, he sits back, looks up and reminisces about a musical education like no other.

During his childhood, on any given night, Stravinsky, Sinatra, William Walton or Nat King Cole might come over to his parents' home in the Wilshire/La Brea area. Will it be Villa-Lobos improvising on the piano this evening, or Art Tatum?

Little Lennie, his older self remembers, was not so much a studio brat as a lot of brats: "I could go to either studio, but mostly people came to the house. Korngold, who wrote his cello concerto for my mother, worked on 'Deception' at our house. Bernard Herrmann brought by electric violins for my dad to try out when they did 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' That was in 1951, and it was the first use of electric violins."

Meanwhile, whenever the Hollywood String Quartet was working on a new piece — and it did many — the composer might drop in.

"We have tapes of [Hungarian composer and pianist Ernst von] Dohnányi and Villa-Lobos just fooling around on the piano," Slatkin says. Sinatra was a regular houseguest. Lennie and his brother, the cellist Fred Zlotkin, were, on occasion, sung to sleep by Ol' Blue Eyes.

Other times, Slatkin accompanied his parents when they went visiting. "When I was 7 or 8, we went to see Schoenberg. I remember this figure in a heavy overcoat in 100-degree weather. Everything was closed off, and it was drenchingly hot."

Slatkin began studying violin when he was 3 but gave it up when he realized he would never be as good as his father. He switched to piano and studied with his uncle, Victor Aller, a staff pianist at Warners, but quit that too, again feeling inferior. "I took up viola because nobody else in the family played it."

It was a highly competitive and not especially close family, Slatkin says, and what he really loved to do as a youngster was escape. He wandered up Wilshire Boulevard at night to the classical radio station KFAC.

"I got to know all the classical DJs, and especially Tom Cassidy and Tom Dixon. I'd just hang out at the radio station. I would sit there and go to the library and pick out discs to listen to myself while something else might be playing. I became totally fascinated with radio and would actually stay until 2, 3 in the morning. And I was a kid! That's how it was back then. You didn't worry about anybody."

Another hangout was the Hollywood jazz club Shelly's Manne Hole. "I played illegally at a piano bar when I was 16. At 1 in the morning, when it shut down, we'd all go over to Shelly Manne's place and listen to the jazz guys play for each other."

And always, there was the Hollywood Bowl. "My parents actually met at the Bowl," he says. "I don't remember the year, but it was in the '30s. There was a competition for young artists, and the story goes that the competition was rigged so that my father would win.

"When my mother found out it was fixed, she went up to my dad and laced into him. They continued the argument well into the night. But when she heard him play, she realized he would have won anyway. They started dating, and they were married a couple of years later."

As a boy, Slatkin says, he would often go to the Bowl alone, much as he would to KFAC — taking the bus up La Brea, buying a dollar seat and then sneaking down to the boxes. He's dismayed that you can't get away with that quite so easily anymore. "Make friends with the ushers," he advises.

As for Slatkin's formal music education, even it reads like something out of a fairy tale. "I went to public schools, and my final year at Los Angeles High we had three choruses, two bands, the orchestra, and Peter Schickele was the composer in residence."

Composer in residence? "The Ford Foundation in the '50s supported a composer in residence program for high schools, and Schickele" — better known today as PDQ Bach — "was a young composer just out of Juilliard."

Slatkin's path to a professional career was nevertheless slow. He went to Indiana University to study music and was thrown out within three months — "I didn't go to compulsory ROTC."

Back in L.A., he enrolled in City College. "I really didn't know what I wanted to do at that point, so I became an English major. I wasn't doing music at all.

"About two months after I returned from Indiana, my father died. He was only 47 and I was 19. Now I really didn't know what to do. People started saying, 'Why don't you get back into music?' Conducting finally had more of an appeal."

From L.A., he went to Juilliard, Aspen and then St. Louis, where — as music director of the St. Louis Symphony from 1979 to 1996 — he became known as a champion of American music. Through dozens of recordings, he gave the orchestra a prominence it had never attained.

St. Louis also happened to have been his father's hometown. And now, with his two-year Bowl appointment, he at last has an opportunity to put his stamp on his own hometown. That will be more apparent next season, he says. His appointment came when planning for this summer was already underway.

We don't know what Felix Slatkin might have brought to the Bowl had he lived longer, but one thing might be different today: Leonard Slatkin probably wouldn't be its principal whatever.

"It's a sad thing to say," Slatkin reflects, "but given the competitive nature of the household, I'm not sure I would be pursuing a conducting career if my dad had still been alive when I was 19."