Temirkanov knows how to find music's soul, set musicians free

Analysis

June 04, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Yuri Temirkanov begins his final week as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director the way he began his first week six years ago: Preparing for performances of the same work by Gustav Mahler - the massive, uplifting Resurrection Symphony.

The musicians seem just as pleased to be working with him now as they were in 2000 and, judging by the response to his concerts in the past two weeks, the public sounds just as loudly enthusiastic as it was back then. That's one way to tell that Temirkanov's tenure has been, on balance, a success.

Sure, folks who never warmed to the idea of this particular conductor picking up the mantle from David Zinman, who did so much to put the BSO on the map, are not likely to be any more taken with it now. Those who bristled at what they thought was too much Russian music in the programming must still be displeased.

And those who became disillusioned with Temirkanov after his many canceled BSO appearances, most recently four weeks in March, may not have been able to rekindle former feelings.

Then there are the types who can't possibly respect a music director unless he (or she) chats amiably from the stage all the time and can be spotted in the local supermarket as a by-golly, just-one of-us members of the community. They're bound to be as huffily anti-Temirkanov as ever.

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney tells me that one recipient of his recent mailing to BSO subscribers, offering the opportunity to purchase the only recording of Temirkanov and the BSO, returned the letter with two words scrawled next to the conductor's name: "Good riddance." Next to Carney's signature on the letter was one more kind and caring note from the correspondent: "I can't wait for you to leave, too."

I worry about people like that. If any genuine music lover not only wants to push Temirkanov out the door, but also the gifted concertmaster he hired, there's something wrong somewhere.

Only the stone-deaf or stone-cold-hearted could have missed the quality of the music-making Temirkanov generated. I'm not talking about issues of interpretation, which are fair game for debate. And I'm not talking about programming, also subject to disagreement and disappointment. I'm talking about art.

"He inspired players to take musical chances," says Philip Munds, promoted to the principal horn chair by Temirkanov. "He instilled what I would call an attitude of abandon."

Staggering artistry

James Judd, who subbed for an indisposed Temirkanov several times, noticed that attitude the first time he heard the Russian conduct the Baltimore ensemble. That was last year in New Jersey, where Judd happened to be when the BSO played works by Shostakovich, Debussy and Ravel the night before a Carnegie Hall appearance.

"It was a really memorable concert in my life," Judd says. "I was absolutely staggered by the incredibly fluent music-making, the spontaneity of the interpretation, the voluptuous sound that Temirkanov got out of the orchestra and the terrific freedom he allowed."

Freedom. That word comes up often when people talk about Temirkanov's style.

"It takes great trust and respect from musicians to get that kind of freedom and rapport," says Judd, who was also struck by some stretching of rhythms that Temirkanov did in the Debussy and Ravel scores that night in New Jersey.

"He did things that I wouldn't personally do," Judd says, "but it was utterly convincing to me. When you listen to a great conductor, you can disagree with it intellectually, but get totally carried away."

Carried away. That's how I've felt so many times when Temirkanov, with his baton-less hands and communicative body language, has conducted the BSO.

I'm not saying that every single piece on every single concert has clicked compellingly, but the frequency and intensity of musical sparks have been unusually high.

Emotional richness

"Yuri embodies a style of conducting that is best described as Russian Romantic," says Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. "His overriding goals have more to do with the emotional content of the music, rather than the technical finesse of the ensemble. He brought that quality to the Baltimore Symphony, and our community has been made richer for his contribution."

Slatkin's predecessor at the NSO, Mstislav Rostropovich, also speaks of that emotional quality.

"I knew from the beginning that he was a fantastic talent," Rostropovich says of "my very dear friend," Temirkanov. "For conductors, technique is, of course, important. But sometimes, it is like a metronome.

"It is more important to go underneath what the music says, to find what is inside your heart, inside your being - to find the character of the music. Not many conductors do this. He has this talent."

Munds sounds a similar note. "Temirkanov definitely conducts beyond the notes," he says. "He transcends the score."

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