Greener pastures call Zukerman

Music: Opportunity with smaller, respected Ottawa orchestra is too good to resist. But schedule there precludes duties with BSO's Summer MusicFest.

June 16, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Catch him while you can.

Pinchas Zukerman's four concerts in the next two weeks as artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony's Summer MusicFest, which begins tonight in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, will be his last.

After three years of conducting and performing in the orchestra's summer series, the celebrated violinist-violist-conductor has decided to shift his hot-weather activities northward. On Monday, Zukerman will conduct his first concert as the new music director of the Orchestra of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, one of Canada's most important orchestras.

While Zukerman will continue to be a frequent guest soloist with the BSO, his four-year contract in Ottawa -- which calls for more than four weeks of concerts every summer and at least six more in the regular season -- simply does not leave him sufficient time for Baltimore's MusicFest.

Even before his Ottawa appointment, Zukerman was a very busy man. At 51, he's been in demand as one of the greatest string players of the 20th century for more than three decades, and his career as a conductor, which began about 20 years ago, has made him almost equally prominent on the podium as he is with the bow. Other important orchestras -- those of Frankfurt, Dallas and Milwaukee, among them -- had flirted with Zukerman about a music directorship.

"But they didn't feel right," Zukerman said over lunch yesterday. "This one [Ottawa] did."

One of the reasons that Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra seemed appropriate to him was that its relatively small size -- it has 46 full-time musicians, whose number Zukerman hopes to increase to 55 -- keeps it from having the administrative and economic problems that larger orchestras (with their approximately 100-man-and-woman rosters) typically have.

The difficulties inherent in funding institutions with 100 musicians earning salaries of about $75,000 each -- which doesn't include the expense of a large support staff -- creates additional problems, Zukerman says.

"It has to do with repetition," he explains. "Orchestras have to play enough services [concerts or rehearsals] so that salaries can be met. That creates a mentality in which services become the reasons behind programming decisions."

That's the sort of administrative headache Pinchas Zukerman doesn't want to have.

The BSO's Summer MusicFest perfectly illustrates Zukerman's point. The orchestra's 52-week season made revenue from summer performances a necessity to help cover expenses. But people who attend regular season concerts typically don't go to concerts in the summer. That, in turn, made it necessary to have ticket prices -- a range of $15-$22 in the summer instead of the regular season's $19-$57 -- low enough to invite younger, newer audiences.

But despite the presence of Zukerman, one of the handful of genuine classical music superstars, in what were often inspired concerts, attendance at Summer MusicFest often left several hundred seats in the Meyerhoff unfilled.

His replacement as artistic director has not yet been named. But whoever it is, Zukerman says, he wishes him luck.

"When I came here," he says, "I didn't pretend to be able to reinvent the wheel."


What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest

When: Tonight, Friday and June 23, 25 and 30. Chamber music programs precede each concert at 6: 30 p.m.; orchestral performances are at 7: 30 p.m.

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $15-$22

Call: 410-783-8000

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