Sunday, April 17, 2011

Temirkanov And Saint Petersburg

A week ago today, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Yuri Temirkanov lead the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic.

The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is probably Russia’s finest orchestra. For fifty years (1938-1988), the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic was led by Yevgeny Mravinsky, the man responsible for turning the orchestra into Russia’s most important symphonic ensemble. At Mravinsky’s death, Temirkanov succeeded Mravinsky; Temirkanov has remained conductor of the orchestra ever since.

The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is not a virtuoso orchestra in the sense that the orchestras in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia are virtuoso orchestras. The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is a fine body, but its level of ensemble would be of garden-variety standard among American orchestras.

Further, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic lacks a distinctive sound. The orchestra’s strings are the glory of the ensemble—they produce a deep, rich sound with more than a little color—but the woodwinds are variable in quality and the playing of the brass is not polished. When all 100 musicians play, orchestral balance is not perfect—and sophisticated layering of sound and texture is clearly not one of the orchestra’s goals.

The concert began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture”. Temirkanov conducted a serious, dignified account of the score—it was more than mere showpiece in his hands. The processional chants that begin the overture were played more slowly than usual, and with more gravitas; one could almost visualize religious icons and smell incense of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. The Allegro that followed was suitably brilliant and exciting, with the climax perfectly placed.

A performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 followed. The soloist was Alisa Weilerstein.

The orchestra gave a magnificent account of the score. Shostakovich’s music must be in the musicians’ blood—they offered the freest and most natural performance of the score I have ever heard.

The Concerto has an unusual instrumentation: double winds, a single horn, strings, timpani and celesta. The horn and timpani are called upon to play virtual duets with the soloist. Full orchestra is used sparingly; the ensemble is asked to weave in and out of the lightly-scored composition, and is seldom required to appear at full strength.

The Concerto is a difficult score for an orchestra to master, what with its many transitions. The members of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic were in total command of the work—their playing displayed ease, confidence and conviction, all in abundance.

Weilerstein was inaudible much of the afternoon. The Concerto is a series of personal utterances for the soloist, tempered with isolated public outbursts, and only the outbursts involve full orchestra. Issues of audibility should not arise in this work.

Yet Weilerstein was barely audible when unaccompanied, even in the lengthy third-movement cadenza. She disappeared completely in passages involving full orchestra. I wonder whether Weilerstein plays an inferior instrument.

Weilerstein must have an Actors’ Equity card. She performed a series of moon faces for the audience while she performed. She also engaged in unnecessary and ostentatious playacting gestures when applying bow to strings.

The disparity between the largeness of Weilerstein’s onstage dramatics and the smallness of her sound was disconcerting.

After intermission came Brahms’s Symphony No. 4.

Last Sunday was the fifth time Josh and I had heard Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in concert since September 2007. In order, we had heard performances by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Neville Marriner and the Minnesota Orchestra, Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle, and Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Temirkanov conducts the music of Brahms more freely than Central European conductors—he offers a great deal of rubato, most of it convincing, and he invariably slows for transitions, not always successfully—and his Brahms has greater warmth than the Brahms of any other active conductor.

The performance was a good one. The first-movement was a little too expository and a little too lacking in inevitability, with the climax—the syncopated double-statement of the eight-note theme—not overwhelming as it must be. The Andante, on the other hand, was perfection.

The Scherzo might have been more vividly characterized, and the Passacaglia should have been more dramatic. Nonetheless, it was a performance of the Brahms Fourth that I would be happy to encounter again.

The orchestra offered the standard Temirkanov encore: “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. It was beautifully and movingly done.


  1. I wish I had been able to make plans to hear the St. Petersburg Phil back in the early eighties. Everyone said then that it was the finest in Russia. That wouldn't have been sayng a whole lot, however. Some of the Moscow orchestras were pretty hideous, particularly the Bolshoi Orchestra, which could be very abrasive to the ear.

    I read the Boston Globe review of the concert. Mr. Guerrieri seems to have read your latest posts becuse he backed away from his thesaurus a bit on this review. Even so, his similes and metaphors don't make much sense to me. I gave up trying to conjure the meaning of the critic's description of Weilerstein's playing as "limpid threads of spun glass."

    He certainly seems to really love that adjective "limpid."

    I don't think he attended the same concert as you did.

    Or maybe he's deaf.

  2. I thought the orchestra was a good one, but it was nothing to write home about. It was a good orchestra in the same sense that the Cincinnati Symphony is a good orchestra.

    I like Temirkanov. I think he is one of the most interesting conductors of the day. I wish he conducted more in the United States.

    Temirkanov recently granted a telephone interview to the idiot critic of the Baltimore Sun, Tim Smith. Temirkanov stated in the interview that he would not return to the U.S. through 2013, at the very least, since he is fully booked through that year with scheduled appearances in Europe.

    I have concluded that Guerrieri uses 500 adjectives in each review, and creates all sorts of bizarre metaphors, because he thinks doing so will mask his inadequate grasp of his subject.

    And Guerrieri probably did read what I wrote about him. Someone from Topsfield, Massachusetts, with a google alert about “Matthew Guerrieri” visited—extensively, and repeatedly—my two entries mentioning Guerrieri. Would anyone other than Matthew Guerrieri create a google alert for Matthew Guerrieri? And spend hours poring over the two entries in which I mentioned his name?

    What do think about the Philadelphia bankruptcy? I think it is a bad move. Bankruptcy constitutes a very negative statement to the public about the importance of the orchestra as an institution and its ability to survive.

  3. There were surely other options on the table besides filing for bankruptcy. The Board's decision was the worst possible PR move for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    When the Florida Philhamonic filed for chapter 11 in May 2003 everyone was hopeful for a recovery. It never came. The Philharmonic shut down for good. Granted, the Philadelphia Orchestra has much more money than any regional ensemble, but in this economy can anyone take ANYTHING for granted?

    I am heartsick over the situation in Philadelphia. I grew up in the Ormandy era. I recall how a Philadelphia taxi driver during the seventies delivered a terse "State of the Union" address: "As long as old man Ormandy is still in town, all is right with the world."

    For me the city of Philadelphia, the birthplace of our beloved country, WAS the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    From the standpoint of sound alone, the Philadelphia had no peer in the world; it was the best possible microcosm of the United States I knew. In the "old days" anyone suggesting that the Philadelphia Orchestra would some day file for Chapter 11 would have been laughed out of the room.

    Today Ormandy is long gone. Gone also, it appears, is sanity among members of the Board.

    What is happening now in Philadelphia is, I fear, a frightening prelude to other bad days ahead, not restricted to a mere microcosm.

  4. The Philadelphia Orchestra obviously has a very, very bad board.

    There is something seriously wrong with the political/civic structure in Philadelphia. The shenanigans at The Barnes Foundation a few years ago proved that. The city deserves to die—but it’s too bad that the city’s orchestra may die along with it.

    My father says that the Philadelphia Orchestra sealed its fate in the mid-1990s. Its own studies at the time established that the orchestra should build its new hall in the western suburbs, where the orchestra’s patrons resided. Instead, the orchestra allowed the city to co-opt its decision, and strong-arm the orchestra into remaining in city center and becoming a tenant of the new Kimmel. It would have taken guts for the orchestra to move to the western suburbs, but that is what the orchestra should have done.

    It is almost impossible to keep up with the closings these days.

    Recently the Syracuse Symphony bit the dust. The orchestra in New Mexico folded over the past weekend. So many second- and third-tier orchestras have gone under that no one can keep track.

    How does the New Jersey Symphony stay afloat? And Rochester? And Buffalo?

    Major ensembles I predict will not survive long-term: Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, Saint Louis and Utah.

    New York City Opera’s endowment is down to between $5 million and $6 million. Genuinely, that means it’s over for New York City Opera.

    I am told that the Detroit Institute Of Art, a MAJOR museum, is in deep financial trouble.

    I just hope The Royal Edina Opera Company can survive these tough times!

  5. I have not heard the Philadelphia Orchestra since I was in law school.

    The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony are the only two world-class ensembles I have not heard in the last five years.

    I've managed to hear, at least once, Amsterdam, Berlin, Cleveland, Dresden, Leipzig and Vienna.