Holiday celebration with `very high style'

Gala: Yuri Temirkanov throws an extravagant ball at a St. Petersburg palace.

January 01, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - "Unbelievable!" That was probably the word repeated most often, at least by the many English-speaking guests, during Yuri Temirkanov's New Year's Ball at the Yusupov Palace.

The extravagant czarist-style party has become the signature social event of the annual International Winter Festival Arts Square, founded and directed by Temirkanov, the veteran conductor who leads the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Temirkanov owns a condominium in Baltimore, but his home will always be the city founded on an unlikely stretch of swampy land by Peter the Great. And he loves showing off the city, which is one reason why his New Year's celebration is held in an astonishing example of grand Russian living, the palace of Yusupov princes.

"There are so many music festivals today," Temirkanov said between courses of last night's meal. "Any village can have one. So it is necessary for a festival to have special attractions. After all, who wants to come to Russia in winter? My idea was to have this ball as a way of bringing people closer to the tradition of St. Petersburg style." With a laugh, he added: "And it was a very high style."

The conductor couldn't have found a better spot for the moneyed patrons of the festival to do their socializing. For $600 a person, nearly 200 guests in formal wear - including a few British lords, a bevy of rich Italians and about 25 Temirkanov and BSO fans from the Baltimore area - had a chance to relive something of what Russian aristocrats of the highest rank took for granted when the Yusupovs threw one of their splendid soirees.

The revelers were greeted by the sounds of an a cappella choir of boys and young men singing stirring Russian songs on the first landing of the grand staircase. Attendants in full livery bowed and scraped in every corner, encouraging folks to wander through room after ornate room. Most people seemed more interested in the prospect of champagne being offered by another retinue of servers upstairs, but those who followed the gentle gesturing of the servants found a few surprises along the way. In one elaborately tiled room was a harem of veiled young ladies around a small pool.

In a more 19th-century- style room, a heavy, carved wooden door was cracked open, revealing a bathtub with a woman in it. Other actors were employed in a dimly lit elsewhere cavorting behind a thin curtain over a regal-sized bed.

All this went on before the action shifted to the palace's gilded theater, where Franz Liszt once played the piano, Fyodor Chaliapin once sang and Anna Pavlova once danced for the Yusupovs and their pals. Of course, that was before that night in 1916 when the princes did their part to rid Russia of its meddlesome priest, Rasputin, whose hold on the court of Nicholas and Alexandra is the stuff of legend.

So, of course, is Rasputin's progressive death, which started in the palace with poisoned food during a private dinner, continued with bullets for dessert when the poison refused to do its job, and finally ended with drowning in a nearby waterway. The ghost of the hypnotic lady-killer cleric was not in evidence during last night's revelry, but he probably would have loved the sight of so many well-heeled women. At least one gown had a train long enough to have been in style when Rasputin was running amok in St. Petersburg.

Crowds back then would have been a bit more reserved and bejeweled (diamonds, surprisingly, were not overly conspicuous last night, even though word was that three of the wealthiest women in Europe were among the guests). No one thought twice about snapping photos, placing cell phone calls and making a din, as when the Italian contingent started a chant of "Maestro, maestro" to get Temirkanov's attention in the baroque theater before the short performance began.

The theme of the fifth annual winter festival, Russian and American musical bonds, carried over into the ball. Gershwin songs were delivered by a Russian mezzo and violinist. A chamber group made up of St. Petersburg Philharmonic players had fun with a work by another American composer - Leroy Anderson's novelty piece for a typewriter and strings.

Once the summons to dinner came, the revelers worked their way through salons filled with exquisite art and sculpture to a richly appointed ballroom where a Russian combo was striking up "Puttin' on the Ritz" and other American standards. (The Yusupov Palace would make the Ritz look like that place where they'll "leave the light on for you.") Tap dancers and a big band continued the dinner entertainment, while magician Jake Friedman, formerly of Baltimore and now of New York, was invited by Temirkanov to work his trickery table by table.

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