Ten High Notes As David Zinman prepares to leave the BSO, here's a look back at a brilliant run.


An article in yesterday's Arts & Society section gave an incorrect year for David Zinman's return to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra after a musicians strike. The conductor returned to the podium in 1989.

The Sun regrets the errors.

One of David Zinman's greatest moments with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will take place this week, when he leads the last program of his 13-year-tenure as the symphony's music director.

My prediction has nothing to do with chutzpah, arrogance or insanity. It's just that I know David Zinman. I have been reviewing his concerts for nearly 20 years, and I have been listening to them for almost 26. I was in Rochester, N.Y., for most of his 11 seasons as music director of the Rochester Philharmonic, and I have been in Baltimore for all but the first few months of his music directorship.

Here's what 26 years of listening to Zinman has taught me. He's to conductors what Stan ("The Man") Musial was to batters: He's steady and patient as well as brilliant; the grand-slam home run he will hit in the clutch is likely to come after he's fouled off 19 pitches he doesn't like. His patience and discipline explain how he was able to transform what was merely a good orchestra into one of the nation's best; that's why he rarely gives bad concerts and almost always gives good ones.

And that's why this week's performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 is likely to be something we'll always remember; and that's why he's sure to be a success in the future as music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra and Colorado's Aspen Music Festival.

More than 20 years ago in his book, "Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts," the great pianist Alfred Brendel remarked that one of the things for which he fervently wished was "that my friend, the conductor David Zinman, becomes as famous as he deserves to be." This listener has shared the same wish for at least as long.

But Zinman may be the only conductor I've known who seems able to resist looking at himself in a mirror. It's his nature that he puts the performance of music and the future of music ahead of his own ego. That's why David Zinman's legacy to the Baltimore Symphony is not only that it is rated among the world's finest orchestras, but also that it deserves to be.

Herewith is a personal selection of the 10 most memorable events in the legacy of the Zinman-BSO era:

1. Guest conducting appearances

When David Zinman made his first guest appearance on Feb. 23, 1977, the BSO's music director, Sergiu Comissiona, was solidly ensconced in Baltimore.

But orchestras are always on the lookout for music-director material. What they look for are the following: someone who can relate to the orchestra; who has something to say musically; who can skillfully accompany a soloist; and who can reach out to the audience as well as to musicians. In his first rehearsal, the boyish-looking, 40-year-old conductor -- he still had a full head of hair and did not yet look as if he needed to shave -- showed that he knew how to get along with players, that he had the musical goods and that he could accompany.

His first concert showed that he had everything else: His blistering tempo in the finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 ++ blew away the audience as well as the players. He was immediately re-engaged for the 1980-1981 season. But the guest appearance that convinced the symphony's players that Zinman was the man to replace Comissiona came on Feb. 3, 1983, when he concluded a program with a performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 ("The Great") in C major. Most of the musicians felt then, as principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay feels now, "that it was better than good -- it was great."

2. Schumann's Symphony No. 2.

Zinman's first performance of this piece in Baltimore on May 22, 1986, was a watershed for both conductor and orchestra.

The level of the orchestra's precision and ensemble -- particularly in the second-movement scherzo, the most difficult stretch of virtuoso orchestral writing in the Schumann canon -- was high enough to remind old-time listeners of the way George Szell and the Clevleand Orchestra had sounded in this music a generation earlier. The Zinman-Baltimore relationship was clearly hot.

And their collaboration in Schumann's Second was to reverberate for years to come. It was a broadcast tape of this performance that made Telarc Records decide to record the Schumann Symphonies with Baltimore and Zinman instead of Cleveland and Christoph von Dohnanyi. And those Telarc recordings, in turn, led to those the orchestra was to make for several other labels, including Decca/London, Nonesuch and Sony Classical.

3. All-Beethoven Festival of 1986.

Though it was not yet called Summerfest, this 16-day Summer Festival, from July 10-26, of Beethoven performances was actually the BSO's first major summer festival in Meyerhoff Hall.

The performances, including a complete cycle of the five piano concertos with Richard Goode, had a major effect on the reputations of everyone involved. The festival served as a massive, in-your-face introduction to Zinman's innovative interpretation of the Beethoven symphonies. Zinman, who had been much influenced by the early-music revival, made the symphonies sound as if they had been written in the composer's own time, not that of Brahms or Wagner. Instead of making them weighty in the late 19th-century manner, Zinman chose tempos that generally heeded Beethoven's lightning-fast (and often disregarded) metronome markings.

He also trained the BSO players to perform late 18th- and early 19-century music with a lightness of touch and transparency of texture that had heretofore been deemed possible only on reproductions of 18th-century instruments. Critics everywhere began to talk about what Zinman called his "science-fiction Beethoven symphonies" and they also began to pay serious attention to Goode, whose playing had been mostly confined to the attention of New York aficionados.

4. Casual concerts

The first Casual Concert took place Saturday, April 25, 1987, at 11 a.m. and was to change the nature of concert-going in America.

Zinman's idea was to have Saturday morning performances at reduced prices in a casual atmosphere that included the conductor addressing the audience. Zinman is a born educator and also a frustrated stand-up comic.

The combination was a potent one. He made classical music accessible in a manner that never condescended to the audience. He was also very, very funny. He constructed the concerts on the model of the "A Prairie Home Companion" broadcasts on public radio. The casual concerts had a "sponsor" -- a treacly tapioca pudding whose consumption made hours of flossing necessary -- as well as skits, which explored such topics as the bathroom habits of Beethoven or the time that Sigmund Freud put Brahms on the couch.

The format, which eventually was broadcast nationally, proved wildly popular. By the beginning of the 1990s, every major American orchestra was imitating Zinman's concept.

5. The European tour

The BSO had made a brief European tour in 1981 under Comissiona. But the orchestra's first international tour with Zinman in 1987 was a high-profile, 30-day trip that began May 4 in a garish, neon-lighted discotheque in Ravenna, Italy, and concluded in the marble-columned Philharmonia in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

It was an extraordinary trip, not least because the BSO became the first American orchestra to tour what was still called the Soviet Union in almost 12 years. And it was to create shock waves that continue to affect the orchestra.

Some of the same London critics who reviewed the BSO and Zinman had reviewed a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Andre Previn a few days earlier. One guess as to which orchestra, whose sound they said had an old-world quality, they preferred. You guessed right. The BSO's value on the symphonic stock market soared. The tour concluded with triumphant concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. The audience for the two Moscow concerts knew nothing about the orchestra or its music director. But those audiences heard a conductor and orchestra with a fascinatingly fresh approach to Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" and they went wild for an encore (in an orchestral transcription by BSO composer-in-residence, Christopher Rouse) of the Isely Brothers' rock and roll classic, "Twist and Shout."

By the time Zinman and the BSO reached Leningrad, word of mouth had made them the season's musical sensation. When the celebrated Leningrad Philharmonic and its two principal conductors returned home from tour, the Zinman-BSO concerts were still being talked about. What principal guest conductor Mariss Jansons and music director Yuri Temirkanov heard was intriguing enough to make them come to Baltimore as regular guests. And 10 years later, Temirkanov, of course, was named as Zinman's successor.

6. Yo-Yo Ma's three concertos

The beginning of the Zinman years coincided with the years in which the Chinese-American cellist became the world's most popular string player.

Ma and Zinman were old friends and each other's favorite collaborator, and this relationship had profoundly positive consequences for the BSO. On the programs of Jan. 7-9, 1988, Ma performed Haydn's D major Concerto, along with Benjamin Britten's Cello Symphony and Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto. The latter two pieces were then recorded by Zinman, Ma and the BSO for Sony Classical. The album, which became a classical best seller and won the orchestra's first Grammy, was succeeded by other award-winning albums by Ma and Zinman.

7. Rouse's Symphony No. 1

Zinman himself calls the commission and world premiere of this symphony "the most important achievement of my life."

Zinman had known the Baltimore-born Rouse since the latter's years as an undergraduate at Cornell University and later as a young assistant professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He had championed his music and had secured Rouse's appointment as the BSO's composer-in-residence during his first season as music director. The Symphony No. 1 turned out to be a great work -- a 25-minute, one-movement Bruckner-like adagio that hit the ear with genuine gravitas and emotional power.

The work was recorded in 1989, along with other Rouse pieces, for a much talked-about CD on the Nonesuch label. The CD helped establish Baltimore's reputation as a place hospitable to performances of challenging new works.

8. Zinman returns to the podium

For an April 7, 1988, rehearsal, Zinman made his first appearance with the orchestra after a six-month strike, one of the most bitter and certainly the longest in American symphonic history.

Zinman had not met with the orchestra since September and had observed a self-imposed vow of silence about the issues that had divided the players and management. The strike dissipated much of the momentum that the conductor and orchestra had developed. Everyone wondered what would happen during the rehearsal.

Zinman walked to the podium, began to rehearse Schumann's Symphony No. 2 and then broke down in tears. He recovered, began again and this time was able to finish the symphony. In a gruff voice, he said to the players: "Why can't you play everything that well?" And then he broke down in tears once more. As painful as the experience was for him, there could not have been a better way of re-establishing his relationship with the orchestra.

9. Gorecki's Symphony No. 3

Though not made with the BSO, the release in 1992 on the Nonesuch label of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 must be counted among the triumphs of the BSO's Zinman era.

Within a few weeks the record -- which had Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta and soprano soloist Dawn Upshaw -- hit the top of the classical charts in both the United States and Great Britain. (In Britain it also rode high on the pop charts.)

Within the next two years the Zinman-Upshaw recording sold close to 1 million copies -- at least 500 times the expected lifetime sales of a symphonic recording by a relatively obscure 20th-century composer. Along with Van Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and the first "Three Tenors" album, Zinman's Gorecki No. 3 had become one of the great "crossover" hits in history. No one knows why the two previous recordings of the symphony failed to get any attention or why subsequent recordings of the symphony (and of Gorecki's other music) were ignored. But the Nonesuch recording made Zinman the conductor of the hour and his new-won renown reflected favorably on the Baltimore Symphony.

10. The first Far East tour

The BSO and Zinman spent late fall 1994 touring South Korea and Taiwan (one week) and Japan (three weeks).

The aim was to expose the BSO and its recordings to the fastest-growing, biggest-classical-record-buying audiences in the world. The tour succeeded brilliantly. The orchestra was unknown to the Japanese, and it had to compete against such favorites as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philarmonic and the Israel Philharmonic, all of which were touring Japan at about the same time. It was for those reasons that Zinman's pal Yo-Yo Ma agreed to accompany the orchestra as soloist in concertos by Dvorak and Elgar.

At first the Japanese came to hear Ma, the biggest classical-music draw on earth, but by the end of the tour they were also coming to hear the BSO. In the orchestra's next-to-last concert in Tokyo's Suntory Hall, Japan's most prestigious classical venue, the orchestra received a bigger ovation for its phenomenal performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 than the cellist received earlier for his Dvorak Cello Concerto. No one was happier about this than the cellist himself, who could be seen and heard backstage raising a clenched fist and rhythmically shouting, "Go! Go! BSO!" Reviews compared the orchestra favorably to those of Berlin, New York and Boston. It was a lasting impression. When Zinman and the BSO returned to Japan this past November, they played to several sold-out houses even without a famous soloist on many of its programs.

For the record

David Zinman has had a long and distinguished recording career that dates back more than 30 years. He made his recording debut when he was only 29. The disc, which is still available on the Decca/London label, contained a collaboration with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony in Chopin's F minor and Bach's D minor concertos. It won a much-coveted French Grand Prix du Disque, and Zinman's records have been winning prizes -- including Grammies -- ever since.

What follows is a short list of recordings in which Zinman approaches or equals the level of excitement that he can create in the concert hall. Unless otherwise noted, all recordings are with the Baltimore Symphony.

Yo-Yo Ma: Barber Concerto for Cello and Britten Symphony for Cello (Sony Classical 44900): The recording of the Barber is simply the best ever. But the performance of the Britten approaches the status of the classic account by Mstislav Rostropovich, which was conducted by the composer himself.

Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 (Telarc 80312) and Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 3 and "Symphonic Dances" (Telarc 80331): One associates Zinman with Mozart and Beethoven or with late 20th-century American music, rather than with the lush neo-romantic scores of Rachmaninoff. But only Russian-trained conductors such as Mariss Jansons or Yuri Temirkanov conduct these symphonies as well.

Christopher Rouse, Symphony No. 1 and "Phantasmata" (Nonesuch 9-79230): When the music history of the late 20th century is written, I suspect that the explosive and passionate music of Rouse will loom large. He is a composer whom Zinman has nurtured for at least 20 years, and his Symphony No. 1 may eventually be ranked alongside the late symphonic masterpieces Shostakovich. If that becomes the case, this recording will TTC have the kind of historic value possessed by the best of Bruno Walter's Mahler or Toscanini's Verdi.

Berlioz, "Symphonie Fantastique," "Roman Carnival Overture" and "Les Franc-Juges Overture (Telarc CD 80271): There are over 60 recorded versions of the "Symphonie Fantastique" in the current catalog, many of them recorded by conductors and orchestras much more renowned than the Zinman-BSO team. But I can't think of a performance I like better than this.

Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (Arte Nova 49695): This recording features the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, whose music director Zinman became two years ago. But because Zinman's Beethoven has played such an important part of his Baltimore tenure, this recording is invaluable.


What: For his final concerts as music director of the BSO, David Zinman conducts Bruckner's Symphony No. 8

Where: Meyerhoff Hall

When: 8 p.m. June 11-13

Tickets: $17-$53.

' Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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