BANGOR – Christopher Zimmerman is a man who is not afraid to take chances. Returning to the leadership of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra for the seventh year, he plans to begin the season with a program featuring two pieces the orchestra has never performed before.
After having been away from the BSO during the summer, Zimmerman admits getting back up to pace for the first concert is an uphill battle, and the choice of Brahms’ “Double Concerto for Violin and Cello,” plus Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2,” makes the task even more daunting.
“I think you have to be bold,” says Zimmerman, summing up his choice of pieces for this year’s concert series, as well as his general attitude toward music.
“This season begins and ends with a bang,” he says with a grin. “These are huge, lush pieces, definitely romantic. The Brahms is romantic, but not indulgent, while the Rachmaninoff, well, it’s like ‘War and Peace,’ a big Russian epic!”
Zimmerman says he hopes to dispel the idea that this kind of music is just too lush and romantic for the modern ear.
“I definitely don’t want it to be cold,” he says, “but it shouldn’t sound like one nostalgic tune on top of another. There should be movement, agitation and a certain amount of profundity in this music.”
Zimmerman, who was born and brought up in England, came to the United States to study music when he was 18, and returned to this country seven years ago to take on positions with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. This past year, he has left the Cincinnati Conservatory to take what he calls, “a more senior position” as head of the orchestral program at the Hartt School in Hartford, Conn.
“My mother came from Litchfield, Connecticut,” Zimmerman reflects, “So half my family comes from New England stock. There is a certain sense of return in this somehow.”
And while Connecticut is geographically closer to Bangor than Cincinnati, Zimmerman complains jokingly that the commute takes even longer than it used to.
“I drive into Boston, and catch a plane to Bangor from there, Boston is just a mess!”
And commuting is something Zimmerman has to do fairly frequently during the year. Since the BSO is a professional but part-time orchestra, he explains that most of the orchestra players have other jobs during the week, making weekend rehearsals a must. And so he commutes twice to Bangor for each concert, putting the orchestra through a series of six rehearsals over the course of two weekends.
Zimmerman is quick to point out that this is not an unusual situation.
“Even, or perhaps I should say, especially, at the very highest levels, these conductors may have two or three simultaneous music directorships, while not living in any of those places.”
Zimmerman seems proud of his association with BSO, and excited about this year’s musical program.
“You do know the BSO is the oldest community orchestra in the country?” he asks, and then goes on to describe how the music for a whole year of concerts is selected. “This is how it works: Although the orchestra players are invited to make requests, I put together a program which is looked at by a committee from the [symphony] board … . But I’m lucky to be able to say that it’s basically my choice!”
In addition to the Brahms and Rachmaninoff opening concert, which will be performed Sunday at the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono, Zimmerman’s choices for this season range from the quiet and meditative “Quiet City” by Aaron Copland, to the flashy, ever-changing moods of Alberto Ginastera’s “Harp Concerto.” He is particularly excited about the “Harp Concerto,” which will be performed by the renowned harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. He says, “This is very selfish in a sense, but about two years ago Yolanda and I did a concert together and I said ‘You’ve got to come to Maine,’ and she wanted to come and now we’ve managed to get her up here. She’s fantastic.”
Zimmerman explained that the main criteria in choosing one musical selection over another is the overall coherence of the season and the internal cohesion in each individual concert. This year the underlying theme is one of contrasts. Beginning with the program of Brahms and Rachmaninoff, the next concert, scheduled for Oct. 29, will feature Copland’s “Quiet City,” a Mozart clarinet concerto and Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 3.”
Speaking about the third concert, to be performed March 18, 2001, and including the “Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” by Ralph Vaughn Williams, as well as the Ginastera “Harp Concerto” and Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 2,” Zimmerman laughs and says, “It’s a deliberate mishmash, that program.”
It is deliberate, he says, because it is intended to contrast with the formal symmetry of the fourth concert, one bracketed by a pair of Haydn symphonies, one early, “Symphony No. 6,” and one late, “Symphony No. 102.” In between are Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue” and Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony,” both of which he describes as “uncompromising, gritty orchestral transcriptions from the original music for quartets.” This program can be heard April 22, 2001.
The final program, set for May 13, 2001, will close the season, as it opened, with a bang. Featuring the orchestra along with the University Singers, the Oratorio Society, a children’s choir and three soloists, the concert goes from “the sacred to the profane,” as Zimmerman puts it. Beginning with the entirely sacred “Spiritual Song No. 6” by Brahms and moving to middle ground with “Leibestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” it ends with the stirring but profane “Carmina Burana” of Carl Orff.
Zimmerman is quick to support his inclusion of many of these challenging pieces.
“I don’t think that the symphony as an event, should be a form of passive, totally relaxing mindless entertainment. It’s not like turning on the TV. This is more than classical music. It’s great art and I think great art is often not relaxing, passive entertainment.” He adds, “Having said that, it doesn’t mean that one should make the listener … eat their spinach because it’s good for them.”
Zimmerman says his goal is to provide music that is important, expressive, powerful, passionate and engaging.
“And entertaining,” he says with a laugh. “You have to be bold.”
Helen York is a classical music producer for Maine Public Radio, and production manager for WERU Community Radio. She lives and works in Washington and Hancock counties where she raises sheep, miniature cattle and a large herd of cats.