Zinman decides to stay in Baltimore: Score one for BSO

December 26, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The biggest news in Baltimore's classical music community this past year was the decision by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director David Zinman to renew his contract and stay with the orchestra until at least the end of the decade. It was by no means a certainty that Zinman would remain, and there was a good deal of nail-biting at the BSO's offices on Cathedral Street. His departure could have led to a serious loss of confidence in the orchestra and thus adversely affected its fund-raising.

It was scarcely a secret that Zinman was getting a little antsy in Baltimore. His performances early in the 1992-1993 season, while generally good, were rarely as inspired as they had been in past seasons. The BSO had not been able to live up entirely to its commitments to Zinman to tour, to record and to broadcast -- and other orchestras, primarily Zurich's Tonhalle, were courting him.

It all worked out in the end. The orchestra committed itself to two major tours -- one of them in the Far East in the fall -- and to continued broadcasting and recording. Zinman did accept the Zurich job, but his duties in Switzerland will permit him to remain the BSO's music director and to spend about 15 weeks each season in Baltimore.

After the decision was announced last spring, the conductor seemed to relax; his performances became livelier -- a performance of Elgar's difficult Symphony No. 2 in April was particularly memorable, his all-Mozart programs this summer were superb and his all-Beethoven program a few weeks ago offered the most exciting Symphony No. 4 this listener has heard in concert.

Little of earth-shattering importance seemed to happen this year. The Baltimore Opera Company -- which experienced a contretemps on its board about the policies of general director Michael Harrison -- survived the resignation of several board members and went on to give creditable performances of its operas.

If it was not a particularly exciting year musically, at least it never became boring. It's interesting, however, that in considering the most memorable performances of the past 12 months, this listener discovered that a higher number than usual took place in Washington. A list of those events follows.

* Best orchestra-only performance: A tie between the reading at the Kennedy Center this fall of Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (formerly the Leningrad Philharmonic) and its principal associate conductor, Mariss Jansons, and the Zinman-BSO reading a few weeks later of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4.

Jansons' conducting of Rachmaninoff's greatest work for orchestra had the qualities that characterized the composer's own great performances on the piano: searing emotional intensity, scorched-earth tempos and, paradoxically, an element vTC of control that kept the thermostat at its highest point without permitting it to shatter.

Zinman's Beethoven Fourth showed just as much control. He led the piece at breakneck speed, without missing any important details or any of the composer's musical jokes. Even if one disagreed with his dry-point, faster-than-the-speed-of-light interpretation, no one could deny that it impressively demonstrated the brilliance of the ensemble Zinman has created in Baltimore.

* Best operatic performance: This one's easy: The Washington Opera's production of Leos Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen." Actually, this performance was borrowed from London's Covent Garden, where it created a sensation. It was similarly sensational at the Kennedy Center's Opera House. The composer's animal fable was incredibly touching -- this is some of Janacek's greatest music -- and the sets, lighting and staging were so imaginative that they made one think of Marc Chagall and Lewis Carroll. This production put to shame any opera staging -- including the Metropolitan Opera's much-ballyhooed "Ring" cycle -- this listener has seen. As a sheerly dramatic experience it was rivaled only by the Richard Burton performances (even on the nights he was sober) of "Hamlet" in New York in 1964 and by John Gielgud's one-man Shakespeare show, "The Ages of Man," on Broadway in the late 1950s.

* Best solo recital: This listener heard two great piano recitals this month -- by Alicia DeLarrocha at the Kennedy Center and by Richard Goode in Shriver Hall -- but the winner has to be Evgeny Kissin's all-Chopin program at the Kennedy Center in February. This young genius -- he was only 21 at the time -- plays Chopin with more sweep, more color and more imagination than anyone around. His performances of the F Minor Fantasy and B Minor Sonata left one convinced that they were the only way to play the music. His B-flat Minor Scherzo, which he played as an encore, combined Horowitzian brilliance with Rubinstein-like breadth and warmth.

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