What you hear is what you (used to) get Change is in the air, and although BSO radio broadcasts, with David Zinman, will continue for another season, future programming is in doubt

Classical Music

August 30, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For a baker's dozen years, David Zinman has been not only the face but also - for radio listeners - the voice and personality of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. With his departure as music director, the BSO faces an identity crisis.

Actually, the 1998-1999 broadcast series of 13 "Casual Concerts," which begins airing nationally in October, uses last season's performance repertory and will feature the popular co-host team of Zinman and Lisa Simeone. So listeners outside Baltimore may not be aware that a new era is at hand.

However, the year of lead time gives the BSO plenty of space in which to consider whether the radio format will stay when Yuri Temirkanov takes over the BSO podium in the fall of 1999 - or, indeed, whether radio is in the BSO's future at all.

"The series developed out of the special orientation and personalities" of those involved in it at the start, says John Gidwitz, executive director of the BSO, who recognizes that the unknown chemistry of Temirkanov entering a radio program designed for someone else may necessitate some rethinking.

When the BSO embarked on a radio series in 1986, it formed a partnership with the newly licensed WJHU-FM (88.1) and its general manager, David Creagh. A former producer of "All Things Considered," Creagh was hired to create a top-quality public radio station and national production house.

In the mid-'80s, says Gidwitz, "orchestra broadcasts sounded as though no one had thought about them in 20 years. They were outdated, tired, stale."

Even today, the typical orchestra on the air tries to imitate the experience of the concert hall. On the Detroit Symphony broadcasts, listeners hear the conductor walk to the podium, accompanied by audience applause, and radio host Dick Cavett will describe the soloist's attire. At intermission, when audiences are finding the restrooms and the bar, the New York Philharmonic switches over to Jamie Bernstein - daughter of Leonard - who will reminisce with orchestra players about the days of Daddy. On San Francisco Symphony broadcasts, the host fills the intermission by reading aloud the program notes - verbatim.

It's all as cut-and-dried as macaroni, and about as zesty.

"We started from scratch," Gidwitz says, "and we saw no reason for a duplication on radio of a concert format. The first thing we did was eliminate the intermission. Radio listeners don't need one.

"And then we wanted our broadcast to have a very clear identity: David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra." Unlike other orchestras, the BSO does not broadcast its guest conductors, who can be heard all around the classical Top 40 dial.

"As for hosts, commentators and third parties, we didn't see a need for them either," Gidwitz says. "David would be the primary speaker, and if anyone interviewed the guest artist, it would be David himself. He had a remarkable ability to speak ex tempore on the radio. And he loved [doing] it."

The result has been a radio series that is consistently carried by more than 150 stations. In 1986, it entered a crowded market; but the years have seen the demise of the Boston Symphony broadcasts and periods of silence for the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra series. The BSO, meanwhile, has been the Energizer bunny of its kind.

As for the tone of its broadcasts, let one example stand for all: Simeone, who is more of a foil than a co-host, calls Zinman "David." On other series, the conductor is referred to, in a reverent voice, as "Maestro."

Over the years, Zinman and Simeone have had fun with the format, adding musical jokes, "Esk de Maestro" (Zinman answers listener questions in a mock-Viennese accent) and a lugubrious pedant of a character called Mr. Music (actually Dennis Bartel, former program director of WJHU and now an announcer on WGMS-FM in Washington).

Now comes Temirkanov, whose style is quite different. Older than Zinman, from a cultivated Old World background colored by years of state-ordered restrictions in his native Russia, Temirkanov also is hampered by limited English.

He is not without humor. But joking in his own language is one thing; building a relationship with an American audience is another.

In the meantime, the BSO has faced another problem: the end of the line with WJHU. At the start, according to Judith Schonbach, the series producer, the BSO broadcasts were intended as the centerpiece of WJHU's national programming initiative. Budget cutbacks, politics at Johns Hopkins University (which holds the station license) and two changes of general manager have eviscerated such ambitions, and WJHU has opted for syndicated news/talk and recorded jazz.

One Saturday last fall, WJHU listeners were told that classical music programming was going to end this year. Since then, the (( BSO has been looking for a new partner. Earlier this month, it found one in WETA (90.9 FM) the public television and radio megastation based in Shirlington, Va.

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