Conductor's top role: guardian angel

Loyalty: Yuri Temirkanov did not hesitate to help a fellow Russian pianist threatened by the Soviet state.

Music

June 20, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When Alexander Toradze arrived in town last week to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he had more on his mind than playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. He was also thinking about two occasions when Yuri Temirkanov came to his rescue.

"I want people here to know what kind of man Yuri is," the pianist said in his dressing room after a rehearsal. "They may see him only as a great conductor."

Temirkanov, a fellow Russian, is the BSO's new music director. The two men have known each other for many years and have developed a strong, mutual respect. It was evident in the sizzling, superbly meshed account of the concerto they gave during two performances at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

But there is something besides music keeping the pianist and conductor close. Toradze felt compelled to talk about that bond when he noticed the music Temirkanov would be conducting on this week's BSO program - Shostakovich's "Babi Yar" Symphony.

Challenge evil

For Toradze, the lesson of that symphony is that individuals must have the courage to challenge state-sanctioned evil. It's what Yevgeny Yevtushenko did when he wrote the poem "Babi Yar" about the Nazis' mass-murder of Jews outside Kiev; what Shostakovich did when he set the poem to music; and what Temirkanov did when he dared to perform the "Babi Yar" symphony in its original, unexpurgated version in the city formerly known as Leningrad.

"It all starts with one step," Toradze says. "Yuri took that step when he defied the Soviets."

"In September 1982, I was supposed to open the season with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic," Toradze said. "The rehearsals went very well. I went back to my hotel to rest before the concert. I was awakened by the hotel administration informing me that I had to leave my room; it was needed for some Czech tourists. It was a typical, direct communist order. It was ridiculous under any standard, including Soviet standards."

Toradze tried to fight the eviction. He asked Philharmonic officials to intervene; they did nothing. By the time the pianist was relocated, he was too furious and unnerved to perform and canceled his appearance. Early the next day, Soviet authorities were hearing about the incident.

"Letters were sent complaining that `Comrade Toradze was already spoiled by his exposure to the West,' " the pianist said.

"They completely demolished my reputation. But the night after the Philharmonic concert was the opening of the Kirov Opera, where Yuri was music director. He already knew the story of my disaster and felt upset for me.

"He invited me to sit in the government's loge, next to the Communist Party chief for the whole Leningrad region, the most powerful person in the area. All the local officials, including people from the Philharmonic, came at intermission to say hello to her, and each time, she would say, `Do you know Mr. Toradze?' So, because Yuri stood up for me, I was completely validated."

No pianos

The following year, Toradze found himself in Madrid to begin a month-long tour with another Russian orchestra. The trouble started upon arrival, when he was told that no one in Spain knew a piano soloist was coming, so there would be no pianos available. Toradze asked for permission to return to the Soviet Union, but the request was denied.

Why Toradze became the victim of this snafu, or the hotel mess, isn't clear. He turned to a Soviet artists' agency for help, but they expected him to remain in Spain for a month without performing.

"They didn't want to have to buy me a separate airplane ticket, but make me go back on the charter flight," Toradze said. "Gradually, with doing nothing except thinking, I decided to defect."

Thus begins the second "much more dramatic" story Toradze wanted to tell about Temirkanov.

Once the pianist was granted political asylum in Madrid, he was cut off from all contact with his native land. And his colleagues in the orchestra were under orders not to mention Toradze to anyone when they got back. (Making the authorities doubly perturbed was the death of the orchestra's concertmaster. He had planned to defect but committed suicide in Spain when security was tightened after Toradze's disappearance.)

The pianist could not get phone calls or telegrams through to his parents, who had no idea what had happened to him. The emotional strain was great. Then a Spanish friend mentioned Temirkanov would soon be conducting in Geneva.

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