BSO premieres 3 concertos for 2 left hands Making music: David Zinman's idea for a complicated piano work seemed to be out in left field but two world-class players may make a winner out of it.

April 10, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If David Zinman is a flake, he's also a public relations genius.

Consider the latest idea from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor whose wacky "casual concerts" have put Beethoven in the bathroom, Brahms on the shrink's couch and Zinman's posterior on a piano keyboard.

It is a piece that gives his orchestra not one but three world premieres in a single week -- two piano concertos written for left-hand virtuosos Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman which, when played together, create a third for two left hands.

Composer William Bolcom calls the entire work "Gaea" -- the Greek word for the Earth -- and says it fits together "like a giant jigsaw puzzle."

The pieces will begin coming together Thursday evening when Fleisher, Zinman and a chamber orchestra perform the premiere of Bolcom's Concerto No. 2 for Piano Left Hand.

Friday evening will feature Graffman, Zinman and another chamber orchestra in the premiere of the composer's Concerto No. 1 for Piano Left Hand.

And on Saturday, Fleisher, Graffman and their respective chamber orchestras -- the full BSO -- perform the premiere of Bolcom's Concerto No. 3 for Two Pianos Left Hand.

The timing of "Gaea's" premiere could not be better, capitalizing as it does on excitement about Fleisher returning to two-hand playing after years of being sidelined by a debilitating injury to his right hand.

By the time "Gaea" debuts in Carnegie Hall April 28, the BSO will have gotten more national attention than it has for all its previous commissions, trips abroad and radio programs combined. The story of Fleisher and "Gaea" will have been reported everywhere from the New York Times and Time magazine to "Dateline" and National Public Radio.

Yet, when Zinman first began proposing what is likely to result in a triumph for the orchestra, people weren't exactly receptive.

"I told him he was insane and to forget it," says Bolcom.

"I thought he was crazy," says Graffman.

"I didn't know what to say," says BSO executive director John Gidwitz.

Only one person seemed to like the idea.

"I thought it would be great fun," says Fleisher.

"No one has ever accused Leon of being down-to-earth," Graffman says of his oldest, dearest friend. "But I thought, 'If Leon's willing, I'll go along' -- thinking there was no way it would ever happen."

But any kid who grew up in the Bronx, enduring beatings because he carried a violin case, grows up to be a stubborn man, and David Zinman is no exception. His idea for what became "Gaea" goes back more than 10 years -- to 1983, when he decided to leave the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic Orchestra to become music director of the BSO.

The conductor knew that he was going to the home base of Fleisher, whose celebrated two-handed performing career had flamed out spectacularly because of muscular problems 20 years earlier. Zinman also knew that the right-handed problems of both Fleisher and Graffman, who had recently been forced to retire from an equally distinguished two-handed career because of a similar affliction, had been much in the news.

"I thought it would be wonderful to have a double left-hand concerto for the two of them," Zinman says. "And I was also intrigued with the idea of creating two separate concertos for each of them that would together make the double concerto. Darius Milhaud had written two string quartets that combined into an octet, so there was a precedent."

It was that precedent that made Zinman seek out Bolcom, who had been Milhaud's student. Not only did Zinman like Bolcom's music, audiences liked it, too. For several decades, Bolcom been a maverick who broke down distinctions between popular and serious music and was as comfortable with Eubie Blake and Chuck Berry as with Beethoven and Brahms.

He also happened to be a terrific pianist, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument is displayed in his "12 New Etudes for Piano," which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize and which number among the most significant contributions to the genre since the "12 Etudes" of Debussy in 1915.

"If anyone had the chops to write the piece, Bill did," Zinman says.

The reluctant composer

"I was afraid I was being asked to participate in a stunt," Bolcom says. "You are thrown cute ideas by all kinds of people, who think 'Wouldn't it be fun to try such and such?' and think that way because they don't write music themselves.

"But what's the meaning of doing it again if Milhaud had done it before -- especially because doing it with two pianos and two different orchestras with different instrumentation would make it infinitely more difficult. If there wasn't spiritual meaning, writing the piece was going to be nothing more than the challenge of heavy lifting. And I didn't want to have to find that spiritual meaning; it had to find me."

It found him -- in the form of an ecological metaphor.

"Whatever this piece means, it has to do with making the world whole," Bolcom says.

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