A symphony's future in his hands

Baltimore may have lost a director who carved a niche in American repertoire, but it has gained a gifted conductor who could elevate the BSO's global stature.

February 06, 2000|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A visitor to Baltimore three Thursdays ago could have been forgiven for wondering if the city's new mayor was Russian, not Irish.

Blue banners emblazoned with the name of Yuri Temirkanov, incoming music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, hung in every imaginable spot, including the lobby of Penn Station. Giant searchlights split the snowy sky, leading music lovers to Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where Temirkanov and the BSO were performing Gustav Mahler's gigantic "Resurrection" Symphony at the conductor's inaugural concert. Inside the hall, critics from the Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today were on hand to render judgment: was the new man a titan of the podium, or just another high-priced stick-waver in tails?

In fact, the slight-statured Temirkanov conducts bare-handed. But by the time of his second concert, a brilliant all-French program, it was clear that baton or no baton, the BSO's 11th music director will have a king-sized effect on an ensemble that David Zinman, his predecessor, had already turned into one of America's more interesting orchestras.

Temirkanov's first two programs spelled out a musical manifesto. Above all, they announced that he is a remarkable conductor, a romantic aristocrat who thrills audiences and musicians alike. Broad smiles on the faces of orchestra members suggested that they were delighted with their new boss, and backstage conversations confirmed the impression. Not surprisingly, the orchestra played superbly for Temirkanov. But it also played differently. Under Zinman, the BSO strove for discipline and precision; able to take that achievement for granted, Temirkanov is now imposing his own style on the BSO, and the results are plain to hear. The strings are warmer and richer in tone, the ensemble a bit looser, the overall approach recognizably Slavic, as befits a conductor who also leads Russia's legendary St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

We'll learn more about him when he performs Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony on Feb. 10, and more still when he returns in June for a pair of programs that includes three Russian pieces (among them Dmitri Shostakovich's anguished Thirteenth Symphony, one of the supreme classical music masterpieces of the past half-century). But no matter what happens in the months to come, Yuri Temirkanov has made his mark on the BSO -- and he has done so on the eve of a crucial period in the orchestra's history.

Starting in spring of 2004, the BSO expects to begin giving regular performances in a new 2,000-seat, $89 million concert venue at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center. The center, located just north of Bethesda in Montgomery County, is less than 10 miles from Washington's Kennedy Center, home of the National Symphony Orchestra. Montgomery County has an unusually high percentage of prosperous, well-educated residents, the target market for any symphony orchestra. In addition, Strathmore, unlike the Kennedy Center, will be easily accessible to Washingtonians via the Metro.

The two orchestras are understandably closemouthed about the prospect of head-to-head competition. The BSO and NSO are both second-tier groups, widely admired but not in the same class as the internationally renowned "Big Five" American orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia. They have similar-sized budgets, and prior to Temirkanov's arrival, they were both led by respected "orchestra builders" who did much to improve the quality of their respective ensembles.

Temirkanov is a distinctly more charismatic podium personality than the NSO's Leonard Slatkin. But, he appears to have no serious interest in or knowledge of the American music that Slatkin and Zinman perform regularly and with relish -- a deficiency that may prove fateful in time.

Under Zinman, new American music had a place of honor on the BSO's programs. Indeed, the orchestra's commitment to American composers has become central to its identity outside Baltimore. The list of world premieres given here during his 13-year tenure is breathtaking, and many of the orchestra's most significant recordings have been of American repertoire. Whenever you listen at home to the music of such noted young composers as Christopher Rouse, Stephen Albert, Michael Daugherty or Michael Torke, there's a better-than-even chance that you're hearing David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony.

That the BSO should have been led by an American-born conductor was itself a powerful statement. In spite of the galvanizing example of Leonard Bernstein, most major American orchestras continue to be led by Europeans whose feel for American life and culture is severely limited.

Baltimore has now joined their ranks. At a time when American composers are turning in droves from the ugly avant-garde sounds of late modernism to forge an accessible, vital American style in contemporary classical music, the BSO is entering the 21st century with a music director for whom Rouse and his contemporaries are not even names.

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