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David Zinman Turns Water into Wine

The greatest thing ever to have happened to Baltimore's music scene—David Zinman—was in the neighborhood; only that this time he gave proof of his extraordinary ability with the rival orchestra, the NSO. I've been a long-standing admirer of Zinman's ability to make B-orchestras play like the finest ensembles anywhere, but even moreso of his dedicated, imaginative, challenging, exploring (yes, all that!) programming. He is not only a great conductor of orchestras, but also of his audiences. And then, of course, he manages to say new things about standard repertoire that we often think have been exhausted, interpretatively. (His phenomenally well-selling Beethoven and Schumann cycles are a case in point.)

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven, Symphonies 1-9, David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Programming is a strength that can really only shine with a conductor in residence, and he could have been excused for a less than extraordinarily inspired program. But no: David Diamond, Music for Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet in five scenes. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, KV 491, and Elgar's Second Symphony were on the menu.

Excuse me if I gush (I don't usually), but that is quite brilliant. Of course you cannot do wrong with the Mozart concerto. Little music is more perfect and beautiful, without equal in its field save Beethoven's 4th. But bookended by Diamond's appealing, sweetly flowing R&J opus (thereby keeping with the "America in the 40s" celebration, even if the concert was not officially part of it) and Elgar's symphonic masterpiece—played not nearly often enough outside of England—the Mozart became the core of an evening that presents 20th-century American and 20th-century English music: transatlantic cleavage on musical terms. North American, Central European, and British musical tradition at its finest and in a package that should have the audience ask itself with incredulity: "Whoever said we were afraid of 20th-century music?"

David Diamond, one of the finest American composers and sadly underexposed—though that has slowly begun to change over the last 20 years—delivers a splendid work, not unduly deep (that perhaps a link with the Mozart) and its broad flows, exposed instrumental parts, and quirky wit were all masterfully played by an NSO in, once again, top form. To watch David Zinman conduct, too, is a joy. Every move is exact, precise, has purpose, shows rather than alludes, directs rather than suggests, shapes rather than evokes. That is not to call him an automaton devoid of emotion. Emotion in a limp, shapeless body goes nowhere, but feeling introduced to a tight, trim body elevates a performance from orchestral sound to a moving concert experience. There are only a handful (or less) of orchestras in the world that are in such good shape that they can take suggestions alone and provide discipline and cohesion themselves. The NSO (much less the Baltimore SO) is not one of them.

Photo of Peter Serkin
Peter Serkin
For the Mozart, Zinman got the support of Peter Serkin (Serkin, jumping in for Radu Lupu at short notice, got Zinman's support in turn), son of Rudolf Serkin and grandson of one of the best violinists of his time, Adolf Busch. Zinman, not surprisingly, took the Mozart at a brisker tempo than usually heard, and the no-nonsense, crisp way in which Peter Serkin collaborated exquisitely, worked very well... and the further into the concerto they went, the more the benefits of this approach became obvious. It had very similar qualities to the ones for which I so adore the Mozart piano concerto recordings with Dennis Russell Davies and Keith Jarrett on Nonesuch (Set 1 and Set 2).

Elgar's Symphony No. 2, undoubtedly one of the greatest symphonic works from the Perfidious Albion, swept through the concert hall in all its magnificence, brooding and yearning and with more in common with Mahler's 9th than just the year of creation. The intense tremors of the first movement's Allegro vivace e nobilimente went right into my bones. Sitting back and enjoying Zinman's visible delight in making great music—and the NSO going along every step of the way with him—was all I was left to do for the remainder of the Elgar.

The second movement (Larghetto) was a triumph, cut and dried. The climax of the third (Rondo: Presto) is like being run over by a train, only far more awesome. (Not the least because the experience is generally survived by those without coronary weakness.) Moderato e maestoso, the fourth movement, sent me back into the cool night with delight of the highest order. It took me an hour to get the delirious grin off my face. Stupendous. (With three out of five recent concerts of the NSO so well played—Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony, Copland's 3rd Symphony, and this one—quality nights out might just become the rule at the Kennedy Center, not the exception!)

To experience this work live like that catapulted it into my personal list of favorite symphonies, on par with just about anything I have heard in concert. Alas, for a concert of this extraordinary quality in every detail, the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall was shamefully empty. There isn't going to be a conductor of Zinman's quality in our region, at least not on a regular basis, for at least another two years; no one ought to miss the chance to hear him. Chances to not miss it are given today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday), both at 8 pm.

See also Daniel Ginsberg, Zinman & Serkin Bring Out the Best in the NSO (Washington Post, February 18).

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