The Columbus Symphony has not had an easy decade. It started off impressively: The orchestra nailed its 2001 performance at New York’s esteemed Carnegie Hall. But, like many arts organizations, the ensemble struggled financially post-9/11, and it practically ceased to exist in 2008. The orchestra, once considered a destination for talented musicians, survived in part by cutting its season nearly in half, essentially making its members part-time employees.
After all of that strife, what it needed — besides rising revenues — was an artistic breath of fresh air in the form of a new music director. Thankfully Jean-Marie Zeitouni provided just that. It’s been a season and a half since he signed a four-year contract with the CSO, and the orchestra’s longtime members believe the ensemble is now on an upswing.
“I remember how the orchestra sounded one year ago. Just over the past year, since Jean-Marie took over, I’ve seen a huge increase in our musical quality,” said Betsy Sturdevant, the symphony’s principal bassoonist since the early ’80s. Sturdevant, who served on the search committee that selected Zeitouni, believes the youthful conductor is luring more young people to concerts.
His draw is in part attributed to his vivacity.
“He brings a lot of energy to the podium,” said Thomas Battenberg, a member of the trumpet section for 46 years. “He’s exciting. He’s exciting to play for, he’s exciting to watch.”
The maestro’s elan has other benefits, as well.
“He has the energy to pursue his ideas, to try them out,” explained principal trombonist Andy Millat. Many of those ideas are musical, while others are more administrative.
In terms of advancing the orchestra’s sound, Zeitouni has put great effort into getting the ensemble to play with the appropriate style for each piece’s time period and origin.
“If we’re playing Mozart or Haydn, it needs to be light, not heavy and ponderous,” Battenberg explained. “If we’re playing Beethoven, it ought to be a little heavier. If we’re playing French music, he has a different approach to that than music by German composers. Every time we play a different piece by a different composer, he imparts to us the style of that composer and the sound that he wants the orchestra to present.”
Zeitouni had to essentially teach the musicians how to play Baroque music — the post-Renaissance period that included Bach and Vivaldi — in a way that’s historically accurate, according to Sturdevant. The style (abstaining from using vibrato, the rapid wavering of a pitch) generally isn’t taught at conservatories, she said.
From his first rehearsals with the orchestra, the maestro let it be known that he had high expectations for the musicians’ intonation, and he has both an extraordinary ear and an encyclopedic knowledge of the music he’s conducting. His skills let his interpretations shine.
“When you’ve played the pieces several times, or even numerous times over the years, you think you’ve heard all there is to say, musically speaking. To be surprised by what the conductor contributes is just a delight,” Millat said, remembering that he was especially impressed by the spirited performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in November.
Beyond his musical responsibilities, Zeitouni has stepped up as a leader in other regards.
“One thing that I appreciate about Jean-Marie that we haven’t seen enough of in the past is he is willing to step into an executive role regarding the behind the scenes responsibilities and duties as music director — most importantly fundraising, personnel decisions, interacting with the community, getting to know the community and allowing them to know him,” Millat said.
Zeitouni is well-spoken, and he often talks to the audience from the stage. It helps to establish a connection between the audience and the musicians, and between the audience and the music itself.
Unlike previous Columbus Symphony conductors, he isn’t always speaking from the stage of the Ohio Theatre. Zeitouni played a part in the orchestra relocating a handful of its subscription concerts to the Southern Theatre, a smaller theater that has better acoustics for classical music.
“The thing about the Southern Theatre is that every detail is heard, but Jean-Marie is great with details, so it works out really well,” Sturdevant explained.
One thing stands out when the musicians talked about Zeitouni: They don’t have anything negative to say. Granted, no one’s likely to speak poorly of a boss, but these wind players were complimentary of each of his musical attributes. They believe that Zeitouni, who frequently travels to serve as a guest conductor with other ensembles, can only do good.
“I think we have a maestro who is on his way up in his career,” Millat predicted. “This is a conductor who is gaining attention, and it reflects well on us if the conductor of the Columbus Symphony goes on to bigger and better things.”