Temirkanov refuses to let throat ailment stop the show

Winter Festival: St. Petersburg 2004

January 06, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - "How you spend New Year's Eve," goes a Russian saying, "is how you will spend the year." That may mean that Yuri Temirkanov is in for months of feeling lousy.

The conductor has been ailing since Dec. 31, when he started coming down with a throat ailment just as he had to serve as host at his annual New Year's Eve Ball at the Yusupov Palace, the main social function of his International Winter Festival, Arts Square. (No wonder during the toast he led that night, he repeatedly emphasized that he hoped everyone would enjoy a "healthy" New Year.) He couldn't eat anything that night, yet did such a convincing job of acting celebratory that no one suspected a thing. He even kicked up his heels a few times with various high-society ladies and stood outside in the roughly 25-degree air for the entire early morning festivities in the courtyard.

A visit to the hospital and rest on New Year's Day did not help much. Temirkanov was visibly struggling throughout Saturday's four-hour St. Petersburg Philharmonic rehearsal, grabbing his throat when he had to swallow and coughing behind a handkerchief. He bowed out of a planned dinner that night with the two dozen Baltimore Symphony patrons who traveled to St. Petersburg expressly for the festival. On Sunday, after dragging himself to another long rehearsal and conducting a demanding concert, Temirkanov skipped another festival-related dinner. Each day during rehearsal breaks in his dressing room, he sat sunken in a chair, nursing tea and saying in English, "Oh, my god."

When Temirkanov walks off the podium of the Philharmonia tonight after making his final festival appearance with a Gershwin feast featuring his St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Morgan State University Choir, you might hear his sigh of relief all the way back in Baltimore. But that's as close as he's going to get to Charm City this week. Yesterday, when it was clear that whatever he had come down with wasn't going to dissipate quickly and would certainly not be helped by a long plane trip on Wednesday, Temirkanov canceled his scheduled appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The search for a replacement to lead this weekend's concerts is under way.

You only had to see him backstage yesterday to understand the unavoidable choice Temirkanov made. When word came that a crew from a Russian television station was outside his dressing room waiting to interview him about the Gershwin program, he let out a little laugh and said, "With this face? Nyet, nyet."

Very pale and clearly weakened by what is at the least a bad cold, and probably the flu, Temirkanov nonetheless threw himself into yesterday's rehearsal of excerpts from Porgy and Bess, energized by the Morgan chorus and the guest soloists, all sounding remarkably unaffected by jet lag. He added his own applause to that of the orchestra for all the singers, but when he left the stage, the weight of his illness was once again etched on his face.

A different look provided occasional contrast Sunday night as Temirkanov led the Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. He looked physically done in at the start and at the end, but in between, while the music unfolded, an occasional smile and what looked for all the world like a spiritual exultation came over him, as if he were living the emotional peaks and valleys of the symphony.

The performance had just about everything one could wish for - brilliance of attack, fire and soul in the phrasing. The orchestra's sound was nearly overwhelming in the finale, which Temirkanov drove hard. Later, he would profess disappointment with the results, finding fault with various details of execution. But what I heard was a monumental, gripping, authoritative performance by an extraordinary conductor and his orchestra, and a glimpse into the troubled soul of Tchaikovsky himself.

Sunday's concert was packed, with standees crowding the side porticos and balcony. Part of the draw was starry, Siberian-born baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the soloist in Mahler's Kin- dertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), a rarity here. Unfortunately, the audience had no translations of the German texts; people did not seem to connect with the poignant poems or the profound and subtle music. Hvorostovsky wasn't entirely in synch with the material, either (he made one or two wrong entrances, but recovered well). What left the greatest impression was the beauty and enveloping warmth of his tone, always a pleasure to hear.

The performance set off prolonged rhythmic clapping, which I am beginning to suspect is the Russian equivalent of the automatic standing ovation in the States. Many bouquets were presented by admirers to the singer, along with a few bottles (champagne, presumably), some autograph requests and even one outstretched arm from a man who ran down to the front just to shake hands with Hvorostovsky, Temirkanov and the concertmaster during their bows.

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