Jan. 20 2010 12:00 AM

Maestro Leonard Slatkin comes to town, minus baton

Leonard Slatkin dwells at the peak of the classical music world, but he’s not interested in throwing thunderbolts at pop culture.

“Some of it is bubblegum, exploitative, and things like that,” the music director of the Detroit Symphony said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But in any period there’s always something of substance in all the cultures, whether it’s jazz, pop, blues, country.”

Everybody should find the art they like, Slatkin said. He only hopes people “find more kinds than one.”

“That’s what we’re here for — to provide possibilities,” he said.

Slatkin, 65, led the St. Louis Symphony through a golden era of recordings and concerts from 1979 to 1996. He comes to Michigan State University Monday to give a free-wheeling talk under the title “Do Orchestras Matter?”

The subject took on new urgency after a one-day Cleveland Orchestra strike this week. Players and management clashed over proposed pay and benefit concessions.

“It points out the problems we’re having all over the place, not just Cleveland,” Slatkin said. “In the older days, you had a pretty well-fixed audience that came on a regular basis.”

Today, Slatkin said, a symphony is more like a publishing company with a stable of great authors, living and dead. He said the symphony has to learn to market to specific audiences and reach out for new ones.

The DSO has stepped up its outreach under Slatkin, who took over in 2008. Last fall, the orchestra played at shopping malls and the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Detroit. “So many people were moved, because they had never heard anything like that before,” he said. “Our hope is to reach these new audiences, go outside of our own world here at Orchestra Hall.”

As part of that push, the DSO is forging new links with Michigan’s universities. Slatkin said a DSO concert at MSU’s Wharton Center is in the works for next season.

This Saturday, the DSO will carve some time out of a rehearsal to huddle with MSU composition students and play some of their music. The students get critical feedback from Slatkin and the musicians and hear their music in full orchestral glory.

Slatkin said local orchestras like the Lansing Symphony Orchestra fill a critical role in the cultural landscape. “With freelance musicians, people come for different reasons to play in an orchestra,” he said. “With an orchestra like Lansing’s, there’s a local pride that’s very important.”

Although local orchestras are in the same financial waters as Cleveland and Detroit, Slatkin said the smaller ones might be easier to keep afloat.

“People just do it because they love music, and there’s not really so much invested in salaries,” he said. “Maybe it has a better chance of hanging on — purely out of love.”

But romance without finance is a nuisance, as the Schubert lied goes. (Not.) Slatkin said his own orchestra has to get over a deficit of $3.8 million.

The dust-up in Cleveland raised comparisons to Detroit, another shrinking rust-belt city where old money is drying up and new sponsors are scarce.

Slatkin predicted fewer DSO concerts for regular patrons and more concerts outside Orchestra Hall, but didn’t offer any more specifics on cutbacks.

“We’ll figure it out,” Slatkin said. He insisted it would be a high priority to keep the musicians’ pay competitive, a sticking point in Cleveland.

Cutting back became a personal matter for Slatkin after suffering a heart attack at the podium while conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic on Nov. 1. (He finished the concert.)

Since then, he’s done a diminuendo on his cholesterol, lost 20 pounds and is trying to lose “another 10 or 15.”

“I feel better than I’ve felt in a very long time,” he said.

He came back to Detroit Jan. 4. Now he’s in the thick of an ambitious season, with highlights such as Shostakovich’s huge Fifth Symphony and the premieres of two new violin concertos, one by Brooklyn composer Jennifer Higdon and another by L.A. jazzman Billy Childs, with Detroit jazz stalwart Regina Carter on violin.

“In some ways, I’ve been more free in my conducting than ever,” Slatkin said. “I’m alive and happy.”

In the long-term, however, his priorities will shift. “Bottom line is, if I have to choose between my own health and going into a rehearsal, it’s going to be the health,” he said. “That might not have been the case before Nov. 1.”

Leonard Slatkin

View Lecture 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25 Wharton Center $20; free for MSU
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