A visitor to Baltimore three Thursdays ago could have been forgiven for wondering if the city's new mayor was Russian, not Irish.
Blue banners emblazoned with the name of Yuri Temirkanov, incoming music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, hung in every imaginable spot, including the lobby of Penn Station. Giant searchlights split the snowy sky, leading music lovers to Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where Temirkanov and the BSO were performing Gustav Mahler's gigantic "Resurrection" Symphony at the conductor's inaugural concert. Inside the hall, critics from the Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today were on hand to render judgment: was the new man a titan of the podium, or just another high-priced stick-waver in tails?
In fact, the slight-statured Temirkanov conducts bare-handed. But by the time of his second concert, a brilliant all-French program, it was clear that baton or no baton, the BSO's 11th music director will have a king-sized effect on an ensemble that David Zinman, his predecessor, had already turned into one of America's more interesting orchestras.
Temirkanov's first two programs spelled out a musical manifesto. Above all, they announced that he is a remarkable conductor, a romantic aristocrat who thrills audiences and musicians alike. Broad smiles on the faces of orchestra members suggested that they were delighted with their new boss, and backstage conversations confirmed the impression. Not surprisingly, the orchestra played superbly for Temirkanov. But it also played differently. Under Zinman, the BSO strove for discipline and precision; able to take that achievement for granted, Temirkanov is now imposing his own style on the BSO, and the results are plain to hear. The strings are warmer and richer in tone, the ensemble a bit looser, the overall approach recognizably Slavic, as befits a conductor who also leads Russia's legendary St. Petersburg Philharmonic.
We'll learn more about him when he performs Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony on Feb. 10, and more still when he returns in June for a pair of programs that includes three Russian pieces (among them Dmitri Shostakovich's anguished Thirteenth Symphony, one of the supreme classical music masterpieces of the past half-century). But no matter what happens in the months to come, Yuri Temirkanov has made his mark on the BSO -- and he has done so on the eve of a crucial period in the orchestra's history.
Starting in spring of 2004, the BSO expects to begin giving regular performances in a new 2,000-seat, $89 million concert venue at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center. The center, located just north of Bethesda in Montgomery County, is less than 10 miles from Washington's Kennedy Center, home of the National Symphony Orchestra. Montgomery County has an unusually high percentage of prosperous, well-educated residents, the target market for any symphony orchestra. In addition, Strathmore, unlike the Kennedy Center, will be easily accessible to Washingtonians via the Metro.
The two orchestras are understandably closemouthed about the prospect of head-to-head competition. The BSO and NSO are both second-tier groups, widely admired but not in the same class as the internationally renowned "Big Five" American orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia. They have similar-sized budgets, and prior to Temirkanov's arrival, they were both led by respected "orchestra builders" who did much to improve the quality of their respective ensembles.
Temirkanov is a distinctly more charismatic podium personality than the NSO's Leonard Slatkin. But, he appears to have no serious interest in or knowledge of the American music that Slatkin and Zinman perform regularly and with relish -- a deficiency that may prove fateful in time.
Under Zinman, new American music had a place of honor on the BSO's programs. Indeed, the orchestra's commitment to American composers has become central to its identity outside Baltimore. The list of world premieres given here during his 13-year tenure is breathtaking, and many of the orchestra's most significant recordings have been of American repertoire. Whenever you listen at home to the music of such noted young composers as Christopher Rouse, Stephen Albert, Michael Daugherty or Michael Torke, there's a better-than-even chance that you're hearing David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony.
That the BSO should have been led by an American-born conductor was itself a powerful statement. In spite of the galvanizing example of Leonard Bernstein, most major American orchestras continue to be led by Europeans whose feel for American life and culture is severely limited.
Baltimore has now joined their ranks. At a time when American composers are turning in droves from the ugly avant-garde sounds of late modernism to forge an accessible, vital American style in contemporary classical music, the BSO is entering the 21st century with a music director for whom Rouse and his contemporaries are not even names.
"I hope that I will get to know more living American composers," Temirkanov told The Sun recently. But when asked to name some American composers he admires, he mentioned only George Gershwin, who died in 1937, and Charles Ives, who died in 1954 -- the two composers invariably cited by European conductors who know nothing about American music.
For now, this problem will undoubtedly be overlooked in the justifiable uproar over the electrifying performances that Temirkanov is coaxing out of an orchestra that was ripe for a change.
And who knows? He may prove to be as open to American music as he is to the French music that he leads with a stylistic assurance rare among Russian musicians. His performance with Leon Fleisher of the quintessentially French Left-Hand Piano Concerto of Maurice Ravel, for example, was the finest I have heard in 25 years of concert-going. Perhaps he will take to the made-in-America rhythms of Bernstein's "Fancy Free" or Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" with equal fervor.
Or maybe not -- and maybe it won't matter. No conductor can do everything equally well, and the range of things that he does very well indeed has already proved wider than expected. Furthermore, the shift in emphasis may be to the BSO's advantage in its coming duel with Slatkin and the NSO.
Instead of a pair of second-tier orchestras led by American conductors of broadly similar taste, the region will now have a pair of second-tier orchestras led by conductors who have next-to-nothing in common. It won't be hard to tell the two groups apart.
Under Temirkanov, the BSO might even smash through the glass ceiling of quality and move decisively into the front rank of American orchestras. There is room at the top -- none of the Big Five orchestras is currently being led by an indisputably great music director -- and judging by his first two concerts, Temirkanov has the potential to shape his new orchestra into a world-class performing instrument.
Still, times are changing fast, and the institution of the classical concert is under siege in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. Now that the entire classical repertoire is available on compact disc, will it be possible for symphony orchestras to lure Gen-Xers into concert halls by merely giving performances -- even great ones -- of the overly familiar warhorses of the past?
Or must they find another way to compete with such radically new entertainment media as the Internet?
A handful of American conductors, foremost among them Slatkin, Zinman and Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, have decided that in order to draw younger audiences, it is necessary to offer them a different kind of musical experience, one that goes beyond merely duplicating what is readily available on record. That means new approaches to marketing and presentation, such as the influential "casual concerts" Zinman launched in 1987. It also means exciting new music by up-and-coming young American composers.
Yuri Temirkanov knows it will take more than just high-class music-making to make a success of the new job. Asked how he sees the role of conductor in his two countries, he told The Sun, "That the conductor be a public figure, a celebrity in America, is expected. In Russia, it is not expected. In Russia, you are a personality, but only in arts world, not outside. As I have signed the contract, I will do anything which is required of me."
But the 61-year-old conductor might be in for a few surprises once he gets around to reading the small print. It's a long way from St. Petersburg to Baltimore, longer than he could possibly realize. He doesn't own a TV; he can't drive a car; he won't speak English in public; he probably couldn't pick Alanis Morrisette or Lauryn Hill out of a lineup.
What he can do is inspire his new orchestra to play so beautifully that you don't know whether to cheer or cry. That's a lot -- but is it enough? The future of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be shaped by the way in which its extraordinarily gifted new music director goes about answering that tough question.
Terry Teachout, who reviewed Yuri Temirkanov's inaugural concerts for The Sun, is a longtime Sun contributor. The music critic of Commentary, he also covers classical music and dance for Time Magazine. He is writing "H.L. Mencken: A Life."
Kudos for Temirkanov
Baltimore wasn't the only city wowed by Yuri Temirkanov's debut January 20 as the BSO's conductor/artistic director. Here is a selection of reviews from out-of-town papers of Temirkanov's opening program, Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony:
"The new music director conducts Mahler with little wasted motion. In this often violent and saturnine work, Temirkanov called for only those cataclysms necessary to make the composer's point. He is a purist on the podium, attending diligently if not slavishly to the score, taking the spare theatrical liberty that proves he is confident of the audience attention."
The Washington Post, January 21
" What struck a listener here, as before in Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, was Mr. Temirkanov's immense patience. This is a quality perhaps insufficiently sought or valued among conductors. Whether in Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony or in Mahler's "Resurrection," few conductors show more care for or confidence in the long line of the music."
The New York Times, January 25
"A lean, craggy, melancholy presence, he conducts without baton but with great force of personality. . . .Temirkanov favors expansive tempos, rhetorical pauses that speak volumes, violinists who dig deep into their strings, basses that rumble and growl, and other bold gestures allowing him to make personal statements through the music. Among Americans, only Leonard Bernstein conducted with this kind of freedom."
USA Today, Jan. 28
A week later, Temirkanov's second program was a selection of Ravel and Debussy. Here was one reaction:
If the musicmaking at Meyerhoff continues at this heady level, concertgoers in the Baltimore-Washington area are fortunate indeed.
Washington Post, January 31