University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Life on the Podium

Renowned conductor David Zinman reflects on his years at the U.

Photo by Priska Ketterer

When conductor David Zinman's dog, Carlito, went missing last summer while he was guest conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, Massachusetts, no less a luminary than cellist Yo-Yo Ma took the stage to enlist the audience’s help in finding the Havanese.

The plea served as an oddly moving tribute to Zinman (M.A. ’63) who, at 81, has enjoyed a five-decade career as an esteemed conductor and critics’ darling. “I have rarely heard the New York Philharmonic play better,” concluded a writer from Gramophone, England’s foremost classical music publication, following a 2012 concert. “Once again, the perpetually youthful David Zinman has demonstrated how energy begets energy.” Paris’ Le Figaro proclaimed after a 2011 Orchestre National de France concert, “David Zinman is one of the greatest living conductors.”

Considering the global nature of his accomplishments, it’s rare for anyone to ask where he went to school. Yet, Zinman looks back with pleasure on his three years at the University of Minnesota’s School of Music, where he earned his graduate degree. He has served as music director of New York’s Rochester Philharmonic, the Baltimore Symphony, and Switzerland’s Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. Today, he keeps up a busy guest conducting schedule on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet, if you’re old enough to have attended a concert or theater performance on the U’s Minneapolis campus between 1958 and ’61, chances are good that he was somehow involved. “It was a place where I could do everything, and it opened up a big watershed for me,” says Zinman, who was reached in Stuttgart, Germany, hours after leading the SWR Symphony in concert. “The people there at the U were very supportive. I was quite active in almost every aspect of music making in the Twin Cities. I lived just outside of Dinkytown and got through the winters I don’t know how.”

Born in the Bronx, Zinman began studying the violin at age 6 and would become an accomplished player. He had just graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory when he headed for Minnesota.

“They offered me a fellowship to study conducting with Antal Dorati, who was music director of the Minneapolis Symphony [now the Minnesota Orchestra],” he says. “But, you couldn’t study conducting as a degree program there. I had to study musicology or composition. Or you could study violin, but you really couldn’t get a degree from that either. So I studied composition with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler.”

He also had the opportunity to conduct a choral program with the Minneapolis Symphony, which he credits with launching his professional career. “Dom and I shared an office,” Zinman says. “I led the chorus, and I remember copying the score of one of his early operas. He became a very good friend over the years. I conducted a lot of his compositions when I was in Rochester and Baltimore.”

Argento, who at 90 has retired from composing, recalls, “David shared an office with me at Scott Hall during my first few years at the University. One episode I remember fondly is the time he was asked to write the incidental music for the theater department’s production of Ondine,” a play by Jean Giraudoux.

“At the recording session, we discovered that some of the string parts were too difficult for the student players we had enlisted,” Argento says. “David had a bright idea: Have the orchestra play the music an octave lower than written and record it at half speed. When played back at the normal speed it would sound an octave higher. That worked fine, but the string players used the usual amount of vibrato during the recording. The doubled amount of vibrato heard on the playback made the strings sound like those squealing, singing chipmunks we hear at Christmastime.”

It was but one task Zinman completed while at the U. “I studied violin with Rafael Druian,” he says. “And I also became chorus master for Stanislaw Skrowaczewski,” Dorati’s successor as Minneapolis Symphony music director. “I led the U chorus for a while. I was also a theater minor who conducted shows like Pal Joey. And I was assistant conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis, founded a group called the Twin Cities Chamber Players, and played in a piano trio, the University Trio.

“Eventually, I returned in the summers to do Sommerfest with the Minnesota Orchestra,” he says. He directed the festival from 1993 to 1996. “So I’ve always had this relationship with the Twin Cities. I always felt comfortable there.”

While working on the composition that would become his master’s thesis, Zinman headed to England to link up with his most valuable mentor, Pierre Monteux, a veteran conductor who was on the podium for the premieres of such early-20th-century masterpieces as Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.

“I studied with him during the summer at his school for conductors in Maine,” Zinman recalls. “And I went to Europe to assist him until he died in 1964 at age 89. I got to rehearse for him with the London Symphony Orchestra or wherever he went, because he couldn’t rehearse on the day of a concert. It enabled me to work at the highest level. The most important thing Pierre Monteux gave me is that he believed in me. It’s very important to have someone who believes in you, because chances are that you don’t believe that much in yourself.”

While music director of Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and School from 1998 to 2010, Zinman started something similar to Monteux’s summer camp for conductors, the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. “Young musicians come to you as a kind of tabula rasa that you can put stuff into,” he says. “It’s a good way to remain young yourself and to keep an open mind. There’s a lot of stuff they don’t know, but they bring an enthusiasm and the kind of freshness that’s missing with hardened professionals. That’s a nice thing to have in your life.”

Zinman thinks music should be part of everyone’s life. “It develops the brain. . . To study music is to study mathematics. To study music is to study history. To study music is to study the emotional life. It covers every aspect of living.”

Rob Hubbard, author of Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons, writes about arts for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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