Zinman storms classical, pop charts BSO conductor spans genres in Britain

February 13, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The distance from Baltimore to London is great, but it may not equal the chasm that yawns between the official popular and classical music charts in this country, documents from two separate worlds and cultures if there ever were.

So how did Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Director David Zinman span the gap?

Mr. Zinman's recording with the London Sinfonietta of Heinryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 is right up there on this week's pop chart, formally known as the Top 75 Artists' Albums chart.

It's No. 6 and climbing.

The album is also No. 1 on the classical music chart, and is selling about 7,000 copies a day. It has already sold more 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom. The most recent Billboard top classical albums chart ranked the album No. 5 in the United States.

Why is this happening? What is so special about this?

Mr. Zinman is a talented conductor, as everybody in Baltimore knows, but classical compact discs do not often sell to consumers of popular music. And certainly not the way this one is selling.

"It's totally unprecedented," said Harriet Capaldi, a spokesman for the distributors of the Nonsuch label in the United Kingdom, under which the Zinman/Gorecki collaboration was carried out.

"This is the first time. Nothing seems to have captured the public's imagination like this. All other [classical] records that made it onto the pop charts have been artist-driven, featuring people like [British violinist] Nigel Kennedy or [singer Luciano] Pavarotti," said Ms. Capaldi.

"This one," she said, "made it on its own merits."

She described it as a piece of music written by an obscure contemporary Polish composer from the industrial town of Katowice, performed by a not-very-famous orchestra, directed by a conductor who is not exactly a household name in Britain, and featuring an American soprano, Dawn Upshaw, who is equally unfamous, at least here.

But, the whole thing, taken together, seems to have cast a kind of spell in this country.

"There is something in this music that makes people feel they want to have it," said Ms. Capaldi. "It is a rather somber work, haunting, with an absolutely enchanting soprano line floating in over top of the music."

"When people hear it played in music stores they turn around. It stops them in their tracks."

Mr. Zinman, reached in Baltimore, said he had heard the good news. "I understand that the classical radio station -- the most popular commercial classical radio station over there -- plays it every day.

"The last time I heard, it was at No. 10. Now it's a No. 6," he said. "I don't know how it happened. . . . It's strange, it appeals to people who listen to pop music and to people who listen to classical music."

The Gorecki No. 3 is a symphony of 55 minutes duration, written in 1976 by the reclusive Mr. Gorecki for soprano, strings and piano. Clare Collins of the national radio station Classic FM described its style as "holy minimalism."

The work is subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Sorrows," and incorporates 15th-century Polish prayers, folk songs and words taken from the prison wall of the Gestapo headquarters in Zakopne, inscribed in 1944 by an 18-year-old prisoner named Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna, as a farewell to her mother:

No, Mother, do not weep, Most chaste Queen of Heaven, Support me always. The work has had a brief popular exposure before. It was used about five years ago as background music for a film called "The Police," directed by the French actor Gerard Depardieu.

But the current explosion of popularity is probably owed to the several presenters and disc jockeys of Classic FM, one of Britain's newest and most popular radio stations.

Principal among these promoters were Robert Cowan and Keith Shadwick. These two conduct a request show every Friday evening and one day in September they selected the Zinman/Gorecki recording as their "sure shot" of the week. They simply felt it was an album that would do well, and to help it along they played it over and over.

Baltimoreans will have a chance to hear Mr. Zinman conducting the piece at the beginning of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's next season. Mr. Zinman said he will conduct the piece in Minnesota and a documentary about the piece is scheduled to be filmed next year.

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