Three days in, atmosphere is warm, festive

Temirkanov, Hege lead performances

Winter Festival: St. Petersburg '03-'04

December 31, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - The International Winter Festival Arts Square may not have the most graceful name in English, but what it means in Russian is location, location, location.

When Yuri Temirkanov first envisioned the festival, which opened its fifth anniversary season this week, he saw as its focal point the area of this city known as Arts Square. Within easy reach of each other are located the Shostakovich Philharmonia, home of Temirkanov's St. Petersburg Philharmonic and scene of innumerable historic premieres in symphonic music; the State Russian Museum, with its 400,000-item collection spanning 1,000 years of the country's artistic history; and the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theater, overshadowed by the more famous Mariinsky Theater in another part of town, but still very much in the cultural picture.

Add in the five-star, 125-year-old Grand Hotel Europe directly across from the Philharmonia, a hotel that has registered such notables as composer/conductor Gustav Mahler, and you've got an unusually appealing, convenient spot to hold a festival. But that's just the beginning.

The rest of this vast and treasure-filled city provides an adjunct to the festival. Even in wintertime, when daylight hours are few, St. Petersburg glows. By day, the yellow, green and pink of the ornate buildings (exterior colors rarely encountered in the West, outside the Caribbean and Miami) provide relief from dark clouds. Or, as happened yesterday, those buildings take on a subtle, yet still radiant, hue from the sun, which stays low in the sky. By night, holiday lights glitter everywhere.

What really seems to make the festival click, though, is the extra touch of class that Temirkanov - an unmistakable celebrity here - can command. (He has been a major player in St. Petersburg's musical scene, orchestral and operatic, since the 1960s. Folks in Baltimore, where he has headed the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2000, have a long way to go in gaining the measure of the man and his music-making.)

After Monday night's performance by the exceptional Moscow Soloists, the classy stuff awaited dozens of festival patrons who walked across the square to the Russian Museum for a reception. They were unexpectedly greeted by an honor guard of police cadets at full attention, standing on opposite sides of the sidewalk, with low-lying torches spaced in between, up-lighting each man. There was something surreal about the sight of all those guards, eyes front, faces expressionless, stretching the equivalent of two long blocks alongside the huge museum, a former palace from the 1820s built as a consolation prize for a grand duke who had no chance to become czar. And all those neatly contained flames along the path cast a warm glow against the chilly night air.

The Russian equivalent of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus - a costumed couple on very high stilts - called down cheery greetings at the door to the museum; inside, men and women dressed in 19th-century dress milled around for atmosphere as guests took in an arresting exhibition of vibrantly colored paintings by Boris Kustodiev and then feasted on a lavish buffet as folk singers and dancers entertained. You don't find a post-concert party like this every day. When a beaming Temirkanov arrived, he let out a hearty laugh and asked everyone, "How did you like my soldiers?"

Even folks who aren't in the moneyed or politically important set that packed the reception are rewarded for their patronage in the form of spirited performances. On Sunday and Monday nights, large crowds filled the brightly lit Philharmonia, a rectangular room once used as Party Central for a noblemen's private club. With its startlingly white, ornate columns and matching walls, deep red drapes and enormous gold and crystal chandeliers (which burn a full wattage during most concerts), the intimate - 1,300 seats - hall is at once a serious and inviting space. It was here that a perplexed audience first heard Tchaikovsky's last symphony in 1893, and where new works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and so many others were introduced. History like that has a way of seeping into the pores of a building. This place wears its past well.

Temirkanov dubbed this year's festival, "Russia-America: Musical Bonds." That theme is carried out in various ways - repertoire and/or guest artists. American violinist Sarah Chang was heard Sunday night in the intensely personal Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. She may not have dug all the way to the almost painful truths of the piece, but her technical command and committed phrasing won over the crowd, which couldn't get an encore out of her despite bursts of rhythmic clapping that lasted through five or six curtain calls.

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