Yuri Termikanov: Baltimore's new golden age

Yuri Termikanov's arrival at the Baltimore Symphony in 1997 heralded a rise in its already high reputation. On the eve of the orchestra's British tour, Sue Fox meets its inspiring music director
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The Independent Culture

In 1997, when conductor David Zinman announced his retirement as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, there must have been more than a moment's unease in the city. Zinman, with his outstanding musical credentials and down-to-earth charisma, spread the BSO's reputation for high artistic achievement way beyond the shores of the Chesapeake. There was national critical acclaim for radio programmes and outreach work, as well the orchestra's prolific discography, which includes several Grammy award-winning recordings with soloists Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore-born violinist Hilary Hahn. Under Zinman, Baltimore, with its cutting-edge, world-class symphony, was hailed as one of the most musically interesting places on the Eastern seaboard.

The word on the street is that Zinman's successor, 61-year-old Yuri Temirkanov – one of the most sought after conductors in the world – is taking the BSO into a truly golden era. These days critics comment on a warmer, richer string tone and a looser, more Slavonic feeling for ensemble, which is entirely in keeping with a Russian conductor who also happens to be music director and chief conductor of the legendary St Petersburg Philharmonic. Sitting in on electrifying rehearsals for the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, "Leningrad", and two heart-stopping performances in the Joseph Meyerhoff Hall, I kept thinking of a conversation I'd had with Temirkanov, when he said, "Maybe, for Russian musicians of my generation, when we listen to Shostakovich, we can hear our life in the music."

On the face of it, the 11th music director of the BSO, now in his third season, is both the player's and the orchestra publicist's worst nightmare. A revered Russian maestro, immaculately dressed, he is so uncomfortable with his heavily accented English that he travels everywhere with his long-time translator, Marina Stokes. Unlike his gregarious predecessor, David Zinman, who often spoke to the public before and after concerts in the Meyerhoff Hall, Temirkanov is a much more traditional, silent conductor, who never uses a baton. In many ways, he is a maestro from another age – a conductor who does his talking through music. "I had an extraordinary teacher in Ilya Musin," he says. "He had a personal approach to each individual. We were like free-range chickens – not mass produced. He tried to develop in each one of us the abilities that we had, rather than to make us do what we couldn't do." I mention that, in rehearsal, he hardly says a word to his orchestra. "Some conductors talk more than they rehearse," he answers, impishly.

BSO percussionist John Locke explains that Temirkanov speaks with his eyes and the smallest, most subtle hand motions. "He can literally create magic with 100 different voices. It's been a tremendous transition for all of us to learn this very different form of musical communication, but it's very exciting . You have to pay attention at every moment. Maestro Temirkanov is so soft-spoken and so focused, you can literally hear a pin drop during rehearsals. If you're watching from the auditorium, it doesn't look as though he's doing anything very much, but if you sat in the orchestra with us, you'd see the conversation we have and the way he brings his tradition and experience to every player. What's really amazing – for someone who says almost nothing – is the autonomy he gives us as musicians. We have a lot of freedom. He allows us to play the way we hear the music, and to bring our own backgrounds to it. Just by the way his eyes change, he gives us an extraordinary amount of encouragement. We all feel that."

Temirkanov's soul may be rooted in Russia – in its language and its culture – but he has bought a condo overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor. "Baltimore is not just a kind of stop on the way to another conducting engagement," he insists in his dressing room, which also serves, by his choice, as his office. This is a maestro who doesn't need the luxurious trappings of a music director – and it's much easier for him to smoke in his dressing room than it is in the administrative offices of the building. "I feel I am really connected not only with the orchestra, but also with the community."

The musicians all love him, and the city has taken him to its heart and proclaimed him an honorary citizen. For the 12 weeks a year that Temirkanov is in town, he is a real celebrity – something he finds faintly amusing. In a couple of years time, when the BSO begins scheduling regular concerts in a new 2,000-seat, state-of-the-art, $89m (£62m) concert venue at the Strathmore Hall Arts Centre, just north of Bethesda, he is likely to become even more high profile. Bethesda in Montgomery County is just 10 miles from Washington's Kennedy Centre, home of the National Symphony Orchestral. Montgomery County has a high percentage of prosperous, well educated residents, the target market for any symphony orchestra. Unlike the Kennedy Centre, Strathmore will be easily accessible to Washingtonians via the Metro.

In November, UK audiences will have a chance to hear some golden Temirkanov Baltimore moments for themselves, when the BSO plays concerts in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London as part of a major European tour. In a music business much concerned with league tables, America's orchestral crème de la crème are "The Big Five" – New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland. "We're not any of those big names, so there are probably many people who don't even know we exist," Temirkanov smiles. "Perhaps they will come to hear the Baltimore Symphony out of pure curiosity."

John Gidwitz, president of the orchestra, predicts that this tour will be a peak experience for the musicians, as well the audiences. "We haven't been to Europe since 1987, which is far too long a gap. On the other hand, if you tour too much, it becomes routine and that doesn't serve any of us well. Our plan is to come every fourth year from now, with visits to Japan every two years in between. We're very aware of all the choices that people have for entertainment, so every concert we give has to be an event. I'm not talking about strobe lighting and technical effects. I'm talking about creating an unforgettable experience. All of us working for the BSO know that our job is to make people feel happy that they came to a concert. So happy that they wouldn't have wanted to miss it."

That's the bottom line for Temirkanov, too. "If I feel on stage that something came out well, then of course I can't help being in a good mood. That's what we musicians live for. It's our destiny, but we can't plan it. You listen to a CD and you always hear the same thing. In a live performance, every concert is different, but each one of them must be a joy. If we're doing our job, the audience should come away with the impression that the music was born in that moment – and not in the hours of rehearsal."

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (0141-353 8000) 22 Nov; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000) 23 Nov; Town Hall, Leeds (0113 247 7988) 24 Nov; Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-780 3333) 25 Nov; Barbican Hall, London (020-7638 8891) 26 Nov