Christopher Seaman Keeps The Bso Up To Concert Pitch

December 02, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

At a Baltimore Symphony children's concert last week a huge birthday cake was brought out to celebrate the orchestra's 75th year.

As the children ooohed and aaahed, Christopher Seaman, the orchestra's resident conductor, couldn't resist a quip.

"Look! It's red around the edges and white on top -- the same color as my head. How tasteful!"

It was typical Seaman wit -- full of self-deprecating irony (the balding Seaman has a carrot-fringed tonsure) and sophisticated wordplay.

"But the kids loved it," says BSO principal bassoonist Philip Kolker. "So did their parents, and so did we!"

Of course, it helps that the 48-year-old British conductor, who is now in his third year at the BSO, also happens to be a tasteful interpreter and a talented one. That combination of gifts in addition to his capacity to inspire affection among his players has made Seaman -- in his way -- as respected and as valued a figure as the orchestra's music director, David Zinman.

Like anyone who commands extraordinary virtuosity, Seaman knows that he is a charming man and he quietly acknowledges that he uses that charm to solicit results. But when the subject of his affability comes up, a velvet curtain comes down.

"In a symphony orchestra, you're surrounded by a lot of expertise and talent," he says. "I treat musicians like the experts that they are and I just try to be myself."

Despite his modesty, the esteem in which Seaman is held is evident from the program change on this week's subscription concerts, which Seaman is conducting. He was scheduled to conduct Vaughan Williams' "London" Symphony. But then Telarc, the label for which the BSO makes most of its records, informed the orchestra that it wanted to record Elgar's Symphony No. 1 with Zinman and the BSO next year. (A previous all-Elgar album the BSO made for the label received high sales and warm reviews).

Since very few orchestras outside of Great Britain are familiar with Elgar's symphonies, that meant that the BSO had to begin performing the piece this year in preparation for those recording sessions. That Zinman asked Seaman to program the Elgar instead of the Vaughan Williams -- and thus entrust the preparation for so important a project to him -- speaks volumes about how much Zinman trusts and respects him.

"Knowing that Chris is here is a wonderful, secure feeling,Zinman says.

Seaman came here to become the orchestra's first resident conductor at Zinman's request in 1988. Other orchestra's have conductors-in-residence, but Seaman's residency is unique -- partly because of Seaman's prominence and partly because of the reponsibilities he is accorded with the BSO.

Zinman says he wanted a conductor-in-residence -- the title signifies more importance and prestige than associate conductor -- because of his experience as music director of the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic. He would leave the orchestra fine-tuned when he went off to guest conduct other orchestras only to return to find that the level of his own players had fallen. The problem was not so much with visiting guest conductors, but the fact that the bulk of the orchestra's activities during his absence -- pops concerts, runout concerts and children's concerts -- were left in the inexperienced hands of his associate conductor.

"If someone is not asking for the same level from the orchestra you're asking for, it's hard to bring the orchestra back to its previous level," Zinman says. "But if somone can ask for it, has the authority to ask for it and has the skill to get it, then when you come back, the level is there."

BSO executive director John Gidwitz calls Seaman's tenure here -- he devotes 6 to 8 weeks a year to the orchestra -- "a unique appointment."

"He is a fully accomplished conductor of immense ability, who would never make arrangments to spend a regular residence in a situation other than a music directorship," Gidwitz says.

This is not hyperbole. Conductors-in-residence at other orchestras fall into two patterns: They are either up-and-coming youngsters who seem on the verge of important careers -- such as Kenneth Jean at the Chicago Symphony -- or older men who have been on the scene for a long time and who are no longer expected to set the world on fire.

Seaman is regarded as one of the most prominent younger conductors in his own country -- he has been music director of both the Scottish BBC Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia -- and guest conducts regularly with such important American orchestras as the Minnesota Orchestra, the Houston Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic.

"He touches every program we have," Gidwitz says. "Not just classical subscription concerts but pops and tiny tots concerts." What this means, Gidwitz says, is that in concerts in which an orchestra's musical interest is ordinarily allowed to deteriorate, the BSO players get the mature leadership of a conductor they can respect and from whom they can learn.

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