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Temirkanov knows how to find music's soul, set musicians free

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Yuri Temirkanov begins his final week as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director the way he began his first week six years ago: Preparing for performances of the same work by Gustav Mahler - the massive, uplifting Resurrection Symphony.

The musicians seem just as pleased to be working with him now as they were in 2000 and, judging by the response to his concerts in the past two weeks, the public sounds just as loudly enthusiastic as it was back then. That's one way to tell that Temirkanov's tenure has been, on balance, a success.

Sure, folks who never warmed to the idea of this particular conductor picking up the mantle from David Zinman, who did so much to put the BSO on the map, are not likely to be any more taken with it now. Those who bristled at what they thought was too much Russian music in the programming must still be displeased.

And those who became disillusioned with Temirkanov after his many canceled BSO appearances, most recently four weeks in March, may not have been able to rekindle former feelings.

Then there are the types who can't possibly respect a music director unless he (or she) chats amiably from the stage all the time and can be spotted in the local supermarket as a by-golly, just-one of-us members of the community. They're bound to be as huffily anti-Temirkanov as ever.

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney tells me that one recipient of his recent mailing to BSO subscribers, offering the opportunity to purchase the only recording of Temirkanov and the BSO, returned the letter with two words scrawled next to the conductor's name: "Good riddance." Next to Carney's signature on the letter was one more kind and caring note from the correspondent: "I can't wait for you to leave, too."

I worry about people like that. If any genuine music lover not only wants to push Temirkanov out the door, but also the gifted concertmaster he hired, there's something wrong somewhere.

Only the stone-deaf or stone-cold-hearted could have missed the quality of the music-making Temirkanov generated. I'm not talking about issues of interpretation, which are fair game for debate. And I'm not talking about programming, also subject to disagreement and disappointment. I'm talking about art.

"He inspired players to take musical chances," says Philip Munds, promoted to the principal horn chair by Temirkanov. "He instilled what I would call an attitude of abandon."

Staggering artistry

James Judd, who subbed for an indisposed Temirkanov several times, noticed that attitude the first time he heard the Russian conduct the Baltimore ensemble. That was last year in New Jersey, where Judd happened to be when the BSO played works by Shostakovich, Debussy and Ravel the night before a Carnegie Hall appearance.

"It was a really memorable concert in my life," Judd says. "I was absolutely staggered by the incredibly fluent music-making, the spontaneity of the interpretation, the voluptuous sound that Temirkanov got out of the orchestra and the terrific freedom he allowed."

Freedom. That word comes up often when people talk about Temirkanov's style.

"It takes great trust and respect from musicians to get that kind of freedom and rapport," says Judd, who was also struck by some stretching of rhythms that Temirkanov did in the Debussy and Ravel scores that night in New Jersey.

"He did things that I wouldn't personally do," Judd says, "but it was utterly convincing to me. When you listen to a great conductor, you can disagree with it intellectually, but get totally carried away."

Carried away. That's how I've felt so many times when Temirkanov, with his baton-less hands and communicative body language, has conducted the BSO.

I'm not saying that every single piece on every single concert has clicked compellingly, but the frequency and intensity of musical sparks have been unusually high.

Emotional richness

"Yuri embodies a style of conducting that is best described as Russian Romantic," says Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. "His overriding goals have more to do with the emotional content of the music, rather than the technical finesse of the ensemble. He brought that quality to the Baltimore Symphony, and our community has been made richer for his contribution."

Slatkin's predecessor at the NSO, Mstislav Rostropovich, also speaks of that emotional quality.

"I knew from the beginning that he was a fantastic talent," Rostropovich says of "my very dear friend," Temirkanov. "For conductors, technique is, of course, important. But sometimes, it is like a metronome.

"It is more important to go underneath what the music says, to find what is inside your heart, inside your being - to find the character of the music. Not many conductors do this. He has this talent."

Munds sounds a similar note. "Temirkanov definitely conducts beyond the notes," he says. "He transcends the score."

I get the feeling some concert-goers aren't remotely interested in, or capable of, transcending anything. They just want to be entertained, preferably through familiar music conducted by someone they think of as one of their own.

They don't so much want a music director for their hometown orchestra as a mascot. Artistry just gets in the way.

But for those of us driven by a desire to feel the renewing energy and depth of music, the experience of the Temirkanov/BSO partnership has been terrifically enriching. Right now, the occasional disappointments are hard to recall, the unfortunate rash of cancellations relatively easy to forget.

Russian fare

When Temirkanov got here in 2000, the BSO had assorted technical weaknesses, individual and sectional. He addressed most of them through fresh hires or the realignment of existing players. You can't put too high a price on those improvements.

Still, I know folks who think that it doesn't matter much how an orchestra plays, but what it plays. By that measurement, Temirkanov won't get as many points as Zinman. But the repertoire list of the past six years is not as uneventful or unimaginative as some would have it.

Not surprisingly, Temirkanov didn't conduct a lot of American music. Yet he did offer committed performances of works by Charles Ives, Samuel Barber and Kevin Puts - not to mention unforgettably sizzling accounts of works by George Gershwin.

And although we got an abundance of standard Russian fare - performed with idiomatic authority - we also got to experience the arresting music of Giya Kancheli and important pieces by Shostakovich that receive little attention in the West.

And I, for one, have no complaints about what Temirkanov could do with the meat-and-potatoes repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms or Dvorak. Then there were those potent nights of Strauss and Sibelius. And, especially, Mahler, whose symphonies invariably found Temirkanov transcending the notes.

But there I go again, talking about the music, the art.

Not easy to 'brand'

What about the BSO's deficits that ballooned hideously during the Temirkanov years, the seas of empty seats that became distressingly common (though usually not when he was in town), the often dysfunctional administration, the sad parade of staff and board resignations?

If you want to lay all of that at Temirkanov's feet, go ahead. But I'd say the blame lies mostly with those whose primary responsibility involved the structural health of the organization. I think precious few people inside the BSO understood what they had in Temirkanov. I'm not sure anyone there had a clue how to "brand" him (as marketing folks say) or his artistry.

And I don't think management ever developed a fully effective way of dealing with a music director who spent a lot of time far away, didn't speak fluent English, and didn't even have an entourage of handlers.

In some ways, Temirkanov was never cut out to be what American orchestras now think of as a music director (although he did a lot more schmoozing and public relations work than is generally thought).

With the demands of his long-held post at the helm of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Temirkanov was never going to give the BSO all of his attention all of the time. He did, however, commit to the industry standard of 12 weeks for a music director - most seasons. Too bad cancellations cut into that.

Looking back, he still should have found a way to be here more often somehow, should have made up for at least some of those cancellations, should have exerted himself more in management circles.

Yet, for all of that, we got six memorable years of musical inspiration and an invaluable addition to the BSO's artistic personality.

If the late Sergiu Comissiona gave the orchestra its heart and Zinman gave it intellect, Temirkanov gave it soul.

Those earlier music directors enjoyed an easier bond with audiences, made quicker and more direct connections. Temirkanov has remained, for many, something of a stranger. That's partly his fault, but not a crime. His old-world view of conductors is that they should just conduct, not try to be talk-show hosts or stand-up comics.

But if the public rarely heard Temirkanov's own voice, they couldn't miss his message. It was always there in the intensity - and the freedom - that defined the way he made music with the BSO.

Violist Genia Slutsky joined the BSO more than 25 years ago with her husband, the late violinist Leri Slutsky, who had hoped to beat cancer long enough to play this week's farewell concerts with their fellow Russian, Temirkanov.

"When Leri and I came here in 1980, it was a good orchestra," Slutsky says, "but not as good as we were used to in Russia. Today it is 100 percent better. Temirkanov is such a great musician and a great conductor, despite a different style from anybody else - the way he makes music with his hands."

And with something else.

On the musicians' own Web site (bsomusicians.org), violinist Ivan Stefanovic posted this observation:

"If the saying 'eyes are the windows to one's soul' were literally true, Maestro Temirkanov's eyes would be the size of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. That's why he is the only conductor I know that could lead an orchestra with hands tied behind his back."

At the end of his tribute to Temirkanov on that site, trombonist Randy Campora wrote a line I can't resist borrowing:

"The only thing to do is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy while you can."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Final performances

Yuri Temirkanov conducts the BSO, soprano Janice Chandler Eteme, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Morgan State University Choir in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 3 p.m. June 11 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Also, 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $21 to $78. Call 410-783-8000 or 877-276-1444, or visit baltimoresymphony.org.

TEMIRKANOV AND THE BSO

Performances at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, January 2000 to June 2006:

104

Performances at Music Center at Strathmore, February 2005 to June 2006:

10

Performances on tour in Europe, Japan and Eastern U.S.:

36

Total repertoire:

131 works by 50 composers

Russian repertoire, in particular:

60 works by 12 composers

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