Gala concert fetes Russian conductor Music: As Yuri Temirkanov celebrates his 60th birthday, he prepares to come to Baltimore from St Petersburg, a city that owes much of its artistic richness to him

Fine Arts

December 15, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It was a glorious party.

But it was more than that -- it was Russian musical culture reasserting itself.

And even more, it was Yuri Temirkanov's 60th birthday.

Even though 60 makes Temirkanov, the music director-designate the Baltimore Symphony, a spring chicken compared to some other conductors, St. Petersburg celebrated his Dec. 10 birthday with festivities that one celebrant described as a three-day party with a three-and-a-half-hour gala concert sandwiched in.

"Great artists like Yuri deserve such honors because they are the leaders of our culture," said conductor Mariss Jansons, one of Temirkanov's oldest friends and the man who shared conducting duties for the concert with Alexander Dmitriev. "We love and admire Yuri, but we also wanted to show how important music is to our culture."

According to Jansons, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Oslo Philharmonic, there has never been a concert in the history of St. Petersburg such as the one on Dec. 10. It was performed by two orchestras -- the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which Temirkanov has led since 1988, and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, of which Temirkanov was music director between 1968-1978.

Great soloists, such as soprano Barbara Hendricks, pianists Eliso Virsaladze and Yefim Bronfman, violinists Gidon Kremer and Viktor Tretyakov, violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Natalya Gutman, took time out from busy international careers to perform. And for the first time in almost 70 years, orchestra seats were removed from the St. Petersburg Philharmonia Grand Hall so that two orchestras could be seated simultaneously and so that guests could be seated at tables.

Speeches were made by the city's leading politicians and telegrams were read from absent leaders such as Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who had personally decorated Temirkanov with an award for Service to the Fatherland on the previous Monday in Moscow.

And at the reception after the concert that took place across the street in the grand dining room of the Hotel Europskaya, the president of the Kabarda-Balkar republic, the tiny principality in the Caucasus where Temirkanov was born, presented a most unusual gift: an Arab stallion.

Temirkanov's birthday celebrations were so elaborate because of the conductor's importance to the musical institutions of St. Petersburg.

Although Temirkanov was not born in the city, he arrived there in 1951 as a 13-year-old violinist to study at the city's school for musically gifted children.

"Musically, his entire life has been spent in this city and devoted to it," said pianist Virsaladze. "When he became conductor of the Petersburg Symphony 30 years ago, it was unknown outside of Russia. He took it on foreign tours and made it famous. When he took over the Kirov Opera and Ballet 10 years later, it was falling apart and he restored it to greatness. And he has done the same thing with the Philharmonic. He is a man who inspires love and affection in any case, but St. Petersburg is honoring him because of what his talent has done for this city."

As parties and concerts go, this celebration, said Temirkanov by telephone last Saturday as he prepared to leave for concerts in Copenhagen, was "not bad."

But Temirkanov said that he would have preferred to have let this birthday pass unnoticed.

L "I feel more than 60," he admitted. "Life is not easy here."

Despite his duties in Baltimore, which begin officially in January 2000, Temirkanov plans to spend as much time in St. Petersburg as ever. He is not optimistic about the future of the Philharmonic, Russia's oldest and greatest.

"Under the Communists the money was excellent," he said. "For every audition, musicians came from all over the country -- for the salary, not just so that they would become members of the Leningrad Philharmonic."

The conductor is less concerned by Russia's current economic crash than by the gradual loss of culture that preceded it.

"One day the crash will be over, but the loss of culture -- the loss of the soul of a people -- this cannot be restored. When musicians make less than $300 a month, they can't feed and clothe their children. And if they can't live, they will leave -- just as 90 percent of our best soloists have left.

"St. Petersburg without an orchestra is a possibility," Temirkanov warns. "One day people are going to wake up to find that their hair is grown, that they look like apes and that all they do is get up in the morning, eat, drink, sleep and go to the toilet."

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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