Best Behavior

Superb playing erases any bad impression the St. Petersburg Philharmonic made while flying here and may return Russia'a oldest orchestra to Yuri Temirkanov's good graces.

March 09, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Since their ignoble arrival in the U. S. nearly three weeks ago, the musicians of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic appear to have been paragons of sobriety and social etiquette. Call it an Absolut(e) recovery.

The whole orchestra was unceremoniously de-planed Feb. 18 at Dulles Airport after an eventful flight from Amsterdam and forced to wait until the next day to continue on to the intended destination, Los Angeles, amid charges of excessive vodka consumption and unruly conduct.

Not the best publicity for the start of a four-week, 21-concert, 18-city tour. But things sure got back on track quickly. The orchestra, which formally apologized to United Airlines, has been giving hair-raising concerts with its music director of 14 years, Yuri Temirkanov, ever since that delayed arrival in California, sending critics into full gush-mode.

And no wonder. What the audience in New York's Carnegie Hall heard Thursday was nothing short of shattering - an orchestra at the peak of its game, playing with a discipline, tonal richness and expressive force to rival that of the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. Crowds in Washington and Baltimore will get an opportunity to experience these qualities tomorrow and Monday.

Perhaps the orchestra's best-behavior, edge-of-the-seat playing has been intensified by one unexpected little emotion - fear.

"I was mad," Temirkanov says of the disrupted flight incident. "But I haven't said anything to them. I knew that if I didn't say a word about it, they would be more frightened. I will probably sack a few people."

The conductor, looking tired and restless after a rehearsal for Thursday's concert, was not on the United flight with his players. Neither was a good translator. Lara Stokes, a production assistant for the tour (and daughter of Temirkanov's translator Marina Stokes), pieced together the chain of events after arriving on a separate flight from Europe:

It seems that remarks by the pilot and crew lost a lot in an attempt at translation. The result, Stokes says, was unintentionally inappropriate applause and laughter from musicians to serious instructions and information. And a few undeniably difficult players on board didn't help.

"The stories made it seem as if everyone was drunk," Stokes says, "but they swear that nobody threw anything on the plane. And when they were ordered off, 110 were probably sober. Three were not."

Temirkanov is not surprised. "It's always the same people," he says. "I could have said who was involved before I was told. As for the others, they're not angels. But they're normal. Russian orchestras are just a bit different."

(Shortly after the Feb. 18 incident, several members of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Kirov Opera, Orchestra and Ballet, were kept off a Finnair flight from New York to Helsinki because they had been drunk and disorderly on the inbound flight the week before.)

In the end, the bumpy start of the Philharmonic's U.S. visit can't diminish the ensemble's long-standing reputation.

Temirkanov's era

Russia's oldest orchestra, which started as a private perk of the Imperial Court in 1882, entered a golden age in 1938 with the arrival of music director Evgeny Mravinsky, who remained for 50 years.

Experienced philharmonic observers mark the start of a new golden age with Temirkanov's appointment. His intensity of purpose and depth of artistic feeling have been documented in the West on tours and on recordings. They are precisely the same patrician sensibilities that have characterized his two-year tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Hearing the philharmonic play Thursday provided insight into Temirkanov's frustration on the BSO's recent European tour. Like all American orchestras, the BSO follows union rules here and abroad. The number of services - a service is either a rehearsal or a performance - per week is limited. Since a typical tour is packed with concerts, there isn't much room for rehearsing.

The philharmonic is not bound by such rules. "We must rehearse every day, despite the travel, because every hall is different," Temirkanov said.

The pressure on the St. Petersburg musicians and the brilliance of their playing seem even greater when you learn that their base pay amounts to about $60 a month. One reason they willingly endure touring hardships is the chance to earn extra income. By one estimate, a player stands to take back home as much as $3,500.

This still leaves the philharmonic (and other Russian orchestras) woefully behind most of the music world.

"For me, personally, life in the Soviet Union was worse," Temirkanov says, "but for the orchestra, collectively, it was 10 times better than now. The minister of culture used to buy instruments - not good ones - and pay for all the guest artists. Now there is no money."

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