BSO takes steps to pick a new `leader'

Analysis: Herbert Greenberg's departure as concertmaster may, in the end, only stand out because nothing like this has happened in recent history.

May 08, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Friday's news that longtime Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Herbert Greenberg is retiring at the end of this season has prompted a number of questions.

Those with a penchant for gossip naturally want to know if Greenberg was forced out, if he and music director Yuri Temirkanov couldn't get along - even the slightest whiff of a potential controversy gets some people panting.

Then there is the unavoidable curiosity about other potential departures from the orchestra. Is Temirkanov, having already coaxed a different sound out of the BSO, now going to put different bodies into it?

Others just want to know who will succeed Greenberg and when.

A concertmaster has to do more than play violin solos that occur in an orchestral score. As head of the violin section, which is the primary melodic vehicle for an orchestra, the concertmaster has to ensure that a conductor's interpretive wishes - how much vibrato the violins will use, how phrases are articulated, etc. - are carried out effectively. The British use a different title for this job - "leader." That sums it up perfectly.

As for the immediate business of replacing Greenberg, BSO president John Gidwitz had little concrete information yesterday.

"We are really only now putting together a recruitment plan," Gidwitz said. "We'll be defining the process in the coming weeks. We don't deal with this very often."

Greenberg held the title of concertmaster for 20 years; several other BSO principal players also have had long tenures. During David Zinman's 13-season term as music director, the only turnover among principal players was a percussionist who retired, Gidwitz said.

Considering how much weight attaches to the concertmaster job, you can be sure a great deal of thought will go into finding a replacement.

"The concertmaster's position is contractually different from all other positions," Gidwitz said. "Normal procedures are not required."

That means no cattle-call auditions, for one thing.

"What most orchestras do is invite players to sit in the concertmaster's chair for one or more weeks of concerts," Gidwitz said. (That's what Washington's National Symphony Orchestra has just done as part of its search for a new concertmaster.)

Temirkanov will no doubt do much of the inviting; he has already mentioned about a half-dozen possible candidates, Gidwitz said, although "I can't share specific names at this stage." There also will be an advisory committee of musicians that will submit suggestions to the music director.

Meanwhile, there are five programs in the BSO regular subscription concert series left to be played this season. Greenberg is expected to do all but the last one in mid-June; by then he will have headed out to the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, where he regularly spends his summers teaching and serving as concertmaster for the festival orchestra. That commitment also keeps Greenberg from playing the BSO's Summer MusicFest and Oregon Ridge programs.

"We have a superb [associate] concertmaster in Adrian Semo," Gidwitz said. Semo typically has taken over when Greenberg is not playing. At this point, it is unclear if Semo will sit in the concertmaster chair for that final subscription program in June, devoted to Prokofiev's "Ivan the Terrible," conducted by Temirkanov. The music director may decide to bring in a guest.

Since Temirkanov will not be on the podium for the Summer MusicFest, it's unlikely that any on-the-job auditioning will take place then. The heavy action will take place next season, whenever the music director is in town.

Now back to the gossip part of this business.

It really doesn't matter much how the Greenberg departure came about. The official statements declare a mutually agreeable, unforced decision. (The fact that Temirkanov decided not to make a statement himself, but left that to Gidwitz alone, looks odd, but the conductor has been known to be reticent before. Just a few weeks ago, he attended groundbreaking ceremonies for the BSO's new concert hall in Montgomery County, but wouldn't even utter a public "Good luck.")

To be sure, opinions have varied on Greenberg's playing and his leadership skills; few concertmasters generate unanimity. But his record of two decades of service to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and three BSO music directors, says enough.

And what about other key personnel changes? Zinman's lack of boat-rocking at the BSO is not all that common; after a while, music directors usually leave their mark on the player roster, one way or another.

Sometimes, musicians discover they're not as happy playing for the new chief as they were for the old, and they leave of their own accord. Sometimes, music directors desire a certain sound, style or level of technical polish that cannot be achieved to their satisfaction with some of the musicians sitting onstage.

Whatever the cause, change happens. If the ultimate result is an increase in the value of the artistic product - no matter how respectable that product had been previously - then the change is well worth it.

Feelings may be hurt in the process, tempers heated, anxieties aroused. Nothing an uplifting performance can't assuage.

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