Waddle You Bet Conductors Look Like Penguins? Leonard Slatkin, for One, Doesn't Duck the Issue

UPDATED 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

When he is dressed in his tails, admits Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, "I know I look like a penguin." But far from being upset by the likeness, he revels in it. In fact he has a collection of more than 500 penguin replicas, including a miniature plaster mascot with a broken beak that he has named Sebastian. "Of course, I carry my favorite penguin wherever I go," he responds in mock surprise whenever he's asked. "Doesn't everyone?"

These days Slatkin (who's "always Leonard, because there's only one Lenny and he's Bernstein") has reason enough to be upbeat. At 40, he is the youngest and only American-born conductor of a big-league U.S. orchestra. In his six seasons as musical director of the St. Louis Symphony, he has transformed a somewhat ho-hum ensemble into an acclaimed musical powerhouse. (A TIME magazine rating last year put it second only to the Chicago Symphony.) As a heavily booked guest conductor, Slatkin has just wound up a summer tour that began with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, then moved on to the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest, the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic before concluding with the Cleveland Orchestra.

The ascent to his current eminence was unconventional. By tradition, aspiring American conductors go abroad for their apprenticeships, but Slatkin is one of a rare breed who didn't (Bernstein is another). "I was real tired of people saying Americans have to go to Europe to have a career and then come back as conquering heroes," Slatkin explains. "I wanted to dispel the myth that we are lesser musicians in this country."

Born in Los Angeles, Leonard is a homegrown talent in every sense of the term. His father, the late Felix Slat-kin, was a violinist with the 20th Century-Fox studio orchestra and conducted at the Hollywood Bowl. His mother, Eleanor Aller, was a first cellist at Warner Bros, and still performs for the sound tracks of films (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and TV (Dallas; Trapper John, M.D.). The elder Slatkins also made up one-half of the once renowned Hollywood String Quartet. Their heavy working schedule, however, was difficult for Leonard (though that did not seem to trouble his younger brother, Frederick, who is now a cellist). Leonard grew up shy. "My idea of a good time then was to go to my room to listen to records or read," he recalls. (Today he still reads music scores the way other people read novels or plays. "If I'm doing Tchaikovsky, I guess it's like someone else reading Dostoyevski.")

Even with his early training as a violinist, pianist and composer, Slatkin had no assurance of a smooth track to the podium. In 1962 he left Indiana University during his first semester; as a pacifist he wanted no part of ROTC. At Los Angeles City College a music teacher asked Slatkin to conduct the student orchestra, "and all of a sudden," he remembers, "the side of me that was extrovert surfaced."

He won a scholarship to New York's Juilliard School and, after graduating in 1968, was appointed assistant conductor at St. Louis. In time an opportunity to conduct the original symphonic version of Jesus Christ Superstar got him some attention, and in 1977 he was tapped to take over the New Orleans Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra. Two years later he was enticed back to St. Louis to receive its principal conductor's baton.

Off the podium Slatkin's style can be strikingly casual. A teetotaler with a fondness for ice cream and root beer, he's a fan of baseball and video arcades. But his inner intensity is never completely masked. His first marriage, to language teacher Beth Gootee, ended in divorce after two years; he is now divorcing lawyer Jerilyn Cohen, whom he married in 1981. "I've come to the conclusion that a long personal relationship is next to impossible for me," Slatkin has said. "Ultimately, music is a possessive mistress."

Indeed, the bond between the conductor and his relatively youthful ensemble (average age: 42) is close and vibrant. "You've all seen a picture of Brahms sitting at a piano with a cigar in his mouth, his belly hanging out, and that's how I want this orchestra to sound...luscious," he exhorts his troops. Says composer-in-residence Joseph Schwantner, a 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner for his Aftertones of Infinity: "Everybody puts out 110 percent for Leonard. The St. Louis Symphony is amazingly flexible in adjusting its repertoire between classical and modern because the musicians understand his commitment to all music." Slatkin, in fact, sees no barriers between competing musical forms. "I'll know I'm reaching the total American market," he says only half in jest, "when I'm asked to do a video for MTV."

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