Zinman uses imagination to attract real audiences

June 06, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

David Zinman says his greatest strength is his fantasy life. He's lucky that his fantasies can be fulfilled right where he is -- because Zinman, who concludes his eighth season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week with performances of the Verdi Requiem, recently signed a contract that will extend his tenure with the BSO until the spring of 1998.

"One of the great things about being here is that I can experiment and create my own world without stepping on too many toes," said the conductor in an interview in his home last week. "To create new kinds of concert experiences and let my fantasies roam free -- that's possible here, where it might not be ++ possible somewhere else."

The conductor's new contract makes it possible for him to realize more of those fantasies. Besides being permitted to take on the music directorship of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra and to take a sabbatical in 1995, the contract promises two extended tours (one of them of Asia) with the BSO in four years, additional recording opportunities, and -- something particularly close to the conductor's heart -- the chance to create new types of concert programs and broadcasts of the kind that have already made Zinman and the BSO trendsetters in the stodgy world of classical music.

Had the conductor not received such commitments, he says, he would have left. It may be an exaggeration to say that his performances of Verdi's great "Mass for the Dead" would have also signaled a requiem for the BSO, but there's no question that Zinman's departure would have created a crisis of confidence in the orchestra.

And there's no doubt that Zinman has moved the orchestra forward, not only improving its playing but also giving it a new kind of image through his imaginative programming and broadcasts. There are some traditionalists who call the diminutive conductor "Daffy David." But others say his off-the-wall approach to communicating to audiences may make him one of the saviors of a symphonic world that is in serious jeopardy because of its aging and diminishing audience.

"The industry is having to rethink its mission, and David is one of the best at addressing the fundamental issue of reaching new audiences," says Mark Volpe, the executive director of the Detroit Symphony, who once worked for the BSO. "In a world of conductors who are interested only in protecting their own interests, it's good to see a conductor who's interested in serving his community."

In his now much-imitated "Casual Concerts" and his newer "Uncommon Concerts" and in his broadcasts, Zinman has indulged a predilection for stand-up comedy that is modeled on the David Letterman show and "Saturday Night Live" and radio shows such as "A Prairie Home Companion." The conductor is not always as funny as he likes to think he is, but he's fearless and sometimes he scores bull's-eyes that leave symphonic audiences, accustomed as they are to the stuffy hauteur of most conductors, gasping.

Keyboard antics

There was the time he plopped his backside onto the keyboard to assist Emanuel Ax in the cadenza of the Grieg concerto; there were his radio dramas about Beethoven (filled with bathroom jokes and sounds to match) and about Brahms (the poor man enters analysis to find out why it took him more than 30 years to write his first symphony); and there were radio contests, such as the "sappy song" competition, which promised as a second prize three visits to Vanna White's dentist, "plus a tour of her fabulous wardrobe."

"I'm trying to make people say, 'What the hell was that?' " says the conductor in talking about his radio broadcasts and the informal concert series he's pioneered.

And his approach is clearly working. Last year the BSO's broadcasts were the most popular classical music programs that the American Public Radio network carried, outdistancing "St. Paul Sunday Morning" and the broadcasts of the more famous Pittsburgh Symphony.

"Of all conductors, David's the best in trying to make classical music accessible to people not familiar with it," says Wally Smith, general manager of KUSC-FM in Los Angeles. "He's willing to reach out to people and help them enjoy what they've always been told they're too dumb to enjoy. Concert halls are becoming geriatric gulags, and what David is doing is crucial to the development of new audiences."

Where do Zinman's ideas come from?

"I get them from the media, from watching TV, from radio -- from anything!" says the conductor. "After all, when you consider those two guys on 'Car Talk' -- who would have ever thought that people would want to listen to two guys talking about cars for an hour and just laugh inanely the whole time? If you're willing to let your fantasy roam free -- just to let yourself dream -- you can come up with a lot of great ideas."

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