"Originally, I wanted to put the photographs down on the floor under glass, with Toscanini in the middle and the others fanning out from him, but I couldn't find a glass that wouldn't scratch."
Oliver Zinsmeister gave a small sigh and turned over another page in one of the photo albums in his collection. Although his plan to have great musical talents at his feet did not succeed, he is having considerable success placing them at his fingertips.
For 40 years that included being a percussion student at the Eastman School of Music in his native Rochester and a member of the Marine Band in Washington, Zinsmeister collected autographed pictures of famous figures in music.
Now retired from the band and working with the Laurel Chamber of Commerce, Zinsmeister suddenly realized a few years ago he had the foundations of a rather extensive collection.
Neatly assembling his photographs into albums under categories that included conductors of U.S. orchestras, composers and singers, Zinsmeister is now collecting in earnest. Armed with addresses from Musical America's International Directory of the Performing Arts, he sends letters all over this country and abroad coupling a brief explanation of his collection with a request for an autographed picture.
Sometimes, as was the case with Leonard Bernstein, the response comes back in less than two weeks. Sometimes Zinsmeister hears nothing for months, in which case he writes another letter. He has written to Boston Opera Company director Sarah Caldwell three times and still has heard nothing but is not discouraged. It took almost six years of continued request to get an autographed photographed of the Boston Symphony's conductor, Serge Koussevitzky.
His collection of New York Philharmonic conductors is now complete except for the latest, Zubin Mehta. Zinsmeister's requests have led to exchanges of letters and even a phone chat with Zubin Mehta's secretary.
"I always write in longhand because it's a little more personal," said Zinsmeister. "I always try to be nice and explain about the collection. I truthfully think the reason why I get the pictures is because I follow up and people realize I am serious.
He thinks that most of the autographs are genuine, although he says that of course, there is no way he can prove it. On some of the pictures the artist has written only his name. On others, there is a personal inscription to Zinsmeister.
Finding a place to write on the photogrphs, which are often dominated by the black of formal concert attire, can be a problem. The Chicago Symphony conductor Sir Georg Solti, to Zinsmeister's amusement simply wrote "solti" across his bald head, almost the only light spot in the picture.
Having read that the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius liked American cigars, Zinsmeister sent a box of them along with a picture request back in the 1950s. Sibelius responded with a letter, which is the prize of his collection. Neatly typed on small cream-colored notepaper, it reads: "Dear Mr. Zinsmeister, for your great kindness to remember me with excellent cigars please accept my most cordial thanks. I was very pleased to receive your gift. Yours sincerely," and a scrawling signature written in pencil spans the bottom half of the page.
"Look at that 'J' -- it's marvelous," said Zinsmeister, adding with a laugh, "but you know, I didn't get a picture. I finally got one last year after I sent a letter to the Sibelius society in Finland."