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November 4, 2011

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Music is like time travel, conductor says

IN the 1940s on a street in the Bronx, New York, a group of children, annoyed at a new neighbor's constant piano playing, hurled rocks through his window. As serendipity would have it, this childhood prank shaped the career of one of the world's top orchestra conductors, David Zinman.

Zinman, a member of the rock-throwing gang, learned years later that his neighbor had been experimental Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. By now a passionate music lover, the guilt of his past actions led him to a vow to champion emerging music: "I felt very guilty and I made a promise to myself that I would always do new music," Zinman said.

Zinman has more than made up for his sins. He has become renowned for his support of new music - he once severed a 13-year relationship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when he felt it was becoming too conservative.

Zinman is equally well known for nurturing young conducting talents, and runs a summer school for up-and-comers every year in Aspen, Colorado. Many of the most exciting young musicians are emerging from China, he said. "There's a tremendous piano school coming out of China and a lot of them are amazing artists and I think they will be the next ones to conquer the world of music."

All this is not to say Zinman has no time for the time-honored pantheon of classical music. In fact, his devotion to recording the oeuvre of Beethoven and Mahler with his orchestra of 16 years, Switzerland's Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, has netted him a host of prestigious awards.

"Music is a form of time travel and it enables us to see in our brains and senses what people have felt through history," he said.

Recording of Mahler's 10th and final symphony wound up this year, just in time to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's death. It is this significant date which led Zinman to feature Mahler's 5th symphony in the orchestra's two-day tour of China, the first time the Tonhalle has visited China in 20 years.

"Of course it was a dream of mine to complete the cycle for the Mahler year, the anniversary of his death. And therefore it seemed logical for us to come to China with a Mahler symphony," Zinman said. "The 5th symphony is very important because it comes exactly in the middle of his career and it has one foot in the old symphonies and one foot leading toward the future."

Mahler's compositions have particular significance to Zinman. "The bond I feel with Mahler is the bond any conductor feels about Mahler, because he was not only a great composer, but a great conductor. His scores reflect a great understanding of music."

A career in conducting was not Zinman's first choice. Despite chafing at years of forced violin lessons as a child, a love of music eventually took hold, and the adolescent Zinman yearned to become a composer. However, he found he lacked the temperament for writing music: "I wanted to compose music and I realized how difficult it was and I realized I didn't have the talent of a real composer. In order to be a real composer you must have the patience and the ability to sit day after day behind a desk and write notes. I could write notes but I didn't have the patience," he said.

In his stellar career Zinman has been chief conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of the Netherlands, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He regularly guest conducts the largest orchestras in Europe and North America, and counts dozens of awards to his name for his recording and conducting work, including France's Award Chevalier de l'Ordre dese Arts et des Lettres for his Beethoven project.

For the past 16 years Zinman's primary work has been as chief conductor of the Tonhalle, a relationship which has borne great fruit. "I have been very lucky to have a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and I think this really started from the first year I was with them. We seemed to be on the same wavelength about music and about building the orchestra."

Both performing and recording are vital to the health of an orchestra, Zinman believes - performing reinforces a company's repertoire and builds confidence, while recording gives the opportunity to critically analyze the orchestra's playing.

"It's very important when building an orchestra to have concerts but also for the orchestra to regularly hear itself play (on its recordings), because you don't get that opportunity on the stage. This enables them to play better," Zinman said.

Zinman's many years of experience have not dimmed his enthusiasm for novelty which began with his guilty memories of tormenting Bartok, but the conductor's vast experience has smoothed the edges of his youthful enthusiasm. "When I think about my first times as a conductor I realize how poor I was actually," Zinman laughed. "I'm now 76 years old; I first started with music 70 years ago. I think when one lives with music a long time one begins to find the keys to make it work and we have a 'sense.' ... This gives your music-making a ripeness that's very important."


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