In his first three programs as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conductor Yuri Temirkanov definitely made a difference.
Critics and audience members alike remarked upon how rich the sound was, how passionate the playing. Clearly, Temirkanov was working some sort of magic with the orchestra.
But what sort, exactly?
From the audience's perspective, the conductor's job often seems a bit of a mystery. Obviously, he's the man in charge, and the orchestra responds to his commands -- his beat, his sense of dynamics, his conception. He is playing the orchestra, as surely as the orchestra is playing the music.
So there is often something dictatorial about the job of orchestra conductor. As Harold C. Schonberg wrote in "The Great Conductors," a conductor is "a leader among men. He governs. He has but to stretch out his hand, and he is obeyed. He tolerates no opposition. His will, his word, his very glance, are law."
But just as there are many ways of governing, there are many ways a conductor can convey his vision and exert his will. And to hear the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony tell it, a large part of what sets Temirkanov apart is that he is more inclined to inspire than to demand.
"The way a conductor asks for things from the orchestra -- the way he inspires -- is very important," says piccolo player Laurie Sokoloff. "It affects profoundly the final performance, and that's something most people wouldn't necessarily think of. They may think of it in their own lives, and how their boss affects their performance in their day-to-day jobs. But it's really no different."
Perhaps not, but the nature of the work is quite unusual. To begin with, even though great music-making requires an emotional investment from each of the players, symphonic music is not about personal expression in the way popular music is. Not only is each musician expected to play the notes in front of him or her -- no deviating from the score, thank you! -- but each one is expected to play them precisely as the conductor commands.
"Whatever you think [about the music], that's your business," says violinist Leri Slutsky. "But you must follow every request, demand and gesture of the conductor. That's the rule.
"If the conductor is as wonderful as Maestro Temirkanov is, you are doing so with full dedication, and willingly," he adds. "There is no rejection inside of you."
It helps that Temirkanov arrives on the podium with a clear and complete conception of what the work is about and how he wants it to sound. It helps that he's a great musician who understands the mechanics of music making and can convey how the parts should be played. It also helps that he's personable, a man of wit and enormous personal magnetism.
Ultimately, though, it's how he relates to the other musicians onstage that matters most. "Some conductors really like to be in control, and get very nervous if they're not in control of the beat, every moment," says assistant principal horn player Philip Munds.
"Temirkanov comes with the attitude of, 'We're going to play together.' He's a musician also, as many conductors are, but I think he understands that you're going to get a much more friendly reaction, and much more passionate playing, when you allow the players to do their thing. And he kind of molds you, and shapes you, while you do that.
"I think his lack of control creates control for him."
"He doesn't conduct, he makes music," says Mihaly Virizlay, the orchestra's principal cello. "Whether he is the greatest conductor or not, it's all irrelevant. Because I'm sure there are conductors who beat clearer, who have the name virtuoso attached to them.
"But it's so unimportant, because I never care, actually, how he conducts. I always think, 'Wow, what a wonderful music we make together.' "
Watching it happen
It's easier to see how Temirkanov's leadership and charm work when the orchestra is in rehearsal. Seated onstage at the Meyerhoff, the orchestra is arrayed exactly as it would be for a performance -- except the players and conductor are in street clothes, not formal evening wear.
Temirkanov starts right at the beginning of the piece, and the orchestra plays until he stops them. He'll make a point about how he wants a specific passage to be played, sometimes singing, sometimes verbalizing, sometimes simply gesturing.
When he speaks, Temirkanov is quiet, almost conversational, and sometimes his voice doesn't quite make it to the back rows. "I was sitting on the fifth stand, I couldn't hear any words that he said," says viola player Genia Slutsky. She mimes talking to show what she means. "Nothing more," she says. "But when you look at him, you know what he wants."
Above all, what comes across in Temirkanov's leadership is the gentleness of his determinationand his faith in the orchestra.
"He's definitely willing to give us a chance to play the best that we can," says Munds. "He's not going to beat it out of us. He has a very, very high standard, but he's not degrading to any of the players if he doesn't get that. He just pushes for more.
"You just find yourself really wanting to play well and not being afraid to go for it," he adds. "It creates an atmosphere of not being afraid to miss [a note] or to play out. He makes you feel real comfortable."
A gentle approach
Forget the movie image of the conductor as a cranky dictator, pounding the lectern and scolding, "No, no, no" when the performance isn't note-perfect. Temirkanov is gentle, encouraging. After hearing a passage in Beethoven's third symphony that was not to his liking, he stopped the orchestra, and then sang the phrase as it had just been played. "Perfectly correct," he said in his Russian-accented English. "But better ..." and he sang it as he felt it should be played.
"He was saying it's rhythmically correct, it's dynamically correct, but it is not filled by your emotion, by your feeling for this style of music that you're playing," Slutsky says later. "It must be more than just a simple math exercise. It's emotion."
Yet Temirkanov can get technical at times. For string players, much of their sound and phrasing is determined by the bowing -- that is, how the bow is pulled across the strings. Whether a phrase is started on a down-bow (pulling the bow from left to right across the string) or an up-bow (pulling the bow from right to left); whether the stroke is long or short, slow or fast; whether the player uses the middle of the bow, or the portion closest to the right hand -- all of these factors affect the instrument's articulation. And within each section, the bowing has to be identical.
A string player himself, the conductor is particularly attuned to the finer points of bowing. While rehearsing the Beethoven, Temirkanov stops several times to suggest changes. Sometimes he mimes the bowing he wants, and sometimes the orchestra's concertmaster, Herbert Greenberg, interprets his wishes and calls for specific bowing.
But even though Temirkanov is working toward getting every detail of his conception brought to life, it doesn't seem like an act of will, so much as a collaboration. It as if he convinces everyone onstage to feel the music as deeply and specifically as he does.
Getting it together
Sokoloff recalls the rehearsals for Temirkanov's inaugural concerts last month, when the orchestra performed Mahler's second symphony. "Temirkanov did that opening, oh, I want to say 30 times in the rehearsals," she says. "It may have been more.
"He, from the beginning, expressed the way he wanted it to sound. And I remember thinking to myself, 'That's wonderful, but how are you ever going to get that together?' And ultimately, he got it together by getting everyone to feel it the same way.
"I remember the point at the rehearsals where it really got together for the first time. The hairs on my arms stood up! It was fascinating."
Perhaps the most telling thing about Temirkanov's leadership is how much enthusiasm he has sparked among the orchestra's veterans. When Virizlay came to the BSO in 1964, its conductor was Herman Peter Adler. Four years later, Sergiu Comissiona took over.
Then, in '85, David Zinman came in. "He succeeded in making this orchestra a great world-class ensemble, with tours, with records," says Virizlay. "And after he left, everyone was thinking, Well, what will be now?"
Well, what will be now?
Virizlay smiles, his eyes twinkling. "All I can say is, one can sleep at night, reassured," he says. "Because I think, always, an orchestra is a tree. It either grows, and will have new twigs and leaves and branches, or it will be dying at the roots. And when a tree dies at the roots, you don't right away see it. But when it grows, you see that right away. And I think that is the thing here. This is a forever-growing tree.
"This is how I picture this symphony. And this is my 36th season here, so I have seen plenty of twigs and limbs and branches fall off, and grow. And I'm happy to report to you that I think it's all green, and it's in bloom, and the continuance is reassured with Temirkanov."