Visitors offer lessons in possibilities

Orchestra: St. Petersburg Philharmonic raises performance standard with concert at Meyerhoff.

Classical Music

March 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A week after the St. Petersburg Philharmonic's visit, I still find the rich, soulful sound of that orchestra floating in my head. Another after-effect lingers. It's the realization that the artistic bar has been raised in Baltimore.

Before the Russians played in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with their music director Yuri Temirkanov, I don't think local audiences or members of Temirkanov's other ensemble, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, really understood what all the fuss was about.

Everyone had heard how Temirkanov was used to high standards and was insisting on them here, but I think some folks considered such talk as hyperbolic, or merely an excuse to justify changes in the BSO. Until the Philharmonic actually performed on the BSO's home turf, they could ignore the possibility that maybe Temirkanov and his players really were on an exalted level. Now we all know for sure.

Of the concerts I heard the Philharmonic give (the others were in New York and D.C.), Baltimore's had a slight edge in terms of expressive force. It was as if Temirkanov and his players wanted this event to count the most. What we heard was generous music-making, a kind of embrace, an invitation to partake of what drives this conductor and this orchestra. It was a heady experience.

When you consider how hard the philharmonic works on tour - a rehearsal for every concert - its discipline is all the more impressive. I never heard a tired note, even at the Carnegie Hall concert, which had been preceded just a few hours earlier not just by a rehearsal of almost that whole program, but also a near run-through of another demanding one.

Maybe discipline isn't everything, but playing of such cohesion and precision sure is wonderful to hear. The smoothness of the blend among the strings and the winds, the unanimity and clarity of attack - such things help to define a great orchestra. When you add in the interpretive heat, generated from the podium and put into aural power by the musicians, the effect can be spectacular. And so it was as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic strutted its stuff here.

Obviously, Temirkanov cannot turn the BSO into a copy of the Russian group. I can't imagine why he would want to, anyway. Every orchestra has its own personality and strengths - and limits. But I certainly can understand why he wants to make changes, why he is displeased by some things he routinely hears from the vantage of the BSO podium (and you can be sure he hears everything).

What some people may have trouble with is the concept that the BSO needs upgrading. After all, the orchestra is used to high praise, and the years with music director David Zinman were banner ones. But in music, like all the arts, there's always a higher plateau ahead, always another upward notch desirable - and maybe obtainable.

A cool, objective analysis of the BSO clearly reveals weak spots. They may not be catastrophic; audiences don't run screaming from the theater because of them. But if the ensemble is to rise, improvements have to be made.

Sometimes, they can be made by rearranging resources; we've seen some re-positioning of personnel during Temirkanov's tenure and will likely see more. Sometimes, new blood is the better option; we've seen - and heard - some of that, too.

If each step Temirkanov takes is considered a threat or an insult, he and the orchestra won't get very far. If people prefer to wallow in memories of the good old days, we may not get to enjoy many good new days.

What we heard at the Meyerhoff last week was not just a fabulous orchestra from Russia. We got a filling taste of what quality means to Temirkanov, and what the next level of quality for the BSO might be like if he stays in the job.

(Temirkanov's contract expires at the end of the 2002-2003 season. Asked about the status of new contract talks, BSO president John Gidwitz declined to comment. Asked the same question at Carnegie Hall, Temirkanov said, "I haven't thought about that." For what it's worth, he was smiling broadly as he said it.)

One last thing. It was great just to encounter another major orchestra here. Baltimore should be a regular stop for touring orchestras. Ongoing exposure to better - and even lesser - orchestras would be beneficial to the public, which hasn't had that opportunity since the Philadelphia Orchestra stopped visiting years ago. Such exposure can do wonders for breaking down insular and provincial attitudes.

The San Francisco and Chicago symphonies present competition in their halls every season; the BSO should think about doing the same at Meyerhoff.

New faces

The BSO has a new vice president and general manager. Karen A. Swanson, who will be responsible for artistic planning and management, starts June 3. She has spent the past 15 years with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, working as general manager and, more recently, director of development and external affairs.

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