Leonard Slatkin has long been a champion of modern American symphonic music, and he thinks his efforts have played a part in its increasing acceptance and even popularity.
"Right now, a lot of things I've been fighting for for about 20 years are coming to fruition," says Slatkin, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which has concerts in Sarasota and Clearwater today and Saturday. "All you have to do is look at the Grammy nominations this year."
Five of the recordings nominated to receive the Grammy for best classical album represent a roll call of American composers from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s _ Bernstein, Carter, Hanson, Ives and Barber (whose Symphony No. 1 was recorded by the St. Louis orchestra under Slatkin).
The sixth Grammy nomination went to a recording of another, newer American work, John Corigliano's First Symphony, which was inspired by the AIDS quilt and dedicated to the memory of a musician who died of the disease. It was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1990.
Last month, Slatkin guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic in its first performance of Corigliano's 40-minute symphony, which the conductor sees as emblematic of a new surge of interest in classical forms by contemporary composers.
"All of a sudden, the symphony as a viable medium seems to be making a return," he says, speaking by phone from his dressing room at Carnegie Hall the day after the Corigliano work's New York debut.
"Even though musicians by nature are liberal, I think the conservative and more or less peaceful nature of the country at the moment is providing composers a chance to reflect, and that is leading them back to a more linear look at music, music based in part on other works from earlier in the century."
Critically, the Corigliano symphony on AIDS took some lumps in New York, but Slatkin says the audience responded to it with "a remarkable ovation the likes of which composers very rarely get for new pieces. There was bedlam in the hall."
Asked whether he sees programing new works as a way to reinvigorate the relationship between orchestra and audience, Slatkin answers:
"Yes, or the presentation of familiar works in different settings. For example, I do unusual presentations of things like Pictures at an Exhibition with nine different orchestrators."
Slatkin is sometimes criticized for his practice of talking to the audience about what the orchestra is going to play, but he makes no apology for it.
"I think if you have the ability to be able to address an audience comfortably without being condescending, you should do it. I see nothing wrong with it. If we accept it on radio and television broadcasts _ nobody criticizes it there, if someone talks about the piece _ then I don't see why it shouldn't be talked about in the concert."
An informal attitude on the podium is just his way to "bring the audience into the performance," Slatkin says, adding that it will take more than a conductor's charm to keep symphony orchestras alive and well. In the future, education and community outreach are going to be necessary for their survival.
In St. Louis, for example, where the population is 50 percent black, the orchestra must connect with an audience not accustomed to attending classical music concerts. The way to do that, Slatkin says, is not merely to program African-American works.
"That's important, but we also have to try to educate the audience into the mainstream of what we do, too. We have to get out in the community and speak to people about why this music is just as important to them as other forms of music."
He says orchestras everywhere have to figure out fresh approaches to their communities.
"I suspect that orchestras in parts of Florida have to address the Hispanics, if they want to draw that audience into their constituency. Lots of people go to dance clubs on weekends to hear salsa. Why shouldn't we find a way to get those audiences in to hear what we do?"
AT A GLANCE
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with Leonard Slatkin conducting, performs tonight at 8:15 at Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota; tickets are $30.50-$32.50; call 953-3368 in Sarasota. The orchestra plays Saturday at 8 p.m. at Ruth Eckerd Hall; tickets are $15-$35; call 791-7400 in Pinellas, 854-1538 in Hillsborough.