David Zinman stepped onto the podium last Tuesday, gave a brisk good morning to the musicians, and with two strokes began his 10th year as musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Newly bearded and just back from an eight-month sabbatical, he looked tan and fit, but the conductor and his players seemed edgy. The gathering was their first regular season rehearsal together since December -- and musicians and maestro knew their beautiful music could abruptly fall silent.
Tonight, the BSO celebrates Mr. Zinman's anniversary as musical director with a fund-raising gala and concert. On Thursday, its 1995-1996 season opens.
But on Saturday, the musicians' two-year contract will expire, and management is searching for new ways to offset the symphony's annual debt -- which has built to $2.5 million. Hinging on both may be the fate of another tour tentatively set for fall 1997 that would capitalize on the publicity that followed last season's tour of east Asia.
It is a critical juncture for the BSO -- and for the man who has made it a world-renowned symphony.
"We have a question of what kind of orchestra we want to be: if we want to be an orchestra with local impact or if we want to be an orchestra of international caliber," says John Gidwitz, executive director.
"If we want to be an orchestra of international caliber, then we have to do recordings and tours and have a great conductor. But if you are going to be a orchestra of local impact, you aren't going to have a director of David Zinman's caliber."
The BSO is Mr. Zinman's as the Brandenburg Concertos are Bach's. BSO recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma have won three Grammys. Its radio series is broadcast on 180 stations nationwide. And it has toured both U.S. coasts, Europe and east Asia with critical success.
In the view of critics, guest soloists, record producers and orchestra members, David Zinman has brought the BSO -- in a decade's time -- to a higher peak of artistry.
"Our symphony went to Japan after the Baltimore tour, and I heard from our Japanese manager and others that the BSO was the big surprise of the year: They played terrifically, and the audiences loved them," says Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony.
The BSO can hardly afford a repeat of the 1987-1988 contract talks, which resulted in a bitter, six-month strike. Then, like now, the symphony was riding high after an international tour, in that ,, case 14 European cities. After the strike, morale plummeted, fund-raising slowed, a tour was postponed and momentum faltered.
The last contract, negotiated in 1992, was approached cautiously, with both sides refusing to describe the talks to the news media. They are following that strategy this year, too.
Even Mr. Zinman, who is neither management nor orchestral player, refused to be interviewed for fear that any comments could exacerbate tensions. And, though his contract runs through the 1997-1998 season, the outcome of these negotiations will affect his future as much as the symphony's.
A new generation
Called "David" by the musicians -- not "maestro," not even "Mr. Zinman" -- the New York native represents a new generation of conductor.
Tradition has long held that since classical music has European roots, so must its conductors. But Mr. Zinman and others, among them Leonard Slatkin of Washington's National Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, are making a name for American-born conductors.
Balding and so short that one of the most frequently asked
questions at the box office has to do with his height, Mr. Zinman seems a Superball of energy. He has worked to attract new, younger audiences by making concerts more accessible. (His Saturday morning "Casual Concerts," in which he talks to audience members and encourages questions, are being imitated nationwide.) And he has invigorated the symphony's repertoire by programming the work of young American composers.
In this, his American roots work to his advantage. He is, after all, a guy who grew up in the Bronx, who did stand-up comedy while in college, and who is into e-mail and baseball. As a conductor, he is equally comfortable collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma or wearing a funny hat while conducting a waltz -- if that's what it takes to engage his listeners.
"He is the only conductor that I know, the only world-famous conductor, whom you can go to the movies with," says Michael Daugherty, whose "Metropolis Symphony," based upon DC Comics' Superman, was recorded by the BSO and will be released on the Sony Classical label. "He once said to me that a composer should write about whatever inspires him, be it Mozart or Jayne Mansfield."
But before Mr. Zinman could build his reputation in the United States, he had to build it in Europe. Under Pierre Monteux's wing, the Oberlin College graduate began conducting rehearsals the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s.
"He really knows what makes music work. He takes the trouble to know the scores," says flutist James Galway, who met Mr. Zinman during those years. "His performances are always developing, his interpretations never stay still. This is the mark of a great musician."
Eventually, he was hired by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. By 1974, he was commuting across the ocean for a second job as music director of the Rochester Philharmonic. It was there that he met acclaimed pianist Micha Dichter.
At a concert during the World Series, Mr. Dichter was performing a Mozart concerto and paused between two solemn movements, waiting for absolute silence. "I was almost in a prayer mode," he says.
After a moment, Mr. Zinman could stand it no more. "What? Are you dead?" he whispered. "There's a ball game on: Play."
Mr. Zinman became the BSO's official guest conductor in 1982. By the end of his current four-year contract, the 59-year-old will earn $25,000 each week he conducts, not an extraordinary amount by industry standards.
He's artistic director for Minnesota Orchestra's Viennese Sommerfest and this year begins serving as music director at the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. He is a guest conductor from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. "Musicians around the world seek him out," Mr. Dichter says.
No one, least of all musicians, agrees upon what makes a conductor great. Mr. Zinman must be diplomat, administrator, inspiration, disciplinarian, artistic director, musician, fund-raiser, marketing tool, celebrity, autocrat and visionary.
"It's one person trying to convince 96 other people, who have a pretty strong idea of what they want to do, to do what he wants them to do," says Kenneth Willaman, a BSO cellist.
And that's just the rehearsal: At a performance, he's supposed to electrify and inspire 2,500 people who can see only his back.
Leonard Bernstein was famous for his wildly emotional gestures and flapping hair. Sergiu Comissiona is renowned for his passion. With David Zinman on the podium, there are no grand theatrics. No head tossing. No wild flourishes. There is a fluidity and economy to each motion. "Everything he does is for the musician," says BSO violinist Ellen Pendleton.
His sense of rhythm is deemed nearly flawless by many. And soloists say he anticipates what they are trying to express.
"David has what borders on extrasensory perception," says Mr. Dichter. "There are certain times that I call magic moments or goose bump time, moments when everything comes together. David understands this and goes with it even before the soloist knows it is going to happen."
Still, there are detractors. Some BSO musicians feel that he barks orders too fiercely. Others say that, though his technique and attention to detail enhance music by composers like Mozart, they can detract from the glorious emotional flow of the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. Most BSO members agree, however, that the bottom line is how much further Mr. Zinman can take a symphony that has grown so enormously in 79 years.
Step by step
Before the BSO was David Zinman's orchestra, it was Sergiu Comissiona's. In his 17-year tenure, the Romanian-born conductor transformed a third-rate ensemble into a strong regional orchestra and took it to Carnegie Hall and Europe. He also won it a home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
When he left in 1984, Maestro Comissiona says, "the [BSO] had achieved a style of playing -- an excellence in French music, romantic pieces like Mahler." Its weakness, however, was its imprecision. "I blamed myself [for] not having given it the training in strictly classical music -- in Bach, Beethoven."
"I came to Baltimore with a list," says the maestro, now music director of the Vancouver Symphony and chief conductor of Madrid's Radio and Television Orchestra. "It took 15 years to fulfill that. Now David Zinman is fulfilling his list."
Mr. Zinman fashioned an orchestra that sits just outside "the Big Five." These symphonies -- Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland -- have had a tradition of artistic excellence for more than 50 years.
Beyond that, they have money.
"The BSO has, during David's tenure, moved up in that second tier of orchestras to a much higher level," says Mr. Fogel of the Chicago Symphony, which has an endowment of $86 million and no debt.
"It is not in the class of a Philadelphia or Chicago, but there are certain constraints placed on symphonies because of the size and financial resources of the city they are in."
The BSO's endowment is $41,775,000. Last year, its budget was $19,029,426 (including the $2 million spent on the east Asian tour, which was paid for by its presenters, donations and fees.) And since 1992, the symphony has run an annual deficit caused by low earnings on its endowment and by decreasing government support.
Baltimore "is just not big enough for David, and it's just not big enough for us right now," says Herbert Greenberg, concertmaster of the BSO. "This has nothing to do with the people who come to the concerts or the board of the directors, who work very hard."
When Mr. Zinman joined the BSO, he said he would train the orchestra in the "basics -- Bach, Mozart, Haydn, playing together, playing in tune and in balance."
He has done that.
When he signed his current contract, he wanted the symphony to do more recordings and to go on two tours -- one of the United States and one of Japan. It has done that.
So what remains on Mr. Zinman's list?
To those who know him, there's little question: Financial stability so that the BSO can maintain its momentum with a steady diet of tours and recordings.
"If you were a heavyweight fighter, [the Big Five] would be the MGM Grand; that's where everyone great plays and you either survive or you don't," says Mr. Greenberg. "And David's thinking has always been that this is the arena where the Baltimore orchestra should be competing."