Zinman left town, found fame

Music: The former Baltimore Symphony music director moved to Zurich and suddenly is attracting attention and selling records.

August 31, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Few Baltimoreans -- with such significant exceptions as H.L. Mencken, Cal Ripken and John Waters -- achieve fame, celebrity and success without leaving town.

Consider this short list of those who found fame by departing: Oprah, Barry Levinson, Eubie Blake, Frederick Douglass, Babe Ruth, Billie Holliday, Wallis Warfield Simpson, Cab Calloway, Jada Pinkett, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass and Spiro Agnew.

It's time to rack up another name: David Zinman, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony, who left at the end of the 1997-98 season.

After 13 years here, Zinman was frustrated. He wasn't able to find the money -- either from the BSO board or from a record label -- to record his somewhat eccentric, but provocative and stimulating interpretations of Beethoven's nine symphonies. The only successful records he made with the BSO featured his pal, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. CDs featuring just Zinman and the orchestra quickly found their way into record stores' cut-out bins.

Zinman left Baltimore to become music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra and the Aspen Festival, and 18 months later he is suddenly famous. People are talking about him and his records are selling.

The first thing Zinman did when he arrived in Zurich was work out an agreement to record the Beethoven Nine with the Tonhalle, a five-record set released a few months ago on the Arte Nova label distributed by BMG Classics.

The budget-priced set -- available for less than $25 -- is among the top-selling classical sets in the United States and is the fifth best-selling classical album in both Japan and the United Kingdom.

A spokeswoman for Tower Records' flagship store on Broadway and 66th St. in New York City reports that Zinman's is currently its biggest-selling compilation of Beethoven symphonies, outselling similarly low-priced albums by such legendary conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Arturo Toscanini, George Szell and Bruno Walter.

The set is controversial as well as successful. In music magazines such as Gramophone, Fanfare or The American Record Guide, scarcely a month goes by without critics sniping at each other about the virtues of Zinman's Beethoven or without letters to the editor from irate readers arguing with those critics.

That's because Zinman performs these works with "in your face" insouciance. The conductor, who has been much influenced by the early-music revival, tries to imagine the symphonies as they might have sounded in the composer's own time.

Instead of making them weighty in the late 19th-century manner, he chooses tempos that generally heed Beethoven's lightning-fast -- and often disregarded -- metronome markings. As he did with his musicians in Baltimore, Zinman has trained his players in Zurich to perform late 18th- and early 19-century music with a lightness of touch and transparency of texture heretofore been deemed possible only on reproductions of 18th-century instruments.

These performances will not be to everyone's taste: while the music always moves, at some of Zinman's inflexibly fast tempos it does not always sing. Zinman's interpretations rarely fail to make one hear Beethoven with fresh ears, however, and it's no surprise that they've caused a stir.

But if the Zinman-Tonhalle combination has risen to the top of the B-list, it seems that it's also about to be promoted to the A-list. The conductor's most recent CD with the Tonhalle, containing music by Swiss composer Artur Honegger, has recently been released -- to considerable critical acclaim -- as a full-priced release on the prestigous Decca label.

For Zinman, as for many others, Baltimore has proved a great place to leave. For the sake of Yuri Temirkanov, Zinman's successor as the BSO's music director, let's hope that it's not a correspondingly poor place at which to arrive.

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