Looking Backward, Striding Forward

February 10, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Anniversaries are times to look forward, to look backward and to take stock. David Zinman was doing all of these things the other day as he talked about tomorrow night's concert in Meyerhoff Hall that marks the 75th birthday of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"It's one which I would never give, but it was very typical of those days," the BSO's music director says of the anniversary program, which duplicates the one the orchestra gave at its first concert exactly 75 years ago. The program consists of the Beethoven Symphony No. 8, Wagner's "Tannhaueser" Overture and anumber of arias for soprano and orchestra that includes the once very famous and now much-parodied "Bell Song" from Delibes' "Lakme."

"You mean you've never heard it?" Zinman asks incredulously, thereupon launching into a flight of falsetto. "I remember Lily Pons -- looking just like Imogene Coca -- singing it once on the 'Bell Telephone Hour.' This concert will be a nostalgic look backward."

The reason that the BSO played the Eighth Symphony 75 years ago instead of one of Beethoven's larger, more popular ones is that the orchestra had only about 50 players. Today's BSO has a roster of 96 full-time players. And what Zinman would most like to do in the next few years as music director is increase the orchestra's size by 10 additional musicians, two each in the five string sections.

"Size doesn't automatically mean excellence, but it helps," the conductor says. "With an orchestra of that size, making a beautiful lush sound is not a chore but comes automatically. Realizing that goal depends on the financial situation in the next few years.

"Artistically, we've already made great strides -- each year the ensemble gets better and each year it becomes easier for me to conduct this orchestra. If the recession doesn't take too big a bite out of us, we'll make even greater strides."

The orchestra's first conductor, Gustave Strube, would have been flabbergasted by the quality of today's BSO. The orchestra that performed at the Lyric Theatre 75 years ago was founded in 1916 as a municipal orchestra -- essentially a pick-up orchestra, supported entirely by taxpayers' money, that gave a handful of concerts each year and whose quality was much derided. A Sun editorial from the early 1940s called the BSO "a fourth-class pick-up orchestra which is gathered after Christmas each year, put through a few rehearsals and pushed out on the stage of the Lyric."

That orchestra died in early 1942 only to be resurrected in much-improved guise the following season by Reginald Stewart, the fine conductor-pianist who was the director of the Peabody Conservatory. After Stewart left the orchestra in 1952, the BSO went into a long sleep that ended in 1969 when Sergiu Comissiona became music director. Comissiona was to take the orchestra on its first European tour, make regular visits to Carnegie Hall and make the BSO's first records. Zinman's music directorship has given the BSO an even larger profile. The orchestra has made more records and logged more touring miles in the last fouryears than its previous 70 years combined. As the BSO has flourished, so has Zinman.

While he spends more than 20 weeks conducting the BSO each season, Zinman's guest conducting has assumed a larger dimension than ever before. Whereas in past years he flitted from city to city and from continent to continent, he now has changed the nature of his guest conducting.

"I'm doing more with fewer orchestras," the conductor says. "This season and next season, I'm spending four weeks with the San Francisco Symphony, where I'm inaugurating a Beethoven festival, and two weeks each with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's nice when you have the familiarity with an orchestra that an extended relationship brings. It enables you to do more artistically."

Zinman also remains active in the recording studios. Last week his recording with the orchestra of Schumann's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 were issued by Telarc; earlier this year he and the BSO recorded Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," and next year they will record Elgar's Symphony No. 1 and Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, in addition to several Stravinsky ballet scores, all for the same label. And he has records planned with other orchestras for other labels.

But wherever he travels, he is identified with the Baltimore Symphony.

"People come backstage and talk about the BSO," Zinman says. " 'They've come a long way' -- that's what everyone says. Many of our concerts are broadcast in cities where I guest conduct, and our records seem to have become quite popular.

"People just walk up and say how beautiful our orchestra sounds.

Tickets Available

Tickets, ranging in price from 75 cents (for people 75 or older) to $27.50, are still available at the Meyerhoff box office for tomorrow night's program. The BSO and soprano soloist Harolyn Blackwell will perform works by Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Mozart and others tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Call 783-8000 for more information.

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