Music Preview: Slatkin saves the day / Conductor is once again there when the PSO needs him

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"Last Minute" Leonard Slatkin has once again come to the rescue of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

  

Leonard Slatkin and the PSO are taking American music to Europe, including Ives, Bernstein and Gershwin.

Pittsburgh Symphony


What: European Tour Kick-off Concert, Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Program: Ives, Symphony No. 2; Shostakovich, Symphony No. 9
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: Free; 412-392-4900.

Well, his substitutions probably aren't frequent enough to grant him a nickname, but this is the second time this year that the PSO has called on the American conductor to bail it out of cancellations. In March, Slatkin filled in for an ill Richard Hickox for a weekend of performances at Heinz Hall. Now he has stepped in for Sir Andrew Davis, who had to withdraw from the European Tour because of bypass surgery on his leg. From Aug. 25-30, Slatkin will conduct the PSO in Patras, Greece, Dublin, Cardiff and London, the latter a prestigious BBC Proms concert.

"This is the third substitution this year," says Slatkin from his home outside of Washington, D.C. "It raises the question, do I actually work during the year, where do I have all this time to do these?"

With posts as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and principal guest of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and plenty of guest conductor gigs, Slatkin is very busy. In fact, he had to clear out two engagements to make the PSO tour work.

"At first I really didn't think I could do it, because I had a concert at the Hollywood Bowl at the end of this week and then some preliminary rehearsals for the opening of the new hall in Nashville," he says. But with some maneuvering, all from his vacation, he made it work. "The first thing was getting the good will of all the orchestras to agree that this was the right thing to do."

And he had to bid goodbye to some vacation time. He was called about the PSO tour while in a car on vacation in Florida. "My son and I had just come out of a movie," he says. "We had just seen 'Barnyard,' which I didn't care for so much, but he is 12, so I have to go to these things. We are driving home and the phone rings ... I said, 'Don't tell me somebody canceled!' "

Slatkin decided he wanted to do the tour, for a number of reasons. For one, he was a perfect fit for the tour repertoire. "I could have planned this tour," he says. "The good thing is that these are all pieces I know well. I would never take on a tour like this and do stuff I don't consider to be in my repertoire.

The conductor is an expert in American music, of which there will be more than the usual on tour: Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2, Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Promenade: Walking the Dog." "[The PSO] is one of the few American orchestras to take that much American music on tour. Normally the Europeans don't like it. That is really one reason I wanted to do it. I would not have liked to see, particularly, the Ives go away." After all these years, the piece will be given its BBC Proms premiere.

The other pieces he will conduct, Brahms' Fourth and Shostakovich's Ninth symphonies are pieces he knows well. "They are all pieces, that when I sat down and opened the scores, they just came back very quickly." The only fly in the ointment is an encore of "Yerakina" arranged by Steven Karidoyanes for the Patras, Greece concert.

""Mostly it is a question of organizing the rehearsals, because I have to get a little more done, because Andrew will have played them with the orchestra and I haven't. A lot of trust goes in on this, but we'll make it."

Actually, Slatkin feels that the eleventh-hour aspect of being a substituting conductor can be a positive on the podium. "Everyone is really paying attention to what you do, you can take more liberties," he says. "Also, the players will tell me which places they would like to look at to make sure, that happens in rehearsals."

Slatkin also accepted the tour invitation because it offers him the opportunity to return to the Proms and London's Royal Albert Hall, where he was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2000-2004 "I was last there two years ago, the Last Night of the Proms, so the audience knows me really quite well. I have to say, I am really looking forward walking out the Bull Run -- that's the tunnel that you go through to go out to the stage."

He's fully expecting to get some good-natured ribbing or some welcome back chants from the sometimes raucous crowd of diehard fans known as "Prommers" who stand for the concerts in the area in front of the stage. "There will be some of the Prommers out there that will have some signs or some verbal thing for me," he says.

But nothing will compare to the Last Night concert, the gala concert that ends the Proms summer season, which he and that audience experienced in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks. "[It was] easily the most moving experience in my life," says Slatkin. "We had to change the entire program, get rid of all the patriotic, jingoistic stuff. Those 6,000 people singing the 'Star Spangled Banner' was just amazing. It was something."

The weirdest thing about Slatkin stepping in is that he was originally to lead this tour -- with the National Symphony. "Believe it or not, originally, this was a tour that was to be done by the National Symphony, and they had to pull it down for financial reasons," he says. "Pittsburgh picked up the dates. The real irony is not only am I going back to the Proms, but I am doing the tour I was supposed to do anyway. All we need is Kevin Bacon will show up at the concert, it will be complete."

Lastly, Slatkin took the job because it hooked him up again with an orchestra he deeply respects. "There are only three or four orchestras I would do this for," he says. "If most would call, I would say, no, this is sacred time. But I go back such a long time with Pittsburgh, in the '70s and at the Great Woods and the various things we did over the years."

It helps that Slatkin and the PSO had good chemistry when he substituted in March.

"We had a really good time together. When [last-minute subbing] happens, you want to make sure that everyone is comfortable with each other, and clearly that happened here. Look, I couldn't be more happy and I suspect the orchestra is happy, too."

Slatkin did reveal that he is scheduled -- yes, actually scheduled -- to guest conduct with the PSO in a future season. And then there is that matter of the orchestra's musical leadership. In less than two years, the contracts of artistic advisor Davis, and principal guests Yan Pascal Tortelier and Marek Janowski expire, and the PSO will be looking to either extend some of them or bring in others or scrap the entire trio setup and hire a music director. Slatkin is leaving the National Symphony after the 2007-08 season. Could a fit be found here?

PSO management say they are working on the issue now but one thing is certain, it certainly helps Slatkin's case that he continues to be there for the PSO in its hours of need.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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