Ten High Notes As David Zinman prepares to leave the BSO, here's a look back at a brilliant run.

June 07, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

An article in yesterday's Arts & Society section gave an incorrect year for David Zinman's return to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra after a musicians strike. The conductor returned to the podium in 1989.

The Sun regrets the errors.

One of David Zinman's greatest moments with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will take place this week, when he leads the last program of his 13-year-tenure as the symphony's music director.

My prediction has nothing to do with chutzpah, arrogance or insanity. It's just that I know David Zinman. I have been reviewing his concerts for nearly 20 years, and I have been listening to them for almost 26. I was in Rochester, N.Y., for most of his 11 seasons as music director of the Rochester Philharmonic, and I have been in Baltimore for all but the first few months of his music directorship.


Here's what 26 years of listening to Zinman has taught me. He's to conductors what Stan ("The Man") Musial was to batters: He's steady and patient as well as brilliant; the grand-slam home run he will hit in the clutch is likely to come after he's fouled off 19 pitches he doesn't like. His patience and discipline explain how he was able to transform what was merely a good orchestra into one of the nation's best; that's why he rarely gives bad concerts and almost always gives good ones.

And that's why this week's performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 is likely to be something we'll always remember; and that's why he's sure to be a success in the future as music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra and Colorado's Aspen Music Festival.

More than 20 years ago in his book, "Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts," the great pianist Alfred Brendel remarked that one of the things for which he fervently wished was "that my friend, the conductor David Zinman, becomes as famous as he deserves to be." This listener has shared the same wish for at least as long.

But Zinman may be the only conductor I've known who seems able to resist looking at himself in a mirror. It's his nature that he puts the performance of music and the future of music ahead of his own ego. That's why David Zinman's legacy to the Baltimore Symphony is not only that it is rated among the world's finest orchestras, but also that it deserves to be.

Herewith is a personal selection of the 10 most memorable events in the legacy of the Zinman-BSO era:

1. Guest conducting appearances

When David Zinman made his first guest appearance on Feb. 23, 1977, the BSO's music director, Sergiu Comissiona, was solidly ensconced in Baltimore.

But orchestras are always on the lookout for music-director material. What they look for are the following: someone who can relate to the orchestra; who has something to say musically; who can skillfully accompany a soloist; and who can reach out to the audience as well as to musicians. In his first rehearsal, the boyish-looking, 40-year-old conductor -- he still had a full head of hair and did not yet look as if he needed to shave -- showed that he knew how to get along with players, that he had the musical goods and that he could accompany.

His first concert showed that he had everything else: His blistering tempo in the finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 ++ blew away the audience as well as the players. He was immediately re-engaged for the 1980-1981 season. But the guest appearance that convinced the symphony's players that Zinman was the man to replace Comissiona came on Feb. 3, 1983, when he concluded a program with a performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 ("The Great") in C major. Most of the musicians felt then, as principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay feels now, "that it was better than good -- it was great."

2. Schumann's Symphony No. 2.

Zinman's first performance of this piece in Baltimore on May 22, 1986, was a watershed for both conductor and orchestra.

The level of the orchestra's precision and ensemble -- particularly in the second-movement scherzo, the most difficult stretch of virtuoso orchestral writing in the Schumann canon -- was high enough to remind old-time listeners of the way George Szell and the Clevleand Orchestra had sounded in this music a generation earlier. The Zinman-Baltimore relationship was clearly hot.

And their collaboration in Schumann's Second was to reverberate for years to come. It was a broadcast tape of this performance that made Telarc Records decide to record the Schumann Symphonies with Baltimore and Zinman instead of Cleveland and Christoph von Dohnanyi. And those Telarc recordings, in turn, led to those the orchestra was to make for several other labels, including Decca/London, Nonesuch and Sony Classical.

3. All-Beethoven Festival of 1986.

Though it was not yet called Summerfest, this 16-day Summer Festival, from July 10-26, of Beethoven performances was actually the BSO's first major summer festival in Meyerhoff Hall.

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