A month after bypass, DSO's Slatkin readies Missouri move

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

While boarding a plane at Metro Airport a couple of months ago, Leonard Slatkin suddenly felt his heart go into overdrive, racing like crazy. 

"But it felt like one of those things I knew would pass," said the 73-year-old Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director in an exclusive phone interview Tuesday, his first since his May 22 heart-bypass operation. 

Over 45 minutes, Slatkin, who will be honored June 23 at the DSO's Heroes Gala fundraiser, discussed his health, his upcoming move to St. Louis, and his excitement over next year's American Music Festival at the DSO.

Of his recovery, "I'm getting better," Slatkin said. "It wasn't fun, but at least I'm not under house arrest anymore and can drive and walk around."

As it happens, the racing pulse on that flight to Amsterdam did indeed pass. But on Slatkin's return to Detroit, doctors suggested he wear a heart monitor for two weeks. 

"Sure enough," he said, "there were incidents when my pulse was up to 189" -- once when he was conducting, he said, and the other while asleep. 

"The odd thing," Slatkin added, "is I didn’t notice it."

The initial suspect was atrial fibrillation, when the heart can beat wildly out of control. But subsequent tests found clogged arteries, and doctors recommended a bypass. 

"It just seemed like the only decision that made sense," said Slatkin, who had a heart attack in 2009.

He admitted that bowing out of conducting the last three concerts of this year's classical season was a blow -- not least because they were meant to be his last three as music director before transitioning to music director laureate for the 2018-19 season.

"It was sad not be able to do them," Slatkin said. "But I realized -- if I didn’t take care of this, they could well be my final three concerts."

After his week at the University of Michigan Medical Center, Slatkin began implementing life changes consistent with boosting heart health: physical therapy, exercise and reforming what had been a gourmand's diet. 

"It's low salt, low fat, and sometimes no flavor," he said. "But it’s been a lot of fun experimenting with things, too, and seeing what one can do."

Alas, that hasn't included grilling, one of his favorite summer pastimes. For the first month after surgery, the recovering patient wasn't supposed to lift more than 10 pounds. 

"And the lid of our grill," Slatkin said drily, "weighs more than 10 pounds." 

The grill, which is packed, will have to wait till after the June 24 move from Bloomfield Hills to Clayton, Missouri, where Slatkin and his wife, composer Cindy McTee, have just built a house. 

"We're relocating to St. Louis, my old stomping grounds," he said, "and where my grandfather settled when he came over from Russia."

Slatkin was music director at the St. Louis Symphony from 1979-96. 

The couple originally thought of staying in Detroit or relocating to the West Coast or the Arizona desert. "But ultimately," he said, "I have some really deep, long friendships in St. Louis." 

While guest-conducting in the city a year ago, Slatkin said he encouraged McTee, who didn't know the city, to drive around: "And she really found it was to her taste at this point in her life." 

Moving to St. Louis, of course, will have no impact on Slatkin's commitment for the next three seasons to conduct the DSO four weeks a year.

In 2018-19, he's actually stretched that to five weeks. Slatkin will open the classical season in October and close it in June, as well as conduct the three-week American Music Festival in February. 

Slatkin noted that whoever is chosen as the new music director will decide whether to continue the February music festivals. 

"It's not my place to say. But they have been very successful," he said, "and I said it would feel strange if I didn’t do an American Music Festival." 

As for the search currently under way to find his successor, Slatkin said he has no inside information. 

"I asked to really not be involved at all," he said. 

"Sometimes the conductor is, but when I left previous positions, I said, 'You have to find the person you think is the right mix for the orchestra and audience.'"

Given what Slatkin calls his bent for American music, he said he thinks there's a fair chance the board might pick somebody with different interests.

"They might look at a younger and more Euro-centric conductor," he suggested, "or not." 

Meantime, Slatkin's keeping to his regimen, watching what he eats and building up his strength. 

He tips his hat to McTee who, he said, really took responsibility for his recovery.

"I go into curmudgeon mode when I’m not feeling well," he said. "But she kept pushing me when I didn’t want to exercise. She’d say, 'You are going to exercise.'"

Eighth Annual DSO Heroes Gala and Benefit Concert

Honoring: Penny and Harold Blumenstein and Leonard Slatkin

Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center 

7 p.m. concert, June 23 


Concert only: $15 - $50

Black-tie cocktails, dinner & afterglow: $1,000 - $10,000 per person 

(313) 576-5111