Indianapolis means automobile racing to most people, except Baltimore Colts fans who think of it for other reasons. But if Raymond Leppard has his way, it will also mean classical music. The distinguished 63-year-old British music director of the Indianapolis Symphony, who guest conducts the Baltimore Symphony in a program of Elgar, Britten and Mendelssohn tonight and tomorrow in Meyerhoff Hall, sings the praises of his orchestra.
"What is wonderful about your orchestra here in Baltimore is wonderful about ours," says Leppard, a cheerful, voluble and handsomely graying man who looks more like a matinee idol than a classical musician. "We're a flourishing orchestra very much on the way up, supported by a city that is thrilled to have it. And people should be thrilled, shouldn't they? There are so many wonderful American orchestras -- more in our country than in any other -- and so many of them are in trouble."
Leppard's use of "our country" is interesting. Though still a British citizen -- he is a sure bet for a knighthood -- he has lived here for more than 12 years. He has residences in both Connecticut -- "New York has gotten crummy," he says -- and Indianapolis and loves the United States with the enthusiasm that only immigrants seem to summon.
While earlier generations of immigrants came to this country to escape tyranny and poverty, Leppard came chiefly to escape the confinement of the Baroque music with which he was largely identified in Europe. Leppard was one of the founders of the English Chamber Orchestra, the man who put the neglected operas of such composers as Cavalli and Monteverdi on the map and one of the conductors who was chiefly responsible for creating today's large and enthusiastic audience for early music. But by the end of the 1970s, he had become tired of that phase of his career.
"I had a wonderful time and I don't regret any of it," he says. "But I no longer get involved in earlier music at all. It's important to move on and do other things in life."
Leppard was able to capitalize on his enormous reputation -- his household-word status is based on a distinguished discography that numbers in the hundreds -- to secure several prestigious guest-conducting appointments with major American orchestras. Unlike several other conductors who became famous for their efforts to conduct chamber-orchestra repertory, however, it became obvious quickly that Leppard really could conduct. He could use rehearsal time efficiently, and he had the technique to convey what he wanted to players. He became the principal guest conductor of the St. Louis Orchestra -- a position that both parties ended regretfully last year -- and in 1986 (after a long courtship) he finally accepted Indianapolis' offer.
"Although some of my highfalutin friends in the East and on the other side of the Atlantic were a little horrified that I went to Indianapolis, I have loved every minute of it," Leppard says. "I love the city and I love the enthusiasm of its people. I've even gone to a few basketball games and, I must say, I like them, too!"