IN ALL THE years that I heard David Zinman conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whatever I felt was right about the music was diminished for me by what my ears told me this conductor could not do -- elicit from the musicians a consistently satisfying ensemble sound. Under Mr. Zinman, the BSO often sounded brash, jittery, off-center and, dare I say it, neurotic. The music could seem forced, imposed from the top down, made from the outside in.
Some critics have blamed the acoustics of Meyerhoff Hall for shortcomings in the BSO's performance, and the players have claimed they had trouble hearing each other on stage (this was before the recent acoustical adjustments). But, with the same acoustics, Gunther Herbig had the BSO sounding gorgeous.
Some say Mr. Zinman was too strict a disciplinarian; that may be so. But George Szell was widely regarded as a tyrant, and he made a magnificent sound with the Cleveland Symphony. Possibly, for all his strengths, Mr. Zinman didn't listen the way a conductor must if a good finished sound is to be drawn from an orchestra.
Yuri Temirkanov, the new BSO music director, seems to have the ultimate musical ear. He has the orchestra making a rounded, romantic sound that is both warm and cool, and calls to the heart without slighting the brain. His music flows spontaneously from within the conductor-orchestra unit and is, to all appearances, not imposed by anyone.
Mr. Temirkanov coaxes more than he directs. His gestures are wide, sweeping arcs, made mostly with his left arm, which seems to embrace the orchestra rather than instruct it.
I don't know if Mr. Temirkanov's life has been touched by Zen, but I do see parallels between the Zen viewpoint and the way this conductor makes music. His apparent lack of self-absorption, his blurring of the hard line that often separates conductor and orchestra, the simplicity of his gestures from the podium and the presence he achieves in every piece with his centered sound -- all are consistent with Zen.
Music is played in two kinds of time -- clock time (rhythm) and experiential time. In experiential time, a piece unfolds to become what was intended by the composer, as interpreted by those who play it. Mr. Temirkanov allows his music to unfold within this time, which is signified, but not fully specified, by the score.
In a very different approach, Mr. Zinman superimposed his vision of what he felt the piece should be on this experiential time. Mr. Temirkanov seems uninterested in beating clock time, a hallmark of Mr. Zinman's conducting. Perhaps he feels the players can do that on their own.
I recently finished reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" for the sixth time. I return to this novel to recapture the way I feel whenever I approach the story of how Jay Gatsby crosses paths with Daisy and Tom Buchanan, two "careless" rich people. Gatsby chases the American Dream through this couple to his destruction.
It has been suggested that Fitzgerald's story is poignant, rather than tragic. For the duration of the novel, I can live in that poignancy, in heightened experiential time. I am invited by the text out of my quotidian world, to become part of a very different -- if virtual -- one. I return momentarily transformed, just how and with what lasting effect, I cannot specify.
As a reader can live within a text, a listener can live within a musical score, both in heightened, and potentially transformative, experiential time. "We are the music while the music lasts," T.S. Eliot wrote in the "Four Quartets." So, I ask myself, who was I as I listened to Maestro Temirkanov lead the two major works from his inaugural season?
Hearing Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), a dreadful mortality bit hard into my being. Mahler offers an auditory complement to the written text of the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. Composer and philosopher both try to make us feel the constant dying that is invading our being, while inviting us to live authentically in this reality. Death brings finitude, but paradoxically confers the ultimate value on the limited time we have.
Listening to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar"), the ironic, often shrieking, evocation in sound of the suffering and transcendence of the Russian people living in a totalitarian state was epiphanic. The music, based on texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, burned empathy into my ears. The cry heard in Shostakovich is a reaction to a brutal political reality. The cry in Mahler is ontological.
Perhaps the ability to heighten the prepared listener's experiential time through a performance is the ultimate standard by which the musician should be measured. Yuri Temirkanov created a sound with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that made it possible to experience the Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies at the highest level, in the "zone."
Rene J. Muller lives in Baltimore and he is a big fan of the BSO.