Low notes and some highs

Classical Music

December 29, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

This has been a dispiriting year for classical music lovers.

In September, David Zinman announced he will not renew his contract as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra after next season, thus ending an enormously successful 13-year partnership and leaving the orchestra's future in doubt.

The national music scene has been equally grim: Several important orchestras -- Philadelphia, San Francisco and Atlanta -- have gone on strike; and because of sharply falling sales, death knells have been sounding for the classical record industry.

Concert halls often appeared less than two-thirds filled. While the audience for classical music may not have become smaller, it has been spread dangerously thin. For the past several years, orchestras have been forced to increase performances beyond what the market can bear to meet their ever-expanding costs.

Negative synergy

The musicians of America's major orchestras, the best paid in the world, are reluctant to recognize that their salaries cannot continue to increase at the pace of the last 30 years. And because part of their income -- at least at the big orchestras -- has traditionally come from recording, the travails of the record industry have been reflected in the contracts symphony musicians have been offered by their managements. Musicians' salaries make American orchestras the most expensive to record. To reduce costs, record companies have dropped recording commitments to American orchestras in favor of those in Europe. A sort of negative synergy has been at work.

It was clearly working in Zinman's decision to leave Baltimore. The reason he gave was a desire for a change: He wanted more opportunities to teach young musicians, such as those at the Aspen Music Festival, where he is now music director, and to write.

What he didn't say -- publicly, at least -- was that he had tired of fighting the battles necessary in the United States, not only to make an orchestra better, but also to maintain it at peak level. Creating a first-class orchestra requires touring and recording. In America, these activities aren't as feasible as they once were or, apparently, still are in Europe, where Zinman continues as music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra.

The future, however, may be brighter than it seems. The Baltimore Symphony's management has embarked on a major fund drive, and it appears determined to bring an important conductor here. And the biggest enticement of all may be the superb orchestra Zinman will leave behind.

Predictions of the demise of the classical record industry may also be premature. The market was artificially inflated in the second half of the 1980s, when the introduction of CDs persuaded many music lovers to replace their entire LP libraries. And while the major labels are suffering setbacks, anecdotal evidence from several classical record stores suggests that records on the smaller independent labels are selling well.

One reason is that the independents, which frequently issue pirated off-the-air performances by major conductors and instrumentalists of the past, offer the buyer greatness. This is often not the case with the major labels. Orchestras may be better than ever, but -- with the possible exception of James Levine and the reclusive Carlos Kleiber -- no living conductor matches the stature of the late Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein, let alone that of the long-departed Wilhelm Furtwangler or Arturo Toscanini. That the big companies have no trouble selling records by instrumentalists such as Evgeny Kissin and Yo-Yo Ma suggests there is still a market for classical records -- as long as they offer performances with something to say.

Operatic exuberance

If audiences for symphonic and chamber music are not growing, those for opera are. Attendance at opera houses, which has been increasing since the introduction of super-titles a decade ago, grew by 10 percent in the 1995-1996 season. The Baltimore Opera Company, while continuing to sell out at the Lyric Opera House, has been increasing the number of its performances. Moreover, the Washington Opera has outgrown the Kennedy Center. It is raising $100 million to build its own opera house, where it will be able to increase the number of its performances to more than 100 each season from the current 70.

And if we shut out all the shouting about the imminent death of classical music and focus on what we actually heard, the past 12 months have been musically memorable. Zinman's concerts this season, particularly three all-Beethoven programs in November, may have been his best ever. Moreover, the best orchestral performance this listener heard anywhere this year was the unforgettable "Symphonie Fantastique" led last winter by BSO guest conductor Mariss Janssons.

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