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Detroit Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Leonard Slatkin (Carlos Osorio/AP)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Leonard Slatkin (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Music

'A lot ... of healing to do,' Detroit Symphony's Leonard Slatkin says Add to ...

Like most conductors these days, Leonard Slatkin gets around: He will be guest-conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra April 27 and 28.

However, the 66-year-old American maestro hasn't been leading his own orchestra much of late: His Detroit Symphony Orchestra was shut down for six months by a bitter strike. In the final agreement, ratified on April 8, the DSO's musicians accepted a deep pay cut of 22 per cent.

In orchestral strikes, conductors find themselves caught between the players and the management, clinging to neutrality like Switzerland during a world war. As Slatkin explains, this isn't a comfortable place to be.

What's it like to be the conductor of an orchestra that's on strike?

Mostly, my job during the strike was to not get involved in it: to stay informed but not participate. I couldn't do anything to assist in the negotiations. What I did, however, was discuss the strike with both the board and the musicians, and encourage people not to give up.

Was it hard to hold your tongue?

Sure! I'm not known for being less than verbose. For me, to just be quiet was a difficult matter, but I managed.

I understand that you spent some time preparing for concerts that never happened.

Early on in the course of the strike, concerts were being cancelled only seven to 10 days before they would have occurred. So I had to be prepared, and keep working on the music. That was part of the frustration - but it also gave me time to reflect on works I might not have otherwise looked at.

Was the strike resolved as well as it could have been?

I'm inclined to think that the strike played out in the way that it needed to. We would have all liked it to have been shorter, of course - but we needed time to settle on what was going to be right for Detroit.

Now that the DSO is performing again, how is morale among the players?

I would say it's pretty good. People are very glad to be making music again - there was a palpable air of excitement when we returned. And by last week I felt the orchestra was once again playing at a pre-strike level.

Now there's a lot of bridge-building and healing to do. We're trying to get the orchestra players more involved with the board - and also in artistic matters, so they have more say in determining their own future.

Obviously, a big pay cut will help the bottom line. But are there other financial problems at the DSO?

We have a $54-million loan on our hall to repay to the banks, and we have an endowment that's shrunk down to just $20-million that has to be rebuilt. So we're probably talking about a five-to-seven-year fundraising campaign. It's not going to be easy.

How will you win back the support of the community?

One thing that's important to understand is that Detroit is one of those cities where the downtown area, where we perform, is not the place where most of our audience lives. They're very much in the suburbs. Yet our hall is one of the greatest concert halls in the world. We love it, and we don't want to abandon it.

But at the same time we have to find new ways to reach the public. So we've identified seven or eight facilities in suburban areas - auditoriums, synagogues, churches - that are big enough and acoustically suitable for us to play in. We will go out and establish concert series for people who don't come downtown. The eventual goal is to say, "We've come out to your homes, now we'd like you to come downtown to ours."

What are your feelings about the challenges North American orchestras face these days?

There are very few orchestras who have seen increases in their budgets in recent years. One reason is the economic downturn. But more seriously, we've seen, over the last 35 or 40 years, a steady decline in arts education. In Detroit, only about 30 per cent of public-school students have arts education in their schools.

If governments aren't putting money into arts education, we have to do it: Go into the schools and create music programs. The role of an orchestra in the 21st century isn't just playing, it's about developing future audiences and performers.

Some might say a good way for orchestras to boost attendance is to bring in a handsome young conductor.

Or you could also have a less-than-handsome older conductor! Ultimately, it's not about the label, but about the product inside. The attention should always be on the music, not on the person - always.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Leonard Slatkin conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with soloists Yefim Bronfman and Patricia Krueger, on April 27 and 28 at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.

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