Keeping Zinman: Costs and Benefits


David Zinman silenced months of rumors and speculation with his recent decision to renew his contract as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

It was scarcely a secret that the conductor had become frustrated and depressed in Baltimore with the orchestra's failure to keep up the momentum it had established in the middle and late 1980s. The rumor mill had him leaving for openings at the Minnesota Orchestra or the San Francisco Symphony.

Keeping Mr. Zinman here does not come cheap. Aside from his contract, which calls for $25,000 a week for the weeks he actually conducts the orchestra in the 1997-98 season, the final year of his new four-year contract, the orchestra's board has committed itself to two tours -- one of the United States (cost about $250,000) and one of either Japan or Europe (cost about $350,000) -- more recordings (at about $50,000 -- $100,000 each) and, if possible, two more string players (at about $60,000 a year each).

Is Mr. Zinman worth it? The verdict here is an unqualified yes. As far as his future remuneration -- he is now making $21,000 a week -- is concerned, the conductor will remain a bargain. (The music directors of the symphonies to which it was rumored that Mr. Zinman might depart are now making several thousand dollars more each week than the conductor will make here at the end of this decade.)

But the more important reason is that what the conductor wants will give all of us an even better orchestra, and the commitment of resources to keep Mr. Zinman here sends an important signal. At a time when other orchestras are fighting to keep alive by cutting back, Baltimore is saying that a better orchestra is worth paying for. It's a vote of confidence in the future of Baltimore's most important arts institution -- and nothing less than a vote of confidence in the future of the city itself.

No music director is irreplaceable, of course. Ten years ago when Sergiu Comissiona suddenly and unexpectedly announced that he was leaving Baltimore for the Houston Symphony, his decision was greeted with dismay. Mr. Comissiona had recently taken the orchestra on its first trip to Europe, had been the principal factor in getting Meyerhoff Hall built and -- over 15 years -- had transformed the BSO from a third-rate orchestra into a strong regional one. How could he be replaced?

The fact was that he had taken the orchestra as far as he could -- and he and his players knew it. His repertory was limited -- his strengths were late Romantic French and Russian works -- and the orchestra needed someone who could bring it to a new level.

It found that person in Mr. Zinman, who has made the BSO one of the best Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven orchestras in the land, has given it a proficiency in new music that makes it much admired among living composers and has given the orchestra a reputation as a place where a soloist can expect an accompaniment to be taken seriously. (Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of the soloists who will come for a fraction of his regular fee to work with Mr. Zinman.)

Mr. Zinman has been willing to take the time -- he has spent an average of 20 weeks a year with the BSO -- to make a difference: the BSO is not a generic-sounding orchestra. Its delicately nuanced phrasing and tone is all its own.

But Mr. Zinman's work with the orchestra goes beyond musical excellence, narrowly defined. The American orchestra is in crisis. It is an essentially European institution performing an essentially European repertory to audiences that are aging.

Mr. Zinman is not a miracle worker, but along with a few other American-based conductors of his generation -- notably Leonard Slatkin in St. Louis, Gerard Schwarz in Seattle and the Estonian Neeme Jarvi in Detroit -- he has been trying to re-invent the orchestra. He has enlivened the repertory with new works by American composers that the audience actually seems to like.

And he has begun to transform the concert format, making the concert experience more accessible: His now-widely-imitated Saturday morning "Casual Concerts" and Saturday evening "Uncommon Concerts," for example, create a participatory environment for the audience in which musicians are no longer seen as automatons in penguin suits.

The BSO now has a national profile and -- to judge from several British record publications -- the beginnings of an international one. Most second-tier orchestras do not sell out Carnegie Hall. At its recent visit there, according to the orchestra's management, Mr. Zinman and the BSO did exactly that.

That they did -- and that the the audience was filled with musicians, composers and figures from the music business, as well as ordinary music lovers -- is an indication of the potency of the Zinman-Baltimore combination.

Mr. Zinman is more important to the orchestra now than he will be in another 10 years. At such long-established orchestras as those in Cleveland or Boston, conductors do not matter as much as they do at newer ones. The reputation for excellence precedes and will follow whoever happens to stand on the podium. The BSO's current reputation for excellence, however, is intricately connected to David Zinman's presence, and it would have been unfortunate had he left.

He and this city make a good match. Mr. Zinman is a warm, funny and engaging man, as well as an intriguing musician, but he does not possess the image of romantic glamour, of heroism or of monumental solidity that seems to make European conductors so attractive to the most important American orchestras.

The BSO's music director surely knew that when he renewed his contract here, thus taking himself out of consideration for the Minnesota and San Francisco jobs. But he and Baltimore have their own, attractive images -- that of the lean and hungry outsiders, that of the team that's not afraid to try something fresh and different.

This is not to say that Mr. Zinman is perfect. In the behemoths of the repertory -- the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and the tone poems of Richard Strauss -- his performances, while never less than competent, can be erratic. In such pieces he has a tendency to concentrate overmuch on details and sometimes to miss their grand ebb and flow.

He can also occasionally hold his orchestra on too tight a leash, preventing his musicians from playing out as they do when Mr. Zinman is at his best or as they occasionally do for the very few BSO guest conductors who are as talented as he is.

And -- perhaps because he has been over-worried about the orchestra's future and his own -- some of Mr. Zinman's recent performances have shown less than his usual energy.

The opportunities that the BSO board's commitments present to him should re-charge his batteries, as should a post in Zurich, Switzerland, with the Tonhalle Orchestra and a sabbatical from all conducting in the spring and summer of 1995. Mr. Zinman is a lucky man, and Baltimore is lucky that he's staying here.

Stephen Wigler is the music critic of The Baltimore Sun.

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