BSO leader to step down at the end of season

`It's time,' says Gidwitz after 20-year tenure

November 13, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

John Gidwitz, who has guided the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra through two decades of growth, will step down as president at the end of the 2003-2004 season, he announced yesterday.

Since taking his position in 1984, Gidwitz oversaw a tripling of the BSO's budget; recruitment of Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov as music director; and creation of a second BSO concert hall in Montgomery County, slated to open in 2005.

"It's time," he said yesterday in his office at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. "My job is to know that the time has come. I can feel it in me and in the organization: There is a need for someone new to be the leader."

Gidwitz arrived on the scene in 1984 as David Zinman was preparing to take over from Sergiu Comissiona as music director. The BSO had a modest budget and a modest reputation at that point, but would soon experience remarkable improvements in both areas.

"John believes in great music and what an orchestra can do for a community," said Jane Marvine, head of the BSO players committee. "He has done some amazing things for us, and we're very grateful. It takes a big person to recognize that it's time for a change. When you look at where we are now compared to 20 years ago, John Gidwitz has to be considered a major factor."

Financial growth

During Gidwitz's tenure, the BSO's annual budget grew from $8 million to $25 million, and its endowment swelled from $6 million to $71 million. Base salary for musicians was about $31,000; today, it's about $67,000. And the Music Center at Strathmore, a new 2,000-seat concert hall that will introduce the orchestra to audiences in the suburbs of Washington, is in the final stages of construction.

"Without John, we wouldn't be in as competitive a position as we are now, financially and artistically," said Calman J. "Buddy" Zamoiski Jr., chairman laureate of the BSO's board of directors. "He has helped us step up to the next arena."

Concert series

Gidwitz, 62, was instrumental in developing innovative concert series during Zinman's music directorship, including "Concert and Conversation" and "Casual Concerts." National radio broadcasts, Grammy Award-winning recordings, national and international tours were among their other notable achievements. "Things started off terrifically with Zinman," Gidwitz said. "It was a very gratifying time. But he became frustrated by certain financial limitations."

Zinman, who resigned after 13 years, has subsequently characterized his association with BSO management as "contentious." In 2001, he relinquished his honorary music director emeritus title, protesting conservative programming choices by his successor, Temirkanov.

Since his arrival in 2000, the Russian conductor, who is also music director of the famed St. Petersburg Philharmonic, has offered a sharp contrast on the BSO podium.

"Temirkanov is very traditional," Gidwitz said, "but he has brought us plenty of new experiences. And I wouldn't trade that for what any other orchestra is doing. Temirkanov is a great genius. He brings a depth of expression to music making that [Zinman] couldn't touch. Having him here is the ultimate fulfillment of my work."

`Very unexpected'

Through his translator, Temirkanov said, "John's decision to retire was very, very unexpected. I feel very sorry that he is leaving, especially since my coming here was very much because of him. He followed me around the world trying to persuade me to come to Baltimore. I will miss him - people everywhere in this building will miss him."

Gidwitz's departure will not affect his commitment to the symphony, the conductor said, noting that he has contracted concert dates through next season. (Temirkanov has an open-ended, year-to-year contract with the orchestra.)

Observers within and outside the BSO expressed surprise at the announcement, especially with the opening of Strathmore on the horizon. It was Gidwitz who first envisioned the collaboration between the BSO and Montgomery County that led to construction of the concert hall. "He actually came onto my property and said, `Hey, what do you think of the BSO coming here for the summer?' " said Eliot Pfanstiehl, executive director of the Strathmore Hall Foundation. "We ended up with an indoor hall where they can play year-round, but John saw it first. He made the marriage."

"He called me this morning and told me that he would not have left if there had still been some outstanding issues with Strathmore Hall," Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said. "But he told me that once the hall opens, you will have to spend five years making it a success, and he thought it would be good to have a new person come in with the enthusiasm and energy to make it happen. He's going to be missed."

The BSO has been in the red for the past two seasons. If, as projected, the BSO ends the current season with a $1.6 million deficit, accumulated debt will be about $2.8 million.

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