Temirkanov is sure to be missed at BSO

MUSIC

Departing director is truly a class act

September 14, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The final shoe dropped at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last week.

The news that Yuri Temirkanov will step down as music director at the end of the 2005-2006 season caps a string of high-level departures at the BSO since last winter, when James Glicker was named chief marketing officer, then president of the organization - a "marketing guru" and dot-comer who had never worked for an orchestra before.

Several vice presidents, other staffers and one prominent board member resigned.

Sure, there's normal attrition in any organization, especially whenever a change in management comes along. But one thing many of those who left had in common was how much they really loved this orchestra and working for it. I don't believe it was an easy decision for any of them to quit.

It's always possible that Temirkanov's decision to leave after seven seasons - "It's time," he said - is totally unrelated to the Glicker administration and those resignations. But the fact that Temirkanov has reduced the number of concerts he'll lead in his last two seasons doesn't suggest a reluctant parting. (And, in my experience, almost every departure of a music director at any orchestra involves two stories - one for the record, another unspoken.)

Is the BSO, in its often proclaimed determination to "re-invent itself," willing to sacrifice anything or anyone who might not fit in with the new order?

When some of the most seasoned and effective employees left, the blithe word from on high was, "No one is irreplaceable." Management expressed no concern for the drain in institutional memory or community and patron connections that those resignations signified.

Losing Temirkanov, whose guidance has generated a higher technical level and remarkably communicative spirit within the orchestra, may likewise be shrugged off as an inevitable, not-to-worry development. But only those who have never truly recognized what this conductor had to offer could be feeling blase today.

Temirkanov may not be an ideal music director, at least by American orchestra standards. He hasn't made Baltimore his primary residence, but remains based in Russia, where he is longtime music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. By his own choice, he doesn't even have a nice big office at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (he just uses a dressing room). So he looks to some people like a glorified guest conductor.

He doesn't command a very broad repertoire, as many music directors do. He has demonstrated only a modest interest in contemporary composers. So he loses points with people who believe that orchestras should be known not for how they play, but what they play.

And he apparently will never get over his reluctance to address an audience. It is a little weird that most concertgoers here have no idea what his voice even sounds like, whether in Russian or English. (He has enough command of our language to say a few choice words once in a while, to establish a more personal connection with his public.) So he strikes some people as aloof.

Well, audiences may have never heard Temirkanov's voice, but, in performance after performance, they've heard the sound of his musical soul.

Of course, there are talents out there who would make effective music directors for the BSO - well-seasoned conductors, bright young things. But not another Yuri Temirkanov. He's of a dying breed, an old-school, old-world musician who earned the right to be called "maestro" through uncommon artistic insights and the ability to lift an orchestra beyond its limits.

At his best, Temirkanov turns an aural experience into something spiritual. That might not be the easiest thing to market in today's shallow world, but that doesn't make it any less potent. If I were running the BSO, I couldn't bear to lose that gift prematurely. (He will be named musical director emeritus in 2006.)

Maybe retaining Temirkanov just can't be a top priority for an organization severely stressed by mounting debts and dwindling audiences - the bane of many an orchestra today. All energy seems to be on trying out initiatives that, in the next couple of years, are supposed to turn things around.

Glicker exudes confidence that this will happen, that positive trends can be seen through the red ink and empty seats. That confidence particularly inspires musicians, who love to hear him say that they will soon be playing even more concerts each year, not fewer, and that they will be more intimately involved than ever before in day-to-day and long-range decisions (including the search for a new music director). I hope their faith proves justified.

What remains to be seen is if Glicker will have as much luck winning the hearts of the moneyed set in town. Same for board Chairman Philip English. They're going to have to stop the flow of red ink somehow, and soon. No one in the BSO, least of all the musicians, will be unaffected by that effort.

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