In summer, a breath of fresh air

Music: Mario Venzago will bring spontaneity and a free spirit to his new role as artistic director of the BSO's MusicFest.

November 15, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will announce today that it has named Swiss conductor Mario Venzago as the new artistic director of Summer MusicFest.

Venzago, who first conducted the orchestra in 1995 and who will lead all five programs of MusicFest in June and July, calls the appointment his "first little step into the United States."

For the Baltimore Symphony, however, it is a major appointment. Venzago, who succeeds Pinchas Zukerman in the post, inherits a summer series that seems to have lost its sense of purpose several years ago and that has been playing each season to ever-smaller audiences. While ticket sales have dropped in the last few years, the cost of putting on each series has dramatically increased, and the result has been increasing net losses for the BSO.

"Mario Venzago will bring a fresh excitement to Summer MusicFest," says John Gidwitz, BSO president. "His concerts with us have proven that he is an imaginative and stimulating conductor, and these qualities are reflected in the programs he has devised for our first season together."

Venzago has been one of the orchestra's most popular guest conductors. While Zukerman's greatness as a musician -- particularly as a violinist and violist -- is universally acknowledged, his appearances as a conductor have not been successful in attracting audiences.

In appointing Zukerman, one of classical music's greatest stars, the orchestra was trying to use what it presumed would be a huge drawing card to stabilize a summer series that had been floundering since 1994. In that year David Zinman, the BSO's former music director, who created the series in 1985, left Summer MusicFest to become artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra's summer series.

Attendance at Summer MusicFest dropped in 1995 and 1996 -- the first seasons in which Zinman did not conduct the concerts. And ticket sales continued to decline in the three seasons Zukerman presided over the series.

In appointing Venzago to succeed Zukerman, the orchestra is replacing celebrity with anonymity. In the United States -- Baltimore excepted -- Mario Venzago is a complete unknown. Even in Europe, where he is currently chief conductor of the Basel (Switzerland) Symphony, the 51-year-old conductor is not as well-known as musicians who have worked with him believe he deserves to be.

"Mario may be the greatest talent in his generation of conductors," says the distinguished pianist Robert Levin. "What is for sure is that he is also the most unappreciated and undervalued. This is something that completely mystifies me."

The reason for his relative obscurity may be that Venzago is a free spirit who does not fit in with a business that has become dominated by institutional attitudes.

"I hate summer series that are `mostly Mozart,' `mostly Schubert' or even `mostly Beethoven,' " Venzago says. "I hate `crossover' concerts even more. Music should be free of preconceptions."

Venzago, who is in Baltimore today for the announcement of his appointment and who will conduct the orchestra later this week in performances of Verdi's "Requiem," also has strong opinions. He may be the first conductor since Arturo Toscanini, for example, who strictly observes Verdi's metronome markings.

"The `Requiem' is often misinterpreted," the conductor says. "Many singers think that it should be conducted like an opera because it's a piece that requires opera singers. But it's not operatic -- it's completely dramatic."

To Venzago, as the musicians in the Baltimore Symphony have learned, freedom means more than nothing left to lose. It's the central principle of his conducting.

He apparently has a sensitive ear than enables him to fix irritating intonational problems that other conductors have ignored. His trust in the orchestra players to keep tempo and to listen to themselves was a refreshing contrast to Zinman, whose use of the baton was strict enough to make some players see it as a stick he used to beat them. And Venzago's spontaneous music-making, in which tempos sometimes change unexpectedly, provides a break in the routine that most players seem to enjoy.

While Venzago's tempo changes are often unexpected, they rarely appear to be arbitrary.

David Bakkegard, the orchestra's principal horn player, says he finds it hard to forget a moment several seasons back when he performed one of Mozart's horn concertos under Venzago's baton.

"There was a ritard [a gradual slowing down] coming up and he had me really stretch," Bakkegard recalls. "I would never have thought of it myself, but he does it and I say to myself, `Why not?' The important thing was that what he did was musically absolutely convincing to me."

For his part, Venzago is just as enthusiastic about the orchestra.

"I love it because it is so good that you can be free with it," he says.

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