Bowing Out Analysis: David Zinman will leave the Baltimore Symphony much better than he found it. The obvious question, of course, is who can replace him.

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

In Tuesday's articles about the resignation of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor David Zinman, two photo captions contained incorrect information. In one, Harvey M. Meyerhoff was misidentified; in the other, the caption should have referred to Zinman's return from a sabbatical in September 1995.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In the aftermath of David Zinman's resignation yesterday as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, there are two ways to think about the future of the orchestra.

Optimists will point out how attractive an ensemble he will leave behind in June 1998. Pessimists will worry about how hard it will be to find a conductor of his stature, and how easy it would be for the symphony to go downhill.


There are reasonable people in both the Baltimore Symphony and its audience who may not like the way Zinman conducts. One would have to be deaf, however, not to hear his superb work as an orchestra builder.

When Zinman arrived in the fall of 1985, he inherited an orchestra whose previous music director, Sergiu Comissiona, had given it a flair for color in certain French and Russian pieces, but not in the Austro-Germanic repertory that is central to classical music. The BSO, as its own musicians can attest, did not have the ability to play with tight rhythm and precision.

Without crushing its spirit, Zinman was able to create an orchestra that played on the beat, was capable of expressing the nuances that separate Wagner from Beethoven and thought of itself (and made music as) an ensemble with a unified voice.

Zinman was able to accomplish this partly because he has a fine ear and a beat that is clear and easy to follow, and partly because he is a great teacher. Zinman's inspiration was to realize that if the symphony could learn to play Beethoven, with its demands for stylistic distinction and rigorous precision, it could learn to play anything.

Beethoven is the one composer whom musicians never seem to tire of performing and whose music audiences enjoy hearing again and again. For years, Meyerhoff Hall audiences heard interpretations of the Beethoven symphonies that some listeners considered weird, infuriating and even ugly -- Zinman himself called them his "science-fiction Beethovens" -- but that nobody considered boring.

The benefits to the orchestra became obvious in other kinds of music. The symphony began to play Debussy and Ravel with precision as well as color. It confidently handled behemoths, such as the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, that once seemed beyond its technical capacity. And it acquired the versatility to tackle any kind of music, whatever the period.

Zinman helped the orchestra in other ways, too. A few conductors of his generation may be as fine musically, but there are far fewer whom musicians like as much and whom they find as much fun to spend time with. Over the years, Zinman developed a cadre of close friends -- the violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the pianist Radu Lupu and the flutist James Galway -- whose affection for the conductor made them willing to tour with the orchestra and whose celebrity status made it possible for the Baltimore Symphony's management to make those tours attractive to presenters.

The tours

The orchestra's tours under Zinman mark one of his chief contributions. Under Comissiona, the orchestra had briefly visited Mexico, performed in Carnegie Hall a few times and toured Europe, though not in first-class fashion.

Zinman had the strength to push -- in financially troubled times that made his board understandably somewhat reluctant -- for the money necessary for several high-profile tours that took the symphony throughout the United States and to the most prominent venues for classical music in Europe and the Far East.

Zinman also made it possible for the orchestra to make more than 20 CDs -- and win three Grammys -- and to create a much-imitated Casual Concert broadcast series now carried by more than 180 stations.

The Baltimore Symphony now has such stature that it is regularly mentioned alongside some of America's finest orchestras -- the Pittsburgh Symphony or the Detroit Symphony, for example. No one would have dreamed of such comparisons when Zinman arrived 11 years ago.

No guarantees

While the orchestra's reputation has never been better, there is no guarantee that the symphony will be able to find a successor of Zinman's caliber.

For one thing, there are not many genuinely first-class, experienced conductors available, and two of the best, Mariss Jansons and Hans Vonk, recently were snapped up by the Pittsburgh and St. Louis symphonies, respectively.

It is questionable whether any distinguished European conductor would want to commit himself to the grunt work that has exhausted Zinman and that would be necessary to take the symphony to a higher level.

In America, unlike Europe, conductors have considerable responsibilities for management and fund-raising.

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