An evergreen future for orchestra?

Temirkanov's staying power bodes well for BSO and its fans

Classical Music

May 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

After this season's string of bad news days at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - the dreadfully managed canning of the BSO Chorus, a projected $1 million deficit - last week's announcement that music director Yuri Temirkanov has agreed to stay in the job beyond his initial contract period shone with an extra brightness. It guarantees a continuing return on the BSO's investment in him, and his investment in the BSO.

We don't know for how long, of course, since the deal struck between Temirkanov and the BSO is an open-ended, "evergreen" arrangement that, essentially, keeps running until one side or the other calls it quits. If we're lucky, that won't be for a long while.

There was reason to be concerned about the prospects for Temirkanov's commitment. The stark truth is that the BSO needs him more than he needs the BSO.

On a high plateau

There are still people in the classical music world who ask how Baltimore ever managed to hire Temirkanov. It's not so much that he could write his own ticket anywhere, that he could be at the helm of any orchestra in the world he fancied. (You might have noticed that his name did not dominate the short lists of candidates for those prestigious American music directorships that were recently filled - Boston, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia.)

But Temirkanov exists on a very high plateau in the music world. And he's hardly hurting for work. In addition to his longtime stewardship of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which keeps him in an international spotlight, he can have as many guest-conducting gigs as he wishes.

And, having proven himself a superior orchestra-refiner with the St. Petersburg ensemble (those of us who witnessed the orchestra's recent U.S. visit still have that splendid sound ringing in our ears), Temirkanov certainly doesn't have to demonstrate this facility again with another group. That he has decided to devote so much of his energy to the BSO says a lot about him - and the BSO.

Securing Temirkanov's commitment to the future is just the beginning of the next phase. It's now up to the community to back him and his vision with the necessary money. There's more than enough wealth around here to keep deficits from cropping up and to boost the endowment.

BSO management and staff also have to measure up to Temirkanov's standards. The whole infrastructure of the orchestra, not just what goes on in concert, has to achieve - to use a favorite buzzword at the BSO - a "world-class" level.

This conductor would not have bothered coming here in the first place, let alone stay here, if he did not sense considerable potential. Temirkanov has never made any secret of his evaluation of the BSO: that it is not among the highest rank, but is very good and could be better. He said that publicly even before his tenure officially started in January 2000; he has said it publicly since.

Such a comment was not music to the ears of some BSO players. After 13 rewarding years with David Zinman on the podium and very little in the way of personnel changes, musicians may have started to feel that they were beyond reproach. Audiences, too, may have decided that the ultimate in quality had already been achieved.

Constant honing

But in an art form as prone to human fallibility as music, quality is invariably in flux. It requires constant attention, monitoring, honing - and, sometimes, personnel changes. This can be painful, unnerving, embarrassing; it needn't be fatal.

I'm convinced Temirkanov appreciates his musicians here, but he's not a sentimentalist. He doesn't shy away from making tough choices when it comes to realizing his artistic goals.

But it's worth being reminded that there has been no massacre at the BSO - except, perhaps, of egos. Not a single musician has been fired by Temirkanov. (A couple have voluntarily resigned.) He has instead sought to reposition resources within the ensemble at the same time he has sought to put fresh talents into prominent chairs. Viewed from the outside, this approach looks remarkably fair and respectful.

Next season, the BSO is really going to be Yuri's band. A new concertmaster - the tone- and standard-setter of any orchestra - will be in place. A new principal oboist and new principal cellist will be in their chairs as soon as they can be hired. Already playing in the ensemble are a new principal trumpeter, principal second violinist (appointed from within the existing ranks) and assistant concertmaster.

Such personnel moves cannot help but intensify the reflection of a music director's personality and interpretive style.

All of this fine-tuning has, understandably, caused some angst and hard feelings over the past year or so inside the orchestra. Music directors rarely enjoy endless honeymoons with their ensembles; this marriage is quite normal. But it's hard to see anything malicious or capricious in the various internal transformations at the BSO.

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