Conductor likes music as perfect as possible Music: In rehearsals, Gunther Herbig leaves no detail unnoticed. It's a quality that makes musicians love him. For a brief stint.

September 25, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Conductor Gunther Herbig always looks forward to his visits to the Baltimore Symphony.

"I like the orchestra very much," Herbig says. "It has a wonderful spirit and it plays in one of the finest halls in this country.

And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra loves to play under the baton of Gunther Herbig -- just not too often. He's such a taskmaster, players who adore his musicianship wouldn't want him on the podium every day.

"When he comes here, it's always a joy, says BSO cellist Ken Willaman, expressing a sentiment shared by most players. "He's one of the few [conductors] left with the Old World touch."

The words "Old World" are the key. The interpretations of Herbig -- who conducts the orchestra tonight, tomorrow and Saturday nights in an all-Beethoven program -- complement the streamlined, modernist readings of music director David Zinman.

Herbig's knack for drawing a golden, rounded sound from an orchestra reminds many musicians of such great German conductors as Herbert von Karajan and Hermann Abendroth, who were among Herbig's teachers.

And the 66-year-old conductor's repertory is strong in areas where, some BSO players say, Zinman is weakest. Herbig's identification with late 19-century Austro-Germanic music is matched by only a handful of living conductors. He has an ability to pace the symphonic works of Bruckner and Mahler so that they unfold unhurriedly in huge arches, yet without boring either musicians or audiences.

Add to this his other attributes -- the effective use of rehearsal time, an ability to produce a unanimity of ensemble, and a podium presence that combines Karajan's profile with a film star's blue-eyed good looks -- and one is tempted to conclude that the BSO could not find a better music director than Gunther Herbig.

But the music director Baltimore may need is unlikely to be the one it gets.

For one thing, Herbig seems genuinely uninterested in the job, after more than three decades of being a music director, most recently with the Toronto Symphony.

"Please," cautions Herbig, "I want to make it clear that I am here only as a guest and I want to be treated as such. After I left Toronto, six or seven other orchestras made offers. But it has become increasingly difficult in North America to concentrate just on making music.

"There are committee meetings, board meetings, meetings with bankers, union considerations. It can be too much -- especially at age -- and now, as a guest conductor, I have the incredible luxury of being responsible only for the quality of my rehearsals and my performances."

Besides that, it is hard to find anyone in the Baltimore Symphony who would like to have Gunther Herbig as music director.

"Everyone respects him and everyone always likes working him, but fear of him is almost universal," says one musician, who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating the conductor. "We say to ourselves, 'What he has to offer is wonderful, but would we want to live with it?' "

This fear seems to based on his tenures as the music director of vTC the Detroit Symphony (1984-1990) and the Toronto Symphony (1988-1994). Musicians in those orchestras say that Herbig left each orchestra much better than he found it, that his performances were splendid, and that he was unfailingly courteous to the players.

They say they look forward to his return visits as a guest, but add that they are glad he is no longer their music director.

But it is exactly the qualities that make Herbig attractive as a guest that make him scary as a music director. That this is the case raises questions about the future of orchestral music -- in North America, at least.

Musicians in both Detroit and Toronto admire Herbig's integrity, his serious approach to rehearsals and his organization and use of time. They also praise the way he is able -- without losing sight of the main arch of a piece -- to focus upon details and make familiar music sound fresh without sounding idiosyncratic.

But they add that, while this can be exciting in a week or two of guest appearances, it can be absolutely draining over a season. Players talked about rehearsals in which Herbig would stop the orchestra after the first bar and then the third bar -- and only somewhat less frequently thereafter -- to correct details.

In the Toronto Symphony, says concertmaster Jacques Israelievitch, many musicians were intimidated by Herbig's exacting ears. "Nothing ever escaped him and beauty of tone was always a priority for him."

But this, Herbig adds, is exactly what he was hired to do.

"If you are given the privilege of being music director of an orchestra, you are entrusted with bringing the level up, of making everyone play as close as possible to the best they're capable of," he says. "This isn't easy to do and it can create resentment. But it is also how all great orchestras were built."

That is, indeed, how they were developed. But one can't help but wonder if the values instilled in the conductors of Herbig's generation, which engendered an attitude of reverence toward the masterpieces of the past, will continue to be viable in an age subject to the free-market values of the box office.

Herbig wonders about it, too.

"The same story is repeated at every American orchestra," he says. "The average age of the audience is rising and the audience grows smaller every year as people die. The next generation is not prepared to replace them because music programs in public schools have practically disappeared. If kids are not exposed to music in home or at school, you cannot expect them to become subscribers when they're 25.

"So what happens?" Herbig asks, then answers his own question.

"What I see is programs of music from 'Star Wars' or from 'Evita,' and not only on pops programs. I find that disgusting -- that's not what orchestras are created for."

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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