Leading BSO in next century Analysis: In choosing Yuri Temirkanov as the next music director, the Baltimore Symphony guarantees itself a continued strong presence in the world of classical music even as he provides the opportunity to go in new directions.

October 29, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Last year the Baltimore Symphony promised to replace outgoing music director David Zinman with the "world's greatest conductor." It's impossible to say which of the world's conductors is the greatest, but yesterday the BSO did indeed appoint a great one.

The BSO's 11th music director, Yuri Temirkanov, will come here as the most spectacularly credentialed chief conductor in the orchestra's 80-year history.

He is the music director of one of the world's most distinguished orchestras -- the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic -- and principal guest conductor of another (London's Royal Philharmonic); he's a frequent and welcomed guest conductor at all the most prestigious orchestras; and his lengthy discography includes some of the finest recordings ever made.

Make no mistake about it: The BSO needed an important name. The appointment of any conductor with less stature than Zinman's would have been the equivalent of pouring blood into shark-infested waters. A few years ago, the Minnesota Orchestra replaced Edo de Waart with an unknown -- the young, talented and almost completely inexperienced Eiji Oue. That orchestra -- traditionally one of America's 10 best -- has not (figuratively, at least) been heard from since.

Temirkanov comes here with connections that will make the BSO heard. His name will make possible recording projects and foreign tours that may not have been possible before. It's also likely that Baltimore audiences will have the chance to hear soloists with the orchestra -- pianist Evgeny Kissin and cellist Natalia Gutman among them -- that they would not otherwise hear.

Temirkanov's appointment sends a signal that the Baltimore Symphony is an orchestra to which attention must be paid.

In many respects, of course, David Zinman is irreplaceable: He's strong in almost all areas of the repertory. Like Leonard Bernstein, he's also a great communicator, able to talk to audiences in informal situations without condescending to them; and he's a superb orchestra builder, something eloquently witnessed by the orchestra he built during his 13 years here.

Although Temirkanov (who, at age 59, is two years younger than Zinman) is better-known than Zinman internationally, there is still much that we don't know about him. And some of what we do know may provide fodder for skeptics who whine about the neglect of American-born composers and conductors.

Temirkanov is not interested in American music. And although his sense of humor is the equal of Zinman's, his limited command of English is likely to prevent him from proving a star at "Casual Concerts" -- a genre that Zinman invented and perfected.

Then there is the question of Temirkanov's repertory: Most of what Baltimore audiences (and audiences elsewhere in America, for that matter) have heard him conduct are Russian works -- great stuff, no doubt, but not the so-called Austro-Germanic core of the classical repertory.

And there undoubtedly will be naysayers complaining about Temirkanov's lack of commitment to Baltimore. The 12 weeks of subscription concerts in which he will lead the orchestra, beginning with the 2000-2001 season, are far fewer than the 18 weeks or so Zinman devoted to Baltimore during the early years of his tenure (for the last few years, Zinman has been in residence only about 15 weeks each season).

These objections are easy to demolish. While charming, the much-talked-about casual format has proved a bust in terms of increasing audiences. And if Temirkanov is not the orchestra builder Zinman was, he's certainly an orchestra inspirer. His rudimentary English has proved more than equal to the task of communication where it really matters: conveying his ideas to musicians so that they can deliver mesmerizing performances.

And while most of those performances have been of Russian repertory, there have been a number of signs in his appearances here that Temirkanov's virtues extend to much more than the music of his native land.

In 1995, for example, there was his eloquent accompaniment of Dmitri Alexeev in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 -- in which the conductor's fire and gunpowder approach to the composer's music was much closer to Zinman's than the sleepy-flowers-and-narcotic-poetry reading one might have expected from a "Russian" interpretation. (Russian-born friends have spoken to me of their admiration for the Beethoven performances that Temirkanov regularly gave in what used to be Leningrad.)

Then there was Temirkanov's superb performance last season of the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" -- which is as much French music as it is Russian. (The impression that Temirkanov can be a dazzling interpreter of the French repertory was later confirmed by a terrific Berlioz disc.)

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