HIS flowing mane is reminiscent of Franz Liszt's. The music he makes may be the most controlled in Europe today. It grows out of a kind of inexorable precision. Soft-hued and nearly stoic, it is distilled to an essence that often takes an audience by surprise. Now Americans are getting an opportunity to sample the ultra-disciplined musicianship of conductor Sergiu Celibidache (pronounced che-lee-bee-DAH-kay) and his Munich Philharmonic, which is making an 11-city tour of the United States and Canada. The visit marks the Romanian-born conductor's debut on this continent, and the orchestra's first visit here in four years.
Although not quite in the front rank of world orchestras, the Munich Philharmonic has a distinguished history; Gustav Mahler conducted them in the premi`eres of his Fourth and Eighth Symphonies, for instance, and the legendary Wilhelm Furtw"angler's made his conducting debut with them in 1906. Mr. Celibidache has led this orchestra for 10 years now, and his goal is to make it one of the world's best. With its growing reputation and well-received performances in the great halls of the world, he feels he is succeeding.
Even so, Americans are generally unaccustomed to his style of musicmaking. We ``are used to a diet of much livelier, spontaneous, and outgoing music,'' says Henry Roth, a Los Angeles-based critic for Strad, a leading string magazine.
Celibidache ``goes to the extreme of slowing down his tempos and dissecting the music,'' he adds. In so doing, he reveals many lost beauties,'' but the price ``can be ... an overall ponderousness.''
There is no doubt that Celibidache knows what he wants and how to get it. In a world where just three to five rehearsals is the norm in preparation for a concert, Celibidache demands no fewer than 17 over 10 days and invites the public to hear them all.
He chided his American hosts for an overemphasis on commercialism. ``There is much too much relation [in America] between music and dollars,'' he said. ``Only two rehearsals? Are you serious? Why not do more? But rehearsals don't pay.''
Something of a legend in Europe, he has a reputation for inscrutabililty, fed by his practice of spending six months each year at a monastery in India and by his membership in a sect known as the New Gnostics, which rejects conventional views of the connections between language, thought, and reality. Celibidache is also a philosopher and teaches a course on the phenomenology of music at the University of Mainz.
His orchestra's Los Angeles performances April 8 of Brahms, Rossini, Hindemith, Bruckner, and Debussy were marked by an uncommon dynamic range - pianissimos at a whisper, contrapuntal voices highly articulated but never without a sense of overall architectural balance. The strings were the orchestra's strength, the woodwinds its weakness - particularly in pitch.
There was a smallness to the sound, overall, and a certain lack of oomph when fortissimos were called for. Besides being the conductor's predilection, this minimalist approach could possibly result from years of playing in a small hall in Munich. But in 1985, the orchestra moved to the Am Gasteig cultural center, a large and strikingly modern home.
In performance it becomes clear that, in addition to the laborious coaching he gives in rehearsal, his technique includes an astounding array of facial expressions and gestures. Often he will drop his baton to his side and simply stare at his players, as if to say, ``C'mon people, let's do it the way we practiced it.''
``When he conducts, he uses no gratuitous movements, which symbolizes his desire for nothing gratuitous on our part,'' says Helmut Nicolai, a violist with the orchestra. ``He asks you for the imagination to change character from Rossini to Brahms to Mozart and to ask yourself, `What is the inner sense of this music?' It's not just technique.''
One element that sets Celibidache apart from most of his European colleagues is his attitude about making records. He wants no part of it. ``What exists in the original musical space cannot be reproduced in the same form anywhere except in that same space,'' he has written. ``That space has a back and a front, a right and a left, a bottom and a top. You cannot press the sublime mystique of music into something that resembles a pancake.''
A lifelong student of Zen Buddhism, Celibidache often flavors his remarks with his beliefs. When asked at a press conference for whom he makes music, he replied, ``I create the conditions so that a kind of spiritual process can take place.''
Part of that process is attempting to help his players achieve a certain ``egolessness,'' he said, something that comes when they give themselves over wholly to the music, not just to their individual instrument.
Born in 1912 and raised in the Romanian city of Iasi, Celibidache went to Berlin in 1932 to study composition. He stayed through the Nazi era and became principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic at the end of World War II and later its assistant conductor under Furtw"angler, until 1952.
Top music critics cherish the depth and breadth of his knowledge and convictions, together with his ability to nurture those qualities in his players.
``Of course, music is the shortest way to expressing how little music has to do with the notes,'' he once told a colleague. ``The notes are physical, coarse-textured phenomena. But in its relationship to another note, a note can become something which finds an echo in the human emotions.''
The Munich Philharmonic tour continues with stops in Montreal tonight; Quebec City tomorrow; New York City, April 21-22; Boston, April 23; Worcester, Mass., April 24; and Washington, D.C., April 26.