Conductor David Zinman
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
After early violin studies at the Oberlin Conservatory, David Zinman
(born July 9, 1936 in New York City) studied theory and composition at
the University of Minnesota, earning his M.A. in 1963. He took up conducting
at Tanglewood, and then worked in Maine with Pierre Monteux from 1958 to
1962, serving as his assistant from 1961 to 1964.
Zinman held the post of tweede dirigent (second conductor)
of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra from 1965 to 1977. He was the principal
conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1979 to 1982.
In the US, Zinman was music director of the Rochester Philharmonic
Orchestra from 1974 to 1985. With the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he
was principal guest conductor for two years before becoming the orchestra's
music director in 1985. During his Baltimore tenure, he began to implement
ideas from the historically informed performance movement in his interpretations
of the Beethoven symphonies. At the end of his Baltimore tenure in 1998,
Zinman was named the orchestra's conductor laureate. However, in protest
at what he saw as the Baltimore orchestra's overly conservative programming
in the years since his departure, he renounced that title in 2001. In
1998, Zinman was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival alongside
pianist Mitsuko Uchida. In 1998, he was appointed music director of the
Aspen Music Festival and School, where he founded and directed its American
Academy of Conducting until his sudden resignation in April 2010.
Zinman became music director of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich
in 1995. His innovative programming with that orchestra includes a series
of late-night concerts, "Tonhalle Late", which combine classical music
and a nightclub setting. His recordings for Arte Nova of the complete
Beethoven symphonies [shown below] were based on the new Jonathan
Del Mar critical edition and was acclaimed by critics.
He has subsequently recorded Beethoven overtures and concertos
with the Tonhalle. He conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra in its first-ever
appearance at The Proms in 2003. In 2009, he conducted the Tonhalle in the
soundtrack for the feature film 180° - If your world is suddenly upside
down. He concluded his Tonhalle music directorship on July 21, 2014
with a concert at The Proms.
Zinman also conducted for the soundtrack of the 1993 film version of
the New York City Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
His 1992 recording of Henryk
Górecki’s Symphony no.3 with Dawn Upshaw and the London
Sinfonietta was an international bestseller. In January 2006, he received
the Theodore Thomas Award presented by the Conductors' Guild.
Note: Links in this box and below refer to my interviews
elsewhere on my website. BD
Among his vast array of guest engagements, David Zinman has led the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra on several occasions, both downtown and in the summer
at the Ravinia Festival. Chicago has also figured prominently in his
career when he was Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival
for several seasons in the 1980s.
He has made many recordings over the years, and those which I have selected
for this website presentation were chosen because they had photographs of
the conductor from different periods, or they included performances by other
guests whom I have interviewed.
We arranged to meet in his dressing room, backstage at Orchestra Hall
just prior to the second of four concerts with the CSO, in February of
2000. On the program were Two Portraits of Bartók,
with Samuel Magad, one of the concertmasters of the CSO as soloist, the
Piano Concerto #2 of Beethoven played by Radu Lupu,
and the Symphony #5 of Dvořák.
Zinman was very candid with his responses, and laughed good-naturedly
several times during the conversation . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: I assume that music is still your favorite
subject after all these years?
David Zinman: I think so.
BD: That’s good. Now you’ve just arrived,
and you’re going to be conducting a concert in an hour. Is everything
all prepared so that you know exactly the way it’s going to go, or is
there something up your sleeve to make it sparkle tonight?
Zinman: [Chuckles] I don’t think anything
can be totally planned. There’s always something that happens at
the concert that’s very different from what you rehearse. You know
it might be better, or it might be worse. It might be much more
exciting. Last night we had a concert, tonight we have a concert,
so it varies.
BD: Is each one unique?
Zinman: Each one is very unique. Also,
the dynamic with the audience is quite different each night. There’s
a different type of audience, and we feed off of that.
BD: Do you feel it behind you?
Zinman: You feel it behind you, and now, in
this hall you can see it in front of you as well.
BD: Does that rattle you at all to have part of the
audience in front of you?
Zinman: No. A lot of European halls have
that, including my own hall in Zurich.
BD: Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just
Zinman: I like it, and I know the people that
sit behind the players like it too, because they get another perspective
of what’s going on.
BD: Are they ever surprised by your facial expressions,
or what you do?
Zinman: That’s the thrill of it for them, essentially
that they can see the expression on the face of the conductor... assuming
he has one! [Both laugh]
BD: Should you have one?
Zinman: Yes, you have to have an expression
on your face. Whatever comes out of you as a conductor has to show
on your face.
BD: Then what comes out of you shows in your
face and in your hands?
Zinman: That’s right.
BD: What is it that goes into you to make those
Zinman: The music goes into you. It’s a
direct expression of the music, so essentially what’s happening is you
are hearing what is going to come out, and you are trying to show that.
Then, you’re also reacting to what is coming out.
BD: You have a score in front of you. Is
it the notes on the page, or is it mingled with the music in your heart?
Zinman: It’s all kinds of things. I can’t
analyze it in any one way. You have in your mind an ideal presentation
of the music, and sometimes it changes from day to day. But essentially
that’s what you’re trying to do. If you have a piece that begins in
a certain way, already your mind is telling you the gesture that you’re
BD: So, the music begins. You don’t begin
Zinman: That’s right, yes. The music begins.
BD: Is there only one way to play each piece
Zinman: No, there are millions of ways.
That’s what makes it interesting.
BD: Is there only one way for you to play it?
BD: Your interpretation changes?
Zinman: The interpretation changes, and over
the years there’s a vast difference. If you’re accompanying someone,
like in a Beethoven concerto which we’re doing tonight, his interpretation
affects what you’re doing. It is a lot of give and take. What’s
very wonderful about this business is that it’s not going to always be
the same. You’re not always going to think the same way about the
music, and you’re always discovering new things.
BD: Are you ever surprised by what you discover?
Zinman: Sometimes, yes.
BD: Good or bad?
Zinman: Usually they are good surprises.
* * *
BD: You have this vast array of symphonic literature
to choose from. How do you decide which pieces you’re going to
spend your time learning and understanding, and which pieces you’ll set
Zinman: I have a rather broad repertoire, so
I’m always very interested in new music, and in music that I don’t know,
and one keeps playing the standard repertoire —
nine Beethoven symphonies, four Brahms symphonies, four Schumann
symphonies, six Tchaikovsky symphonies, nine Schubert symphonies, the
list goes on and on. But also, throughout my life I started doing
all the Sibelius symphonies, and all the Nielsen symphonies, and Elgar,
and then Vaughan Williams. So it grows, and you begin to get an
interest in each one of these composers. Having lived in Holland,
and now in Switzerland, you get interested just a little bit in what
happens in Holland and then in Switzerland, and in Dutch music of the
past and Swiss music of the past as well. Of course, there is American
music, including the music that’s being written today.
BD: You’re an American conductor working in
America and Europe. Do you make sure that you bring American music
Zinman: I have a permanent job in Switzerland, and
they don’t appreciate it if I bring too much American music there. I
have to get interested in what’s happening in Switzerland. But certainly,
when I was music director for American orchestras, that was my primary thing,
and my mission was to play as much good American music as I could.
BD: I want to pounce on the word ‘good’.
What is it that makes a piece of music good, or perhaps even great?
Zinman: It has to appeal to me. That’s
the first thing, and through that I can make it appeal to the audience.
But it has to be communicative, and sometimes it takes a long time to
discover that communication. But when I am convinced, the audience
will be convinced, and the orchestra especially. I’ve gotten to know
a lot of composers personally, and it’s nice to know them and their pupils,
and to see the line music has taken over the years. Now we’re in
a very good period for American composition and American composers, so
it’s of interest to do American music.
BD: What about this period makes it good
— is it because they’re writing more tonal music,
more accessible music?
Zinman: I don’t know if it’s more accessible
or tonal. They just have very good chops, as we say in the jazz
field. They know their craft. They know it much better than
perhaps in the ’60s and ’70s,
although I’m sure those composers knew their craft very well. It
just didn’t appeal to people as much as it does now. The younger
composers today have really a wonderful technique, a good way of communicating
with an audience, and that’s very important. Certainly composers
Rouse, Harbison, Torke, Kernis, and people like
this are writing accessible music, but they’re still writing in their
own styles. So, certainly it’s an interesting time.
BD: Is it that they have a better grasp of what
really is a symphonic piece of music?
Zinman: Yes, and they have the whole past to
draw upon. They’re not trying to do anything specifically new.
They’re trying to synthesize what’s gone before them, which all composers
have done in the past. I don’t think Bach decided suddenly he was
going to write new music. In fact, he was considered a synthesis of
what had gone before him. Certainly, composers like Beethoven, who
moved in a new direction, still had one foot in the past when they were
writing. The same thing is true even with Wagner, and other people
who were considered revolutionaries. They couldn’t have been rebellious
without Beethoven, and that’s the key — music
has a continual line, and it just doesn’t break off somewhere. If
people think that The Rite of Spring was a new departure, [laughs]
well, they have the wrong thought, because it certainly was an extension
of what Rimsky-Korsakov was doing.
BD: If they think it’s a new departure, maybe
were they missing the previous years?
Zinman: Yes, but nowadays we can look back on
it, and see where it comes from essentially.
BD: Is it your responsibility, as an orchestral
conductor, to know and understand all of this literature, even if you
don’t conduct every piece?
Zinman: Yes, I think so. Since it’s my
interest, I do a lot of reading about music, and studying music, and since
I studied as a composer, I know how music is written. But what’s
very interesting for me is that I have fourteen books about Beethoven
in my library, but it never ceases to fascinate me what’s going on. For
instance, with a composer that we’re doing tonight, Dvořák, there’s
a tremendous amount of repertoire that’s never heard.
BD: We seem to be moving backwards. We did
the Ninth Symphony too many times, then we went back to the Eighth,
and now we’re get tired of that, so we go back to Seven, and you’ve
gone back to Five.
Zinman: Right! But he wrote a tremendous
amount of orchestral music, of which I would say, only twenty per cent
BD: [Enthusiastically] Plus a pile of
string quartets, and piano music, and other works.
Zinman: Yes, that’s right.
BD: Is this what it takes to be a good symphonic
composer — to also write quartets and
piano music, and violin pieces?
Zinman: Composition is total. There are
very few composers who only wrote operas. Even Verdi wrote a string
BD: Right, for amusement while waiting for rehearsals.
Zinman: Yes. [Both laugh] It’s a
beautiful string quartet, but at the time of Beethoven and Schubert and
Brahms, the finest musical amateurs were quartet players, and people who
made music in the home. So some of their finest music was written
for those people who would really appreciate and understand what the composer
BD: Are we getting back to this idea of Hausmusik
[literally, music made in the house]?
Zinman: Well, I don’t think there will ever be
the kind of Hausmusik that went on at the turn of the century, or
in the beginning of the century. We have our own house music because
we have recordings.
BD: Is the flat plastic disc the replacement
Zinman: In a sense, yes, to the detriment of people’s
musical education. It is much easier now to put on a record than
to learn how the learn how to play the piano. [Both laugh]
BD: [With a gentle nudge] But you continue
to make records...
Zinman: Of course! Records are fun, and
they teach a lot. It is our way of putting down what we thought
about the music at that time. I don’t say it’s the be-all and end-all
of everything. It’s a good way of understanding how people played
in the past, and are playing now, and whatever will happen in the future.
I think it’s going to develop in a different way soon.
BD: How so, or do you know?
Zinman: Technology always changes the way recordings
are made, and someday it will be within people’s means to have surround-sound
in their house, and then the repertoire will all be made in surround-sound.
So, we’ll get a chance to re-record some of the repertoire, and
certainly a piece like the Berlioz Requiem, or the Mahler Second
Symphony in surround sound will make a tremendous impression.
BD: Will we be able to put the home-listener
in the conductor’s spot?
Zinman: Yes, or at least in the middle of the
hall, where you hear things coming from all around you.
BD: Now there is one other thing in the technical
vein. There’s an idea that you can, at home, change the balance,
or change the speed, or change the interpretation.
Zinman: Maybe that will happen. I don’t
know. It depends on how the music is recorded. Still I think
the best recordings that we make at the present time are two-track recordings,
with the balancing done right on the spot, and not manipulated after.
That gives you the most realistic way, the most interesting way of performing
music. However, Glenn Gould felt the other way, and there’s a lot
of manipulation that can be done, and now, with digital techniques, you can
lower or raise the pitch, and keep the speed the same. So, a lot of
fixing can be done as well.
BD: Is there a chance that a recording can get
Zinman: There’s no such thing as perfection.
BD: But you strive for it?
Zinman: You strive for it. I strive to
bring out the meaning of a piece of music, and whatever that is for me.
I don’t only strive for technical perfection. Some of my favorite
records actually aren’t that perfect, or are a little bit on the sloppy
side, but that’s not what interests me. If you listen to one of Furtwängler’s
recordings of the Fifth Symphony, the beginning is not together.
Well, so what?
BD: But the sweep of the work is there?
Zinman: Yes, and that’s what important.
BD: Do you conduct the same in the recording
studio as you do in the concert hall?
Zinman: No. You have to first train the orchestra
not to overdo. In a concert, people play for the back of the hall.
My soloists play for the back of the hall, and so they tend to force a
little more. You tend to play louder, and you tend to go for effect
a little bit more. On recordings you have to see where the high point
is. You have to make sure that everything is in balance. The
sound has to be good, the ensemble has to be super, and orchestras have to
play in a slightly different way. The speeds also have to be different,
because in a live concert you can get away with enormously slow tempi.
On a record you can’t, because it just doesn’t support it. There
isn’t the atmosphere.
BD: You’re almost being handcuffed
by the technology?
Zinman: Of course! But if you conduct
a ballet, you’re handcuffed by the dancers. [Both laugh]
BD: I assume you’ve conducted a number of ballets?
Zinman: Yes, I have.
BD: Have you conducted opera, too?
BD: Do you like working with the stage in front
of you, rather than just a group of musicians bowing, and blowing?
Zinman: Yes, but it’s not a very ideal world, and
a lot of things happen. There are occasions when you don’t agree
with the staging, and that’s very frustrating. Then there are always
people getting sick, and being replaced at the last second without a rehearsal.
It’s a bit like being a fireman.
BD: [Gently protesting] But aren’t
some of the fires spectacularly beautiful.
Zinman: Oh, yes, that’s true.
BD: So you have to control the fire, rather
than just extinguish it?
Zinman: Yes, but when singer jumps forty bars,
BD: You’d have to get the whole orchestra to
Zinman: That’s right.
BD: I hope you haven’t had that happen too
Zinman: No, but it does happen.
BD: Are you more in control when it’s purely
a symphonic concert?
Zinman: Yes, definitely.
BD: Is that more rewarding?
Zinman: It might be less exciting, but maybe
* * *
BD: You mentioned that you started out as a composer?
Zinman: I started out as a violinist, and I
studied composition as well.
BD: Has the study of composition influenced
the way you look, not only at new pieces, but also at the standard repertoire?
Zinman: Of course. You learn to compose
by analyzing other music, so the analysis is a very important part of
learning and understanding music. You start to understand where
it’s going, and why the composer put those notes there. That’s what
you try to discover, and you find more and more when you do a work. That
is when you discover more and more what’s behind it.
BD: Are there any pieces where you have discovered
everything, and there’s nothing more to learn?
Zinman: No. There’s always something more, even
things the composer didn’t know about. [Laughs] But there’s
always something more, and the better the music, the more there is undiscovered
BD: Is that what makes greater pieces of music
— more depth?
Zinman: I think so. There are
certainly pieces that you feel you’ll never be able to do as great as what
the music actually is, and that’s what keeps you going after it.
I always have that feeling after finishing any Beethoven or Brahms symphony,
and that the next time on I’ll get it better.
BD: Yet you’ve committed some of those performances
to flat plastic, and they’re there forever.
Zinman: They’re there, but that’s a certain
point of view that happened. Life goes on, and maybe someday my
ideas will improve. I do Beethoven’s metronome marks in the symphonies,
and maybe someday I’ll do them four times as slow. I don’t know.
At this point, no, but it’s interesting. Music is very interesting,
and the interpretation of music is very interesting, and what’s nice
is I’m at the age where I can pass some of what I learned onto younger
people, and that’s very rewarding as well.
BD: What advice do you have for composers,
Zinman: Conducting is a little bit like learning
to juggle, and you have to have that talent before you can conduct. You
don’t necessarily have to be a great musician to be a very good conductor,
but the combination of a very good musician and very good conductor is,
of course, wonderful. I would advise composers and conductors to
be the best musicians they can be, and that’s the most important thing.
BD: When a composer brings you a new piece and
you’re working with it, is there much of a collaboration between the two
Zinman: It depends on the composer. Some
composers don’t like to discuss their works with anybody else, and they
don’t want to discover what’s behind it. Others are very interested
in what you have to say about it, and they take suggestions. So,
it just really depends on the composer. Each one is an individual,
and each of them has brought something into the world that they’re very
worried about. So, it’s very hard for them to actually hear a first
reading. Some people are very hands-on, and they want to influence
everything in the interpretation. Others just sit back and let it
BD: At the first reading, are the composers
generally pleased, or generally horrified?
Zinman: Sometimes both. [Both laugh]
They have to learn to listen to their music again and again. That’s
the important thing about new music — that
it’s played again and again. That’s why recordings are so important.
BD: What about advice to audiences?
Zinman: Audiences have to listen. They cannot
expect to understand anything the first time. They might get the
gist of it, but repeated hearing is what makes understanding of music
— essentially getting used to the idea of the
composer’s style, and getting used to everything else. If you’re
only listening to stuff that you know very well, it makes listening to
something new very much harder. If you can get a recording of a piece
of modern music and listen to it again and again, you begin to see more
and more in it, and then you’ll enjoy it much more when you hear it.
That’s why radio broadcasts are very important, and why recordings
are very important. People get a chance to hear pieces of music over
and over again. A long time ago, when there weren’t recordings, people
played them in their own homes over and over and over again.
BD: That’s why there are piano reductions of
many of the major symphonies.
Zinman: Yes, of course, absolutely.
BD: You were expected to play music as a participatory
Zinman: Right, exactly.
BD: Are we getting away from the participation?
Zinman: Yes, absolutely!
BD: Shouldn’t it be participatory even in the
Zinman: Hmmm... I don’t know. That opens
up a big can of worms. Audiences can prepare themselves to go to
a concert by listening to the music beforehand, and finding out something
about the composer. Luckily, they have very nice notes here for the
Chicago Symphony, so you can read a little bit before the concerts.
It would be nice to read them the week before you’re going to a concert,
and read a little about the artists, and so on. Someday, I’m sure
we will have at the back of our seats a video screen where you’ll be able
to get your program notes visually. They’ll be a presentation by the
conductor, or somebody else about the program, and you’ll actually be able
to switch to see the front of the orchestra, or any place of the orchestra
you want to see. That’ll make it much more participatory.
BD: That sounds like in-flight entertainment.
Zinman: Exactly! Soon that will happen.
* * *
BD: Let me ask the real easy question. What’s
the purpose of music?
Zinman: [Matter-of-factly] To give meaning
to our lives.
BD: Just like that?
Zinman: Just like that. This is not my
idea, actually. A friend of mine, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, went on a sabbatical
to the Kalahari. [The Kalahari Desert is a large
semi-arid sandy savanna in Southern Africa extending for 350,000 square miles,
covering much of Botswana, parts of Namibia and regions of South Africa.
The name ‘Kalahari’ is derived from the Tswana word ‘Kgala’,
meaning ‘the great thirst’, or ‘Kgalagadi’ meaning
‘a waterless place’. The Kalahari has vast areas covered
by red sand without any permanent surface water.] He
was studying the music of the various tribes, and in the end he asked them
why they dance and sing. They said, “It gives
meaning to our lives,” and I think that’s what music
does. It gives meaning to our lives.
BD: Does it give deeper and deeper meaning all
the time, or is it the same meaning each time?
Zinman: It’s hard to say. If you watch
a film without music and then watch it with music, it has a deeper meaning,
even though the thoughts that are expressed sometimes in music have
nothing to do with this Earth. If you listen to the late quartets
of Beethoven, that’s a world that only exists in that music, so we’re
lucky. Also, it’s a way of time travel for us. We can go
back to how people felt at a certain time. We run around and do this
and that. We eat, we drink, we live, and we die, but without literature
and art and music, our lives wouldn’t have as much meaning.
BD: You conduct a certain kind of music, namely
Classical Music. Is this kind of music for everyone?
BD: Should it be?
Zinman: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
I was hooked by it as a child, so I enjoy it. Other people
aren’t hooked, and don’t like classical music at all.
BD: Are you trying to hook them, or are you
just preaching to the converted?
Zinman: I would like to hook them, but essentially
I’m working for the converted.
BD: Do we have enough of the converted?
Zinman: Less and less.
BD: How do we get more and more?
Zinman: [Groans] That has to do with education,
and what’s going on in the schools. If teachers made it part of
their classroom life, that would help. When you’re discussing Shakespeare,
you also discuss the music, and if you’re discussing mathematics, you’re
also discussing music. That way, music is part of a well-rounded
person’s life... which it used to be, and still is, in a certain way,
in some European systems of education. But we’re living in the computer
age, and maybe it’ll come back that way where you’ll be able to access
everything. If you study Nietzsche, certainly you’ll study Zarathustra,
and certainly you might listen to...
BD: ...the work by Richard Strauss.
Zinman: Not only that, but Mozart!
BD: That’s right. Didn’t
he call Mozart, “The last chord of a centuries-old great European
Zinman: Yes, yes.
[At this point we took care of a few technical details,
and I asked him for his birthdate, which he said was July 9, 1936.]
BD: Are you at the point in your career that you want be
at this age?
Zinman: Certainly, yes. I want to do less!
BD: [Surprised] You’re working too hard???
Or, you’re working too much???
Zinman: I’m working. I’ve done a lot,
and there are other things I want to do besides conduct orchestras,
and I’m busy with that in my spare time. But I don’t have a lot
of spare time, so my idea is to have more spare time.
BD: [Trying to be helpful] Can’t
you tell your agent to reduce the number of your engagements?
Zinman: Yes, I do, but there are certain things you
don’t want to turn down. At least I don’t have two full-time orchestras
now. I just have one, and the guest conducting I can limit even
more than I’m doing. It’s hard to limit it when you make contracts
three or four years in advance, but next season will be less conducting
than this season. I have my commitments in Zurich, and I have my
commitment with the Aspen Music Festival, which has great interest for me.
It’s fun because I’m working with young people, and the rest of the
time is spent guest conducting. But now I’m trying to get more and
more months off. I have to have time to think. I’m writing a
book, and I want time to play golf, and walk on the beach, and do things
BD: I wish you lots of continued success, and
lots more time to do the things you want to do.
Zinman: Good! It was nice talking to you.
BD: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
© 2000 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in his dressing room, backstage ar
Orchestra Hall, Chicago on February 11, 2000. Portions were broadcast
on WNIB the following year; on WNUR in 2010, 2012, and 2017; and on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio in 2011. This transcription was made in
2020, and posted on this website at that time.
My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help
in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie
was with WNIB,
Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
until its final moment as a classical station in
February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared
in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he
now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as
well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information
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