A bombshell for the BSO To the rescue: Marvin Hamlisch and Pinchas Zukerman come aboard to pump life into weak series.

January 23, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave itself a double-barreled shot in the arm yesterday with the appointments of conductor-composer Marvin Hamlisch and violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman to head up two of the orchestra's faltering series.

Hamlisch, 51, was named BSO principal pops conductor, while Zukerman was named Summer MusicFest artistic director.

The orchestra hopes Hamlisch's appointment will revive its floundering Super Pops Series. Zukerman's appointment is expected to help the BSO's summer season, which has lost its sense of purpose and suffered stagnant ticket sales ever since BSO music director David Zinman became director of the Minnesota Orchestra's summer series two seasons ago. While the cost of putting on each series has dramatically increased in the last few years, ticket sales have remained at the same levels, resulting in net losses for the BSO.

"Both Marvin and Pinky appeal to an unusually wide spectrum of people," said BSO executive director John Gidwitz after the press conference at which the announcements were made. "Both these guys give their whole selves to whatever they do and get deeply involved in the communities in which they work. They represent investments in the future that will bring increases in ticket sales and fund-raising."

Hamlisch -- the winner of three Oscars, four Grammys, two Emmys, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize (for "A Chorus Line") -- be-gins his tenure next season. Zukerman, 48, among the world's three or four most popular classical instrumentalists for almost three decades, assumes his post this summer.

Pops series traditionally are moneymakers that help support an orchestra's "serious" activities. But for the last two seasons, the BSO's pops series, formerly a gold mine, has begun to lose money.

With the appointment of Hamlisch, the BSO joins a small group of orchestras -- the most successful are the Boston Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony -- that have music directors for their pops as well as their classical activities.

When the Pittsburgh Symphony appointed Hamlisch as pops director two seasons ago, he turned what was a failing operation into a successful one. His thematic programming -- concerts that concentrate primarily on film music, on jazz or even on country and western themes -- has attracted national programming. The orchestra now has a PBS contract that calls for three television broadcasts each year of Hamlisch's concerts, and PBS has made a film that will be used this season on all PBS stations during fund-raising.

In the coming year, Hamlisch will even take the Pittsburgh Symphony on a national tour, accompanying pop diva Linda Ronstadt.

"Every community has different needs, but I think I am coming here as a musician who knows how to program," Hamlisch said yesterday. "I don't want to lose any of the BSO's traditional pops subscribers, but I think there are certain stars -- Linda Ronstadt is one and James Taylor and Art Garfunkel are others -- that can bring in younger subscribers, while continuing to attract the traditional audience. Next season I only get my feet wet -- I will conduct only two concerts and the season is one I have inherited. But after that . . . watch out!"

Zukerman's plans for the BSO's summer season are no less ambitious. He plans to use BSO concerts as an educational as well as financial resource, using video conferencing as an inexpensive way of bringing the the orchestra's concerts into rooms as nearby as Wilmington, Del., or as far away as Nome or Seoul.

"I don't believe in gimmicks," Zukerman said yesterday, "but I think technology is here to enhance what we are as human beings."

As to his programming, Zukerman said he has no specific ideas yet. He said he expects to be featured not only as a conductor, but also as a violin and viola soloist and as a chamber music player.

"I'll do what I do best," Zukerman said yesterday, "and do the best I can."

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