Zimmermann celebrates a decade of music with the BMI Orchestra
BRECKENRIDGE – Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann straddles a wooden stool as his upper body sways back and forth, up and down.
The small white baton he holds between his thumb and forefinger swings wildly through the air. His eyebrows raise in exuberant expression, and he smiles at the violinists in the Riverwalk tent as his left fingers gesture for the instruments to come in stronger.
No one would ever guess 30 years ago – when he was in his 20s – his superiors told him he wouldn’t have the stamina to be a conductor. They based their judgment on the fact he wore a brace on his left leg, because when he was 7, polio left it paralyzed.
Today, with brace on leg and baton in hand, he conducts the North Carolina Symphony, the Canton (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra and the Breckenridge Music Institute (BMI) Orchestra.
Nationwide, orchestras invite him to be a guest conductor. And, he’s negotiating a possible concert with the finest musicians in the country, including Andre Watts, Doc Severson and Clay Aikens – TV’s American Idol runner up – in a national benefit for Easter Seals. He’s hoping the fundraiser will take place in 2005 at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., or at Carnegie Hall in New York.
But, this summer, he’s simply enjoying his time in Breckenridge and celebrating his 10th year with the BMI.
The BMI consists of professional musicians from orchestras and university faculties throughout the nation – and even worldwide. Most return annually, with a turnover of about one to two musicians a year – out of about 50.
Zimmermann’s favorite pieces change from week to week when he’s conducting the BMI Orchestra. But, he prefers composers whose music emanates from the voice, namely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.
Mozart and Strauss were primarily opera composers, and Mahler composed vocal songs early in his career, then used them as themes for symphonies.
“I’m always asking the orchestra to sing on their instruments,” he said. “When I say sing, it’s unbelievable in that the sound is automatically warmer.”
While some conductors focus on technique, Zimmermann works on the musical aspects of the pieces.
“When I work on the musical aspects of the piece, 80 percent of the technical problems take care of themselves, because if everyone is thinking of the phrasing in the same way, then viola – they play together because they’re thinking of the musical aspects in the same way,” he said.
If he were ever invited to head a conservatory, the first thing he would do would be to require all musicians to study the art of voice, and all singers to study an instrument.
“There’s a certain way of making phrases and breathing when you sing,” he said. “And for singers, taking an instrument would teach them a sense of articulation, a sense of underlying rhythmic line. It’s a way to plan an overall phrase – learning to breathe together as an orchestra.”
And, when the orchestra “breathes” together, the magic happens.
“When it’s really going great, I forget what I’m doing and it’s not a conscious effort to conduct,” he said. “I’m just enjoying what the orchestra is giving to the audience. When I get in that zone, there’s nothing greater. Sometimes I just stop conducting and I just stand there. I just soak it in.
“I hope I bring a sense of joy in the music-making. I want them to love playing in the orchestra, to enjoy that music-making. And on the other side, it’s not all fun and games. I expect a certain level. … It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s an all-encompassing job. You live and breathe what you do.”
Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at
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