Musical Tips of a Weekend Maestro

TIM BAKER

September 16, 1991|By TIM BAKER

You probably haven't heard about it, but on weekends I frequently perform as a guest conductor for different symphony orchestras from around the world.

This summer I led the London Symphony Orchestra through Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 with the late Rudolph Serkin at the keyboard. Last Saturday morning I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic's performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. I'm looking forward to leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next month in a performance of the works of the young American composer, Michael Torke.

I've also done Gershwin and jazz. In fact, I have a wide artistic range. But geographical limitations severely restrict my audience.

You see, I hold all of my concerts in my living room. I conduct with an old wand that I rescued from my son's broken magic set. I stand beside the sofa directly in front of the stereo speakers. I turn the volume up and practice the sweeping flourish with which David Zinman dramatizes a concluding crescendo.

Unfortunately, I suffer indignities which my fellow maestros don't have to endure. Just as I begin the fourth movement's sublime chorale, my 12-year old daughter comes in to complain: ''Really, Dad! Will you puleeze turn that stuff down?''

Interruptions don't bother me, though. A quick flip of a switch resets my CD player. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw and I together pick up with the Ninth Symphony right where we left off.

The brilliance with which I conduct my CD collection, however, doesn't satisfy me. I'm a regular at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Harborplace and the new baseball stadium may receive much more publicity. But, for my money, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is the most triumphant single expression of this city's resurgence.

In the late 1970s, Sergiu Comissiona put the BSO on the map. The orchestra really took off when Mr. Zinman took over in 1985. A heroic $40 million capital drive provided the financial foundation.

Mr. Zinman brought with him a commitment to the fundamentals of orchestra building, a sense of humor, and a love of 20th-century music, especially contemporary American pieces. His enthusiasm for young American composers has brought the BSO national attention for its imaginative and innovative programs.

Symphony orchestras everywhere confront the problem of aging audiences. A stale repertoire of old, familiar European masterpieces bores many young adults. But the BSO's programs provide plenty of excitement. Try one of the Saturday morning Casual Series. They offer music with a running commentary designed for adults.

This year you can also buy a package of three or four concerts grouped together under headings like ''Danube Dudes,'' or ''I Got Rhythm,'' or ''Incurable Romantics,'' like me. In all, the BSO now offers 53 combinations. It's the perfect way to see how you like the orchestra. I'll bet you'll come back again and again. More than 80 percent of those of us with season tickets renew them every year.

I always sit in the first row. From there you can see, as well as hear, this orchestra's virtuosity. The ardent responsiveness of the cellist Mihaly Virizlay contrasts with the restrained intensity of Chang Woo Lee who sits next to him. The violinists Mari Matsumoto and Richard Field concentrate so seriously that they never show any emotion. Others are more demonstrative. Concertmaster Herbert Greenberg always beams enthusiastically. Violinist Rebecca Stepleton's vibrant smile burst out right in the middle of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In one way or another all their facial expressions reveal how much they care about their music.

This orchestra sings for the substantial public support it receives. It will put on 237 performances this season, including 12 concerts for symphony societies in the counties, which have so far maintained their financial support. The city has actually increased its contribution. This year's annual fund-raising drive amassed $2.5 million, up from $1.3 million in 1986. But the orchestra had to cancel its planned European tour for lack of corporate support due to the recession.

The BSO will still have a growing year. National Public Radio will carry 13 concerts on 110 stations across the country. This fall Mr. Zinman and the orchestra will record works of Samuel Barber, Elgar and Rachmaninov. Their recent recording of Michael Torke's music will be performed in my living room as soon as it's released in October.

Critical acclaim has begun to build. ''Fresh, exciting and . . . provocative,'' says the New York Times. ''Perfection,'' echoes the Berlin Neue Deutschland. ''Remarkable,'' cries The New Yorker. The Washington Post hailed the BSO's performance of Beethoven's ''Eroica'' at Wolf Trap this summer as ''the most moving, noble playing . . . heard in a long time.''

The San Francisco Examiner summed it up: ''A major reassessment of the American orchestral hierarchy may be in order.'' We're already better than the National Symphony in Washington. Move over Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The BSO's success emphasizes an important lesson for this region. Even in a time of fiscal stringency, we should continue to invest in excellence. It makes economic sense. In the ferocious international competition for economically relevant brainpower, a world-class symphony orchestra represents a major magnet. It helps attract doctors from Stanford, computer jocks from MIT, and geneticists from N.I.H., none of whom want to live and work in a cultural backwater.

If we continue to give the BSO the support it needs, Mr. Zinman and his musicians will soon be hailed as one of the world's finest symphony orchestras. Take it from me. I know what I'm talking about. I've conducted them all.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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