From the Russian soul Conductor Yuri Temirkanov's musicality draws on poetry, literature, his nation's dark history and its rare courage. He brings an old-world complexity to his new world of the BSO.

March 22, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Staff

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - The apartment building wouldn't be out of place in an East Baltimore slum - except slums don't always look this bad in East Baltimore, and the weather is rarely so cold. It's minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the city this evening.

There is no elevator. You walk up two flights of stairs to Yuri Temirkanov's apartment.

"Welcome to Russia," says Temirkanov in perfect English - among the few words he will speak in that language tonight - as he greets the visitor and his translator.

The apartment may not be the sort of place you'd expect to find the future music director of the Baltimore Symphony. But it is a microcosm of the great country in which Temirkanov lives and, perhaps, an index to the soul of the man himself.

The place is filled with history, including old friends Natalya Bolshikova and Vadim Gulyov, former stars of the Kirov Ballet, and the noted composer Andrei Petrov.

More than 25 years ago, when Temirkanov was the Kirov's music director, he conducted Petrov's ballet "The Creation," in which another of the conductor's oldest friends - a dancer named Mikhail Baryshnikov - was rocketed to world fame in the role of Adam.

"It was history, great history," Temirkanov says.

When Temirkanov speaks - even through a translator - nostalgia permeates the room. Even when he makes one of his frequent (and funny) jokes, his eyes seem sad. In his living room, a picture painted years ago shows Temirkanov as a beautiful, graceful young man. The grace and the beauty remain, but Temirkanov seems older than his 59 years. His life has been hard in ways that are difficult for a Westerner to understand. It does not seem too romantic to suggest that he comes from a nobler, if more difficult, age - that of an irretrievable Russia for which he continues to yearn.

His apartment windows look out upon other grim-looking buildings. But inside is a world of pure imagination. A guided tour of three rooms takes more than an hour.

A chest once owned, Temirkanov says, by Czar Alexander III contains a 24-place setting of china and a set of silver that belonged to Catherine the Great. "She used it just for everyday," the conductor explains, half-apologetically.

There is a gaming table constructed by Mikhail Lomonosov, Russia's first great inventor, scientist and linguist in the time of Peter the Great, and a cabinet owned by Peter's chief minister, Prince Alexander Menshikov. There are several medieval icons in the bedroom in which Temirkanov's wife, Irina, died last September after a battle with cancer.

That part of the tour is merely a matter of duty. Four days ago, after arriving from Copenhagen, Temirkanov woke up unable to move. But as he pads around the apartment in a dirty, striped terry-cloth bathrobe, even the pain of a pinched nerve cannot restrain his enthusiasm for the treasures he is about to reveal: piles of books, scores and recordings (as much of poetry as of music) that have reached such a critical mass an explosion seems imminent.

"This will kill you, Steve," he says in English, as he searches for a prized cassette. It was recorded more than 25 years ago by Dmitri Shostakovich, when the composer, after an evening of vodka drinking, was persuaded by the conductor to sing the finale of his Symphony No. 13, a setting of Yevgeni Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar."

"The voice is terrible, but musically it is great," Temirkanov says, as he burrows beneath a mountain-sized heap of books, cassettes, LPs and discs located next to his grand piano.

"I know it's here someplace, but where?" he says. "Well, some other time."

Temirkanov has more luck with Pushkin, his favorite poet.

"Everything ever written about him is here - including what was published during his own lifetime," Temirkanov says.

He also has collections devoted to two other friends - Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest Russian poets of the first half of the 20th century, and the late Joseph Brodsky, one of the greatest of the second half. There are also complete collections of Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov, and editions - in the original language, as well as in translation - of Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe.

"It's a pity to die without reading Dostoevski, Dante or Shakespeare," Temirkanov says - this time in English, to emphasize the point. "The most important part of my life - even music is not as important - are these books."

"If you write about what you see here," he adds, "mention the books. All the rest is garbage."

In the beginning

When Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Temirkanov was 3 years old. At the time, his family lived in Nalchik, capital of the tiny Kabarda-Balkar Autonomous Republic, situated where the vast southern Russian plains meet the soaring northern Caucasus.

Soon after war broke out, "artistic laborers" arrived in Nalchik by the trainloads as Moscow shipped its leading actors, painters, composers and musicians to what seemed a haven.

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