ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Yuri Temirkanov comes to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musically nourished and inspired by St. Petersburg, a tortured soul of a city built upon bones, forever swathed in mysterious fog, a place of poets and revolutionary passion.
He came to this imperial city as a child, sent from the wild Caucasus, where he was born an ethnic Kabardian. His homeland was a mythic place, where the Greeks sought the Golden Fleece and Prometheus was chained to the mountains.
Little wonder, then, that music-lovers and musicians reach for the word "emotion" in describing what happens when Yuri Temirkanov -- who was anointed less than two weeks ago as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- stands before an orchestra and raises his hands.
"It's difficult to find words when you speak about art," says Georgy A. Prazdnikov, a gray-haired professor of philosophy, as he settles into a seat in the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall. "Temirkanov understands the composer's concept, and he has the ability to express every detail.
"It's very seldom you get such pleasure from the small parts, and often you don't hear some of the small flutes. With him, you hear everything. He has the ability to translate his emotions to the orchestra itself."
Prazdnikov is about to listen to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra play Mozart's Symphony No. 41 followed by the 60th anniversary performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Temirkanov directs the orchestra and will continue to do so after he succeeds David Zinman at the BSO in 1999. He is in San Francisco on this night, preparing to stage the Russian opera "Eugene Onegin," and the orchestra is led by another well-known Russian conductor, Rudolf Barshai.
Prazdnikov, who has been coming to the hall since childhood, vividly recalls Temirkanov conducting a performance of "Eugene Onegin" here in the 1960s. "I remember I was suddenly attracted to him," he says. "I remember how the musicians looked at him, enthralled. When he conducts an orchestra, the orchestra is playing for him, into his hands."
Most residents of this city have been thrown into poverty since the fall of the Soviet Union. St. Petersburg was deeply dependent on the military-industrial complex; workers at some defense plants haven't been paid in two years. Everyone says no one can afford to go out anymore.
And yet all the red-velvet chairs are filled in the glorious hall named after Dmitri Shostakovich. Students ring the balcony, some of them standing, transfixed by the music. St. Petersburg considers this orchestra the best in Russia, and music-lovers here say the hall's acoustics are among the finest anywhere.
The Great Hall is lined with marble columns. Enormous chandeliers sparkle from the ceiling. Anton Rubinstein, who organized the Russian Musical Society in 1859, put on numerous concerts here. The dancer Isadora Duncan made her Russian debut on this stage.
Shostakovich, who studied at the same St. Petersburg Conservatory that trained Temirkanov, performed his symphonies here. Perhaps none was more emotional than the concert of Aug. 9, 1942. The St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) Philharmonic played Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony for the first time that day as German troops, a few miles away, fired on the city.
That symphony, Shostakovich's 7th, came to represent a heroic people, with an unimaginable capacity for suffering. Encircled by a German blockade for nearly three years, the city refused to give up. Nearly a million people died, from bombs and starvation.
Peter the Great's city
Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, which celebrates 300 years in 2003. He was a visionary with great talents and beautiful dreams, which he carried out cruelly. He forced serfs from all over Great Russia to build the city that sprang from his imagination. Hundreds of thousands of them died as he flogged them along, always demanding more. When he ordered stone, he wanted all of it; for a few years, it was illegal to build anything of stone elsewhere in Russia. His city took it all.
The city inspired Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet. Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," skulked through its streets.
Its musicians were known everywhere: Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. So were its revolutionaries. Here, the Bolsheviks seized power and created the Soviet Union.
Temirkanov transmits a nearly mystical feel for the city and its great musical traditions, says Alexei Bogorad, in his second year playing the viola with the orchestra.
"The hall, the city, the orchestra, Temirkanov, it all flows together," says Bogorad. "You feel it at once. He has great energy and feeling for this orchestra and city."
Lev Klyuchkov, concertmaster of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, stands on the edge of the platform. It is intermission, and the audience has applauded Mozart's 41st enthusiastically.