Zinman uses imagination to attract real audiences

David Zinman says his greatest strength is his fantasy life. He's lucky that his fantasies can be fulfilled right where he is -- because Zinman, who concludes his eighth season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week with performances of the Verdi Requiem, recently signed a contract that will extend his tenure with the BSO until the spring of 1998.

"One of the great things about being here is that I can experiment and create my own world without stepping on too many toes," said the conductor in an interview in his home last week. "To create new kinds of concert experiences and let my fantasies roam free -- that's possible here, where it might not be ++ possible somewhere else."


The conductor's new contract makes it possible for him to realize more of those fantasies. Besides being permitted to take on the music directorship of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra and to take a sabbatical in 1995, the contract promises two extended tours (one of them of Asia) with the BSO in four years, additional recording opportunities, and -- something particularly close to the conductor's heart -- the chance to create new types of concert programs and broadcasts of the kind that have already made Zinman and the BSO trendsetters in the stodgy world of classical music.

Had the conductor not received such commitments, he says, he would have left. It may be an exaggeration to say that his performances of Verdi's great "Mass for the Dead" would have also signaled a requiem for the BSO, but there's no question that Zinman's departure would have created a crisis of confidence in the orchestra.


And there's no doubt that Zinman has moved the orchestra forward, not only improving its playing but also giving it a new kind of image through his imaginative programming and broadcasts. There are some traditionalists who call the diminutive conductor "Daffy David." But others say his off-the-wall approach to communicating to audiences may make him one of the saviors of a symphonic world that is in serious jeopardy because of its aging and diminishing audience.

"The industry is having to rethink its mission, and David is one of the best at addressing the fundamental issue of reaching new audiences," says Mark Volpe, the executive director of the Detroit Symphony, who once worked for the BSO. "In a world of conductors who are interested only in protecting their own interests, it's good to see a conductor who's interested in serving his community."

In his now much-imitated "Casual Concerts" and his newer "Uncommon Concerts" and in his broadcasts, Zinman has indulged a predilection for stand-up comedy that is modeled on the David Letterman show and "Saturday Night Live" and radio shows such as "A Prairie Home Companion." The conductor is not always as funny as he likes to think he is, but he's fearless and sometimes he scores bull's-eyes that leave symphonic audiences, accustomed as they are to the stuffy hauteur of most conductors, gasping.

Keyboard antics

There was the time he plopped his backside onto the keyboard to assist Emanuel Ax in the cadenza of the Grieg concerto; there were his radio dramas about Beethoven (filled with bathroom jokes and sounds to match) and about Brahms (the poor man enters analysis to find out why it took him more than 30 years to write his first symphony); and there were radio contests, such as the "sappy song" competition, which promised as a second prize three visits to Vanna White's dentist, "plus a tour of her fabulous wardrobe."

"I'm trying to make people say, 'What the hell was that?' " says the conductor in talking about his radio broadcasts and the informal concert series he's pioneered.

And his approach is clearly working. Last year the BSO's broadcasts were the most popular classical music programs that the American Public Radio network carried, outdistancing "St. Paul Sunday Morning" and the broadcasts of the more famous Pittsburgh Symphony.

"Of all conductors, David's the best in trying to make classical music accessible to people not familiar with it," says Wally Smith, general manager of KUSC-FM in Los Angeles. "He's willing to reach out to people and help them enjoy what they've always been told they're too dumb to enjoy. Concert halls are becoming geriatric gulags, and what David is doing is crucial to the development of new audiences."


Where do Zinman's ideas come from?

"I get them from the media, from watching TV, from radio -- from anything!" says the conductor. "After all, when you consider those two guys on 'Car Talk' -- who would have ever thought that people would want to listen to two guys talking about cars for an hour and just laugh inanely the whole time? If you're willing to let your fantasy roam free -- just to let yourself dream -- you can come up with a lot of great ideas."

Zinman's fantasy life was much in evidence last week during rehearsals of Elgar's unfamiliar Symphony No. 2 with the BSO. "Just think, 'Gary, Indiana! Gary, Indiana' " sang Zinman from Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" to the orchestra as he tried to make the players understand how to give a particularly British lilt to the symphony's jocular first theme.

Such fantasy-laden instructions worked in providing remarkably idiomatic performances of a piece that the orchestra had not played before. But Zinman is all seriousness -- perhaps too serious, a few BSO musicians say -- in creating a tight ensemble with a distinctive sound. The sound that Zinman has created can best be characterized as featuring a near-perfect sense of instrumental balance, an ability to play with great lightness, unusual clarity and full force as circumstances demand.

"He's changed the sound of the orchestra immensely," says associate principal horn Peter Landgren. "If you listen to our recordings with Sergiu [Comissiona, the BSO's former music director], you'll hear that the winds and brass were always the dominant feature. Now the sound is string-based and wind-enhanced, which is what the sound of an orchestra should be."

After eight years in Baltimore, Zinman is liked and respected by most of the players -- which is not always the case in an orchestra, say Landgren and other players.


"I toured with Pittsburgh last summer, and although the players respect [Lorin] Maazel [the orchestra's music director] as a musician, it's virtually universal that they dislike him as a colleague and as someone to work for," Landgren says. "With David, there's no sense of the 'us and them' syndrome. David's lack of airs brings him closer to the musicians."

There are some musicians, however, who feel that Zinman's disciplined rehearsals and his refusal to vary from them in actual concerts produce performances that lack spontaneity.

"The great thing about live music is that it lives and breathes," says one musician. "When an orchestra is not allowed to have that freedom, it tends to stifle everyone. It's an approach that comes up with very consistent performances and very accurate ones, but in some repertory -- particularly big Romantic pieces like the Mahler symphonies -- it can be bloodless."

"His interpretations can be driving affairs that never savor the details," says another musician. "But even I have to admit that he's a decent man who treats us well and who's made a better orchestra out of the one he inherited."

An admired accompanist

That sense of fairness is one of the things that makes Zinman among the most admired accompanists in the business. He has the reputation of running an orchestra where a soloist can always expect to find a considerate accompaniment.


In his last years, the great pianist Clifford Curzon once told an interviewer that one of the things that kept him from retirement was the opportunity to play Mozart concertos with Zinman. The violinist Isaac Stern says he knows exactly how Curzon felt.

"I have more pleasure playing with David than just about anyone," says Stern, who has known Zinman since the conductor's apprenticeship with the great conductor Pierre Monteux.

"When you play a concerto with some very famous conductors -- I won't mention any names -- you know that if there's a big Mahler or Bruckner symphony on the program that you're going to get short shrift. With David, your concerto always gets the attention and respect it deserves."

But if Zinman is so wonderful why -- at the age of 56 -- isn't he more famous and why hasn't he gone to a bigger orchestra in a bigger place?

"When you consider some of the great careers of the century -- whether Stokowski's or Monteux's or Ormandy's -- you forget about the time they put in with regional orchestras," Stern says. "When Monteux was David's age, he was already a great conductor -- but that's not the way the public knew him. He had years to go before he became 'le Maitre.' This business of youth is rather silly. A lot of young conductors, including some very good ones, have a certain cameo charisma about them, but that doesn't last long. What lasts over a long period of time -- that's what you call a career, and David's will grow and grow."

Does Zinman get jealous when younger and less talented conductors get more prestigious jobs?


"I don't think that way," the conductor says. "I can look and say, 'God, that guy was chosen. Why was that?' But that happens all the time -- that's life. And I never dreamed about being a conductor in the Toscanini or Karajan mold. Conducting's really an ephemeral job. If you're famous enough to make a lot of records, you will be remembered to a certain extent. But how many people actually listen today to [Charles] Munch's records -- and he was a very great conductor.

"The most important thing I got in my young life is what I got from Monteux," Zinman continues. "He took an interest in me, and, though he probably didn't remember a word I said, everything he told me is etched in stone. I think that's always the way with young people, and I dreamed of being in a position someday to pass things on.

"Conducting is a way of teaching -- whether it's working with players or communicating with audiences. When I go from orchestra to orchestra, I meet a lot of kids -- not kids anymore, really -- who worked with me when they were students, or people who have heard our broadcasts.

pTC "When they come up to tell me that it was nice working with me or that they enjoyed hearing me, that makes me feel kind of nice, too."