Reaping benefits from a whirlwind tour

Japan trip shows BSO's flexibility, musical maturity

Classical Music

October 13, 2002|By Tim smith | By Tim smith,Sun Music Critic

Six cities, seven concerts, two train trips, four flights, 24 bus rides. Gee, sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Cramming all of that activity into a 12-day span -- during mostly hot, humid weather, by the way -- may not be the most relaxing way to visit Japan. But it's old hat for many members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which had toured that country twice before its just-completed excursion.

Veterans and newcomers alike took it all in stride. And music director Yuri Temirkanov, making only his second overseas trip with the BSO, is certainly no stranger to exhausting tour schedules with his other orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Still, it was hard not to wonder once in a while if it was all worth it, and what a tour like this really means in the long run. Now, writing this less than a week after the final, stirring performance in Tokyo, it's easy to see the whole experience as decidedly worthwhile.

To begin with, it says something positive about the BSO that it mustered the resources to make such an expensive journey. Quite a few orchestras all over this country are feeling the squeeze of seven-figure budget deficits. Many are cutting back operations, rather than making ambitious travel plans. (By the way, auditors are still finishing up the BSO's books for the 2001 / 2002 fiscal year; it looks as if the final red ink amount will be substantially less than the anticipated $1 million-plus figure.)

Fortunately, the BSO had the benefit of money from the state of Maryland specifically earmarked for international touring, as well as corporate underwriting and support from the top-flight Japanese tour sponsor, Kojimoto Concert Management Co.

BSO president John Gidwitz has said that the trip's costs will be entirely covered and will have no effect on the orchestra's deficit or operating budget.

Obviously, if the state's budget woes continue to deepen, it could take a little longer than expected to plan the next BSO tour, but no point in worrying about that now. Better to savor the upside of this particular trip. And that upside means more than the positive statement made by the mere act of touring itself.

Big-league sound

"It strengthens the spine," said violist Jeffrey Stewart of the travel. "I think it's wonderful for us to discover that we can play very well, even when the conditions are against us. Part of being a great orchestra is learning to adjust to travel conditions."

Although a couple of the concerts the BSO gave were not much to write home about (in retrospect, the first one in Tama was downright lame), the remainder clearly demonstrated that this orchestra is very definitely in the big leagues.

You should have heard the solidity and vitality brought to Beethoven's Seventh in Tokyo's Suntory Hall and, especially, Osaka Symphony Hall. Or the exceptional richness of tone and depth of expression unleashed in Brahms' Fourth in Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. The sheer beauty produced by the flute, oboe, clarinets and trombones in the finale of that Brahms symphony still lingers in my ears.

Throughout the tour, the Temirkanov touch could be heard at every turn of phrase. Part of it is the coloring of the sound, led by the unusually lush strings, that he has been painstakingly working on since he assumed the podium in January 2000. And part of it has to do with the style of playing he asks for, the manner of molding a musical line.

"Temirkanov takes a different approach [from former music director David Zinman]," said bassist Owen Cummings. "The emphasis is more on sound production, rather than precision or ensemble. It's fun to be able to dig in and crank it out."

Violist Karin Brown, who joined the BSO last year, was one of those relishing that digging and cranking.

"Touring is very draining," she says. "The hardest thing is being able to find time for dinner; you often have to play without being quite properly nourished. But I try to give every last ounce for every concert, especially for Brahms, even if I'm really sleepy or haven't eaten well."

Working together

That sort of commitment, evident from longtime members and newcomers, suggested that the relationship between Temirkanov and this orchestra is settling into a more comfortable groove.

When the conductor, during remarks at the end-of-tour party in Tokyo, expressed the hope that the orchestra would play as well in Baltimore, it really wasn't an insult. Temirkanov has certainly given high grades to performances in the hometown. But he also has observed that all orchestras seem to excel on tour.

The BSO really won him over big time, for example, after its appearances last year in Carnegie Hall and, later, in Berlin and Vienna. The Japan experiences seem to have given him an even deeper appreciation for what these musicians can do.

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