For Zinman and the BSO, the best keeps on coming

September 21, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC bHC BbA

When the Baltimore Symphony announced music director David Zinman's resignation almost two weeks ago, it forgot to tell us that Zinman's best was still to come.

It could be merely my imagination, but it seemed last week -- in the conductor's first program of the 1996-97 season and the first since the announcement -- that Zinman led his best-ever performances of Brahms' Violin Concerto and Mendelssohn's incidental music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Then last night at Meyerhoff Hall, lightning struck again: performances of Schumann's "Manfred" Overture, Brahms' "Haydn" Variations and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony that were perhaps the finest of these pieces -- staples in the conductor's repertory -- I have heard from Zinman in more than 24 years of regularly attending his concerts.

What seemed special about last night's performances, as it did about last week's, was a sense of relaxation -- which is not to say that they were diffident. It is more the case that the conductor, after 11 years in which he has worked hard to improve the orchestra's standard of playing, seems able to enjoy the wonderful instrument he has created and to concentrate more ** fully than ever before upon making music.

Schumann's "Manfred" Overture received a reading that achieved an almost ideal balance between discipline and inspiration. The conductor's tempos had an elasticity that allowed him to explore both the composer's inward lyricism and his extroverted self-dramatization. The playing of the orchestra was both refined and sonorous; the strings shined and the brass playing was powerful.

The orchestra's fine playing continued in a performance of Brahms' "Haydn" Variations, in which Zinman strongly characterized individual variations, showed a masterly control of light and shade, and pointed up details in an affectionate and cheerful manner that left a listener with a smile on his face.

But the best of the evening may have come in the Dvorak symphony. The outer movements were powerful and dramatic, and the scherzo crisp and energetic. But it was the slow movement that will be particularly hard to forget.

There was, of course, some gorgeous playing -- particularly from Keith Kummer, whose exquisitely beautiful English horn solo was wonderfully supported by the orchestra's strings. But what was most memorable was the tenderness with which Zinman caressed the phrases and the affecting way he brought the movement to its conclusion -- with an almost inspired sense of hesitation that suggested his reluctance to let so beautiful a moment pass.

The program will be repeated tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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