A comanding Presence

From where they're sitting, Baltimore Symphony players see in conductor Yuri Temirkanov a man who does not demand, but inspires.


In his first three programs as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conductor Yuri Temirkanov definitely made a difference.

Critics and audience members alike remarked upon how rich the sound was, how passionate the playing. Clearly, Temirkanov was working some sort of magic with the orchestra.

But what sort, exactly?

From the audience's perspective, the conductor's job often seems a bit of a mystery. Obviously, he's the man in charge, and the orchestra responds to his commands -- his beat, his sense of dynamics, his conception. He is playing the orchestra, as surely as the orchestra is playing the music.

So there is often something dictatorial about the job of orchestra conductor. As Harold C. Schonberg wrote in "The Great Conductors," a conductor is "a leader among men. He governs. He has but to stretch out his hand, and he is obeyed. He tolerates no opposition. His will, his word, his very glance, are law."

But just as there are many ways of governing, there are many ways a conductor can convey his vision and exert his will. And to hear the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony tell it, a large part of what sets Temirkanov apart is that he is more inclined to inspire than to demand.

"The way a conductor asks for things from the orchestra -- the way he inspires -- is very important," says piccolo player Laurie Sokoloff. "It affects profoundly the final performance, and that's something most people wouldn't necessarily think of. They may think of it in their own lives, and how their boss affects their performance in their day-to-day jobs. But it's really no different."

Perhaps not, but the nature of the work is quite unusual. To begin with, even though great music-making requires an emotional investment from each of the players, symphonic music is not about personal expression in the way popular music is. Not only is each musician expected to play the notes in front of him or her -- no deviating from the score, thank you! -- but each one is expected to play them precisely as the conductor commands.

"Whatever you think [about the music], that's your business," says violinist Leri Slutsky. "But you must follow every request, demand and gesture of the conductor. That's the rule.

"If the conductor is as wonderful as Maestro Temirkanov is, you are doing so with full dedication, and willingly," he adds. "There is no rejection inside of you."

It helps that Temirkanov arrives on the podium with a clear and complete conception of what the work is about and how he wants it to sound. It helps that he's a great musician who understands the mechanics of music making and can convey how the parts should be played. It also helps that he's personable, a man of wit and enormous personal magnetism.

Ultimately, though, it's how he relates to the other musicians onstage that matters most. "Some conductors really like to be in control, and get very nervous if they're not in control of the beat, every moment," says assistant principal horn player Philip Munds.

"Temirkanov comes with the attitude of, `We're going to play together.' He's a musician also, as many conductors are, but I think he understands that you're going to get a much more friendly reaction, and much more passionate playing, when you allow the players to do their thing. And he kind of molds you, and shapes you, while you do that.

"I think his lack of control creates control for him."

"He doesn't conduct, he makes music," says Mihaly Virizlay, the orchestra's principal cello. "Whether he is the greatest conductor or not, it's all irrelevant. Because I'm sure there are conductors who beat clearer, who have the name virtuoso attached to them.

"But it's so unimportant, because I never care, actually, how he conducts. I always think, `Wow, what a wonderful music we make together.' "

Watching it happen

It's easier to see how Temirkanov's leadership and charm work when the orchestra is in rehearsal. Seated onstage at the Meyerhoff, the orchestra is arrayed exactly as it would be for a performance -- except the players and conductor are in street clothes, not formal evening wear.

Temirkanov starts right at the beginning of the piece, and the orchestra plays until he stops them. He'll make a point about how he wants a specific passage to be played, sometimes singing, sometimes verbalizing, sometimes simply gesturing.

When he speaks, Temirkanov is quiet, almost conversational, and sometimes his voice doesn't quite make it to the back rows. "I was sitting on the fifth stand, I couldn't hear any words that he said," says viola player Genia Slutsky. She mimes talking to show what she means. "Nothing more," she says. "But when you look at him, you know what he wants."

Above all, what comes across in Temirkanov's leadership is the gentleness of his determinationand his faith in the orchestra.

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