David Zinman mounts podium for 10th year conducting BSO

September 09, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

David Zinman stepped onto the podium last Tuesday, gave a brisk good morning to the musicians, and with two strokes began his 10th year as musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Newly bearded and just back from an eight-month sabbatical, he looked tan and fit, but the conductor and his players seemed edgy. The gathering was their first regular season rehearsal together since December -- and musicians and maestro knew their beautiful music could abruptly fall silent.

Tonight, the BSO celebrates Mr. Zinman's anniversary as musical director with a fund-raising gala and concert. On Thursday, its 1995-1996 season opens.

But on Saturday, the musicians' two-year contract will expire, and management is searching for new ways to offset the symphony's annual debt -- which has built to $2.5 million. Hinging on both may be the fate of another tour tentatively set for fall 1997 that would capitalize on the publicity that followed last season's tour of east Asia.

It is a critical juncture for the BSO -- and for the man who has made it a world-renowned symphony.

"We have a question of what kind of orchestra we want to be: if we want to be an orchestra with local impact or if we want to be an orchestra of international caliber," says John Gidwitz, executive director.

"If we want to be an orchestra of international caliber, then we have to do recordings and tours and have a great conductor. But if you are going to be a orchestra of local impact, you aren't going to have a director of David Zinman's caliber."

The BSO is Mr. Zinman's as the Brandenburg Concertos are Bach's. BSO recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma have won three Grammys. Its radio series is broadcast on 180 stations nationwide. And it has toured both U.S. coasts, Europe and east Asia with critical success.

In the view of critics, guest soloists, record producers and orchestra members, David Zinman has brought the BSO -- in a decade's time -- to a higher peak of artistry.

"Our symphony went to Japan after the Baltimore tour, and I heard from our Japanese manager and others that the BSO was the big surprise of the year: They played terrifically, and the audiences loved them," says Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony.

The BSO can hardly afford a repeat of the 1987-1988 contract talks, which resulted in a bitter, six-month strike. Then, like now, the symphony was riding high after an international tour, in that ,, case 14 European cities. After the strike, morale plummeted, fund-raising slowed, a tour was postponed and momentum faltered.

The last contract, negotiated in 1992, was approached cautiously, with both sides refusing to describe the talks to the news media. They are following that strategy this year, too.

Even Mr. Zinman, who is neither management nor orchestral player, refused to be interviewed for fear that any comments could exacerbate tensions. And, though his contract runs through the 1997-1998 season, the outcome of these negotiations will affect his future as much as the symphony's.

A new generation

Called "David" by the musicians -- not "maestro," not even "Mr. Zinman" -- the New York native represents a new generation of conductor.

Tradition has long held that since classical music has European roots, so must its conductors. But Mr. Zinman and others, among them Leonard Slatkin of Washington's National Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, are making a name for American-born conductors.

Balding and so short that one of the most frequently asked

questions at the box office has to do with his height, Mr. Zinman seems a Superball of energy. He has worked to attract new, younger audiences by making concerts more accessible. (His Saturday morning "Casual Concerts," in which he talks to audience members and encourages questions, are being imitated nationwide.) And he has invigorated the symphony's repertoire by programming the work of young American composers.

In this, his American roots work to his advantage. He is, after all, a guy who grew up in the Bronx, who did stand-up comedy while in college, and who is into e-mail and baseball. As a conductor, he is equally comfortable collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma or wearing a funny hat while conducting a waltz -- if that's what it takes to engage his listeners.

"He is the only conductor that I know, the only world-famous conductor, whom you can go to the movies with," says Michael Daugherty, whose "Metropolis Symphony," based upon DC Comics' Superman, was recorded by the BSO and will be released on the Sony Classical label. "He once said to me that a composer should write about whatever inspires him, be it Mozart or Jayne Mansfield."

But before Mr. Zinman could build his reputation in the United States, he had to build it in Europe. Under Pierre Monteux's wing, the Oberlin College graduate began conducting rehearsals the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s.

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