Leonard Slatkin, a fixture of the U.S. symphonic scene, is especially noted for his performances of American, Russian, and British music, and for his numerous recordings of Haydn symphonies. He was born into a famous musical family: his father was Felix Slatkin (1915-1963), a St. Louis-born violinist who rose to become a film-score and light-music conductor and founded the Hollywood String Quartet. His mother was Eleanor Aller, cellist of the quartet. Thanks to their combined efforts, their son was trained in violin, viola, piano, and conducting.
Slatkin attended Indiana University (1962) and Los Angeles City College (1963), and studied with Walter Susskind, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, at the Aspen Music School in 1964. He then attended Juilliard School in New York, where he studied conducting with Jean Morel, graduating in 1968 with a B. Mus. degree. In that same year he became assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Susskind, and was promoted to associate conductor in 1971, associate principal conductor in 1974, and principal guest conductor in 1974. During this period he showed his career-long commitment to musical training for young people by founding the St. Louis Youth Symphony in 1969 and serving as its conductor.
In 1974 Slatkin made his European debut as a guest conductor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, and in 1978 he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., for the first time. He was artistic adviser to the New Orleans Philharmonic (1977-1980). In 1979 he founded the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest series and served as its director for ten years.
In 1979 he was appointed music director of the St. Louis Symphony, beginning a highly successful 17-year tenure that included five triumphal international tours and many recordings for the Vox, EMI, and RCA labels. With the St. Louis orchestra he conducted a notable series of discs of music by American symphonic masters, including Bernstein, Copland, Schuman, and Piston. He also has recorded the complete Vaughan Williams and Elgar symphonies, a series of Haydn symphonies, and works of Britten, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, among many others. He has also recorded with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra (London), the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, amassing well over a hundred releases. He has been nominated for Grammy awards more than 50 times and won four times.
In 1990 Slatkin became music director of the Great Woods Performing Arts Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, the summer home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. From 1992 to 1999 he served as director of the Cleveland Orchestra's Blossom Festival; the position was created so he could exercise his flair for creative and wide-ranging programming. In 1994 he was the artistic director of the Festival of American Music at London's South Bank Centre. In 1996 he took up the position of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and has led them in successful tours and recordings. In 2000 he was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He has continued his involvement with youth orchestras, and also conducts opera in many of the world's major houses and festivals.