The introduction of our Commencement speaker should, I suppose, be approached with a certain amount of pomp; but pompous is the last adjective anyone would apply to today’s speaker, so I will be referring to him by his first name. Everybody does that already, even those who’ve never met him.
When I began working with Leonard in St. Louis, I said in an interview that just as Leonard Bernstein had defined what it was to be an American conductor, so Leonard Slatkin has defined what it is to be an American music director. A great music director cares as much about the orchestra as an institution as about his or her own concerts. Deeply embedding himself in the community, he must learn how it ticks, what its needs are, and how the orchestra can fill them. St. Louis, Washington, and now Detroit have found in Leonard both a world-class conductor and an unparalleled music director. When someone suggested that Leonard had shaken hands with every man, woman and child in St. Louis, he replied that surely he had missed at least a few.
Without parallel as well is Leonard’s steadfast advocacy of American music. The names of the American composers he has championed, the American musicians he has encouraged, and the countless ways he has served as an international ambassador for our country’s music would fill a very fat book.
As a conductor, he jumps effortlessly from Beethoven to Barber to the most complex new scores to jazz and film music. As a dedicated educator, composer, and author, his lifelong commitment to extending music’s reach beyond the concert hall exemplifies some of NEC’s most important values.
I could stand here all day telling stories about Leonard, many of them having to do with baseball, movies, food, or his favorite animal, the penguin (coincidentally NEC’s mascot). However, one story about music will suffice.
To celebrate Leonard’s fiftieth birthday, the St. Louis Symphony presented one of his favorite programs, an evening of music for ten pianos. One of the pieces needed a conductor, so I was drafted to be Pianist Number Ten. Since none of you has ever heard me play the piano, you really can’t appreciate how absurd this idea was. But when Leonard, from his position at Piano Number One, began the concert with one of his famously clear upbeats, even I knew precisely where to play. That’s one of the many reasons why orchestras all over the world simply love working with him.
As the tumultuous ovation after the last encore had faded and we had all left the stage, the audience spontaneously began singing “Happy Birthday.” How rare it is for any conductor to earn not just the affection of an entire community, but also the unending gratitude of his nation’s musicians.
Mr. President, I am honored to present Leonard Slatkin for the Honorary Degree-Doctor of Music.
New England Conservatory Commencement, May 22, 2016.