The Conductors Circuit

December 20, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Nature abhors a vacuum, and it's a vacuum into which Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director David Zinman may soon be sucked.

Two events that occurred last month in Minneapolis and San Francisco may explain why. After nearly 10 years in their respective cities, San Francisco Symphony music director Herbert Blomstedt and Minnesota Orchestra music director Edo de Waart announced their resignations, effective at the end of the 1994-1995 season. And another major U.S. orchestra -- Washington's National Symphony -- has an opening at the end of the 1993-1994 season.

It's no secret to music insiders that Zinman has been unhappy with developments that he believes are detrimental to the BSO's artistic growth. He was upset when -- because of financial reasons -- the orchestra canceled two tours, one to Japan two years ago and one to Europe last year. He was unhappier still earlier this year when the orchestra canceled a recording for Telarc. After the 1994-1995 season, his contract expires, and it's hard not to imagine that he isn't thinking about these openings.

Orchestras everywhere face declining audiences, reduced charitable giving and increased expenses. One of the ways orchestras try to jump-start stalled engines is with new appointments. A few years back, when several of America's top orchestras appointed new music directors, they turned to middle-European conductors of a decidedly non-flashy cast -- Christoph von Dohnanyi in Cleveland, Kurt Masur in New York and Wolfgang Sawallisch in Philadelphia.

Made in the U.S.A.

Since America is in a "buy American" mood, it's possible that this time we will see more orchestras turning to American-born and -trained music directors. The A list of such conductors will surely include Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the London Symphony, Leonard Slatkin of the St. Louis Symphony, James )) Conlon, music director of the City of Cologne, and, of course, Zinman. What follows is a subjective and speculative scenario of what might happen:

* Zinman goes to Minnesota.

* Tilson Thomas goes to San Francisco.

* Conlon goes to Washington.

Making great music is at least 70 percent of what a music director does, but an important consideration is how much the conductor can do in other ways for the organization. The most famous example is George Szell's 24-year tenure in Cleveland, in which he worked tirelessly to create a great orchestra, making his name synonymous with Cleveland's in the process.

But in every orchestra where greatness has been achieved, there has been a synergy between conductor, orchestra and city. Some matches simply don't work. A prime example is that of former BSO music director Sergiu Comissiona in Houston. Comissiona, so successful in Baltimore, was a failure in Houston; he was followed by Christoph Eschenbach, whose strengths in Germanic repertory have led to what is so far a honeymoon with that city and its symphony.

Washington's symphony

Of all the orchestras mentioned, it's Washington's National Symphony that most needs an American conductor. James Wolfensohn, executive director of the Kennedy Center, has made much of the fact that the National needs to become the "national" symphony, and what better place for an American than the nation's capital? The National Symphony would be an attractive post. It plays in the Kennedy Center, one of the nation's premier showcases, and it has excellent players. After 17 years of its current music director, Mstislav Rostropovich -- an extraordinary interpreter of Russian repertory, but somewhat indulgent in matters of discipline and ensemble -- it could use disciplined craftsmen like Zinman, Tilson Thomas, Conlon or Slatkin.

But Washington is a party town and -- particularly in the wake of an international celebrity like Rostropovich -- it needs a glamorous figure. That rules out Zinman -- not least because he's not a party animal and because he's from the town that Washingtonians look down their noses at -- and it rules out Slatkin. That leaves Conlon and Tilson Thomas. But the latter, who has not appeared as guest with the National in several years, has a reputation for moodiness not much suited for party-going. Conlon is young, articulate and handsome; he's a ,, perfect music director for Washington in the Clinton-Gore years.

In Minnesota the chief candidates are probably Charles Dutoit, the music director of the Montreal Symphony, Slatkin and Valery Gergiev, the young music director of Russia's Kirov Orchestra, who has been making a strong impression in this country. The clearest indication that Zinman is ranked below these contenders is that, although Minnesota knew de Waart was about to resign, it appointed Zinman the music director of its summer festival. If Minneapolis wanted him for its main season, it probably would never have asked him to direct its summer season.

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