BSO playing in the key of Temirkanov

Conductor's choice of concertmaster will have a key impact on the orchestra's sound.

Classical Music

May 13, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The announcement, now nine days old, that Herbert Greenberg is retiring as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster after 20 years is still reverberating.

It is the most momentous BSO news since the departure of David Zinman as music director and the hiring of Yuri Temirkanov as his successor -- and it marks a significant turning point in the orchestra's history.

Any change in personnel, from a rank-and-file position in the second violin section to a third horn, is going to make a difference in the orchestra's sonic profile. But, in more ways than one, the concertmaster is the front man (or woman) of an orchestra. So a lot will be riding on Greenberg's successor, who probably will be named at some point next season after a series of on-the-job auditions.

Since Temirkanov took the helm in January 2000, there have been just a handful of hires at the BSO, including assistant concertmaster Madeline Adkins, assistant principal flute Elizabeth Rowe and second horn Denise Tryon. A new principal trumpet, Andrew Balio, and a new violist, Karen Brown, will officially join the roster in September. Final auditions are going on now for a percussionist; the search for a new second oboe is also under way.

How many further vacancies come up in the near future is a matter of conjecture.

Turnover may have been rare during Zinman's 13-season reign, but there's no law that Temirkanov's has to follow suit. Likewise, there really was never any chance that the BSO would sound the same as it did under the previous music director.

The first stages of Temirkanov's musical transformation of the orchestra are already audible.

We've heard, in particular, a striking increase in richness of string tone (that Greenberg has been concertmaster during this extraordinary development should be noted). There also has been a remarkable degree of interpretive intensity emanating from every section of the orchestra, a sense of spontaneous musical combustion that signals the strong bond between conductor and players.

These attributes were on display during the BSO's recent excursion to Carnegie Hall. Temirkanov himself was heard to express keen pleasure in the results of that New York City performance. But that doesn't mean he's fully satisfied; no worthwhile artist ever is.

Back in the fall, the music director gave me a frank assessment of the BSO. "It is not the greatest orchestra in America," he said. "But, in principle, it is a good orchestra, very professional. The musicians know where they are and want to be better."

As for specifics, Temirkanov was cautious. But, not surprisingly, the first thing he mentioned was the component of players that makes up roughly 60 percent of the ensemble.

"The face of the orchestra is the strings, of course," he said. "If there is no powerful string section with big coloring and a deep sound, the woodwinds or brass could be fantastic and it wouldn't matter. But it also can't be a good orchestra if the strings are good and the rest is not.

"If you play a concert with a terrible oboe, the whole orchestra is terrible. If someone makes a mistake, the whole orchestra makes a mistake."

With such a philosophy, Temirkanov is obviously going to be demanding more and more from the BSO. He's got his eye on the future, on making sure this orchestra stacks up strongly against the competition nationally and internationally.

Sure, the BSO has already proven, time and again, that it's in the big leagues. But there's no point in Temirkanov being here if not to help the BSO become even better. This is going to mean driving everyone -- musicians as well as management -- harder, expecting an across-the-board commitment to what he considers to be a level of excellence.

We're likely to get a very strong idea of what that level is when he picks a concertmaster. (Temirkanov, who has been overseas since the Greenberg announcement broke, could not be reached for a comment about what he will be seeking in a candidate.)

Why is it so important who sits in that first violinist's chair, immediately to the left of the conductor?

Anne Harrigan, founding music director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, sums up the matter neatly.

"The role between a concertmaster and conductor is crucial to the personality of an orchestra," she says. "You have to have someone who agrees with you philosophically. It can be very difficult for a concertmaster to change a style of playing, but the conductor's style and the concertmaster's style have to fit together."

For Harrigan, the ideal situation is "more of a duet than a case of following the leader."

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