Temirkanov powerful in BSO debut

Review: The new artistic director bursts onto the scene by leading the orchestra in a weighty, dramatic performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2.

January 21, 2000|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

So how does a brand-new music director go about making a really big impression at his inaugural concert?

Yuri Temirkanov, who took the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last night, did it by detonating a performance of Gustav Mahler's 90-minute-long "Resurrection" Symphony at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, aided and abetted by soprano Janice Chandler, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. Short of inviting John Waters to set off nuclear weapons at midnight in the Chesapeake Bay, you can't get much bigger than that.

The 61-year-old Temirkanov is not a household name outside his native Russia, where he took over the legendary St. Petersburg Philharmonic in 1968 (back when it was the Leningrad Philharmonic) and led it by all accounts with great distinction.

But he has already made waves in Baltimore. Several inches of snow didn't stop local music lovers from turning out in force to hear his official debut, and Mayor Martin O'Malley was on hand to declare him an honorary citizen of the city, expressing the hope that "what is now great will become even greater."

Though he's a certified performer, the mayor is hardly a full-fledged music critic. Still, I think he's onto something. Temirkanov gave us a "Resurrection" that was weighty, emphatic, deliberate and eloquent, with a resplendent finale full of great sunbursts of sound. What's more, the BSO has very clearly taken to him -- with good reason. He is a powerful musical communicator with something strongly individual to say. Furthermore, it's clear that he has the kind of personality that makes orchestras long to play their best.

To be sure, orchestras almost always play their best when Mahler is on the program. He has become so popular in recent decades that it is hard to remember a time when he was ever anything else. Yet in his own time and for long afterward, the extreme emotional weather of his music struck most concertgoers as peculiar at best, neurotic at worst. Though his proteges, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer among them, resolutely insisted on programming and recording his symphonies, he was widely thought to be little more than a virtuoso conductor who composed on the side; in Ralph Vaughan Williams' wrong-headed but witty summing-up, his years of podium experience had turned him into "a tolerable imitation of a composer."

We know better now, but do we really know Mahler? And are his violent passions likely to wear well in our icy age of Irony Lite? Certainly anyone who sees him as a musical special-effects man, or his colossal symphonies as turn-of-the-century equivalents of such movies as "Independence Day," is missing the point. Mahler was nothing if not serious, especially about spiritual matters. Above all, he was (in Walter's apt phrase) "a God-seeker," and his search was fraught with angst.

When rehearsing the "Resurrection" Symphony for his 1907 farewell concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, he went so far as to confess to that hard-boiled bunch of conductor-haters that it was a musical portrayal of "the wrestling of Jacob with the Angel, and Jacob's cry to the Angel: `I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'" Whatever else that is, it isn't cool.

If the Second Symphony, completed in 1894, is a supreme masterpiece of religious art, it is one whose essential character is as much theatrical -- even operatic -- as it is spiritual. The expansive first movement was conceived as a free-standing symphonic poem called "Todtenfeier" (Funeral Rites), and the four sharply contrasting movements that follow describe a journey from fathomless despair to the ecstatic deliverance of the Last Judgment.

Like Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, Mahler ups the expressive ante by introducing vocal soloists and a chorus, who sing of the world's end and the heavenly life to come: "All that has perished must rise again! Cease from trembling! Prepare to live!"

As it happens, the BSO is scarcely in need of resurrection. In his 13 years at the orchestra's helm, David Zinman deprovincialized what had long been perceived in the music business as a stodgy second-tier ensemble and turned it into one of America's strongest orchestras.

Among countless other good things, he taught the BSO how to play Mahler's demanding music. His 1995 performance of the Third Symphony is one of the happiest and most vivid memories of my concert-going life. In all the hoopla surrounding Temirkanov's arrival, it's worth remembering that what happened last night would not have been possible had it not been for Zinman's superb stewardship.

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