Cosmic sounds abound when worlds are one

Russians touch each others' souls

Music Review

October 30, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Something alchemic occurred Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Yuri Temirkanov took standard works of the Russian repertoire, poured them into his St. Petersburg Philharmonic, stirred them with his unself-conscious ideas about the nature of music-making, and created sonic gold.

More than that, he generated the kind of emotional communication that grabs you and doesn't easily let go. I was still reliving moments of that concert the next day, and expect to be doing so for a long time.

As impressive as his work with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has so often been since he became music director in 2000, there's no denying the deeper rapport he enjoys with his St. Petersburg orchestra after 16 years at that helm. This is especially evident when these Russians explore Russian music, their common DNA.

Like the Philharmonic's visit to the hall in 2002, this one drew a large, rapt house (the best-attended classical event at the Meyerhoff in months). It's always rewarding to be in a room packed with people who seem to be hanging on every note, savoring a communal experience.

Temirkanov can be faulted for sticking to a rather narrow list of pieces, but he sure doesn't take any of them for granted.

He sent Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 on a fleet, effervescent course, without slighting any of the warm or wry aspects in the piece. There was something unmistakably affectionate about the conductor's approach, a gentle underlining of the nostalgic shadows behind this updated classicism.

Although the violins didn't make the cleanest initial attack, it was smooth, glistening sailing after that. (The section had an unexpected guest, BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who sat in the third stand for part of the concert.) The rest of the orchestra, too, sounded remarkably refined and attentive.

The Cello Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, like so many of his works, suggests an aural diary where innermost worries and dreams have been recorded. The brilliant American cellist Lynn Harrell unlocked those secrets with playing that was extraordinarily incisive and gripping, not to mention technically splendid. Temirkanov matched him for insight; the orchestra, including a fearless horn soloist, matched Harrell for virtuosity.

Temirkanov has programmed Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony twice with the BSO in four years, and inspired potent performances both times, but nothing like what he and his countrymen achieved here.

It was as if everyone on that stage were feeling Tchaikovsky's pain - living it, really. And there is pain in this symphony, probably not the self-pitying type we used to assign to this score under the assumption that the composer was terribly lonely and hopelessly guilt-ridden about his sexuality.

Recent scholarship suggests he wasn't so miserable, but what he put into this symphony cannot be waved off as mere notes. A life is nakedly exposed here, all the good and bad, all the determination and doubt; with the stroke of a gong and a brass chorale as a eulogy, that life slips away into the unknown.

Without any heavy-handed twists of phrasing or dynamics, Temirkanov made all of this feel incredibly personal and real as he drew a searing response from the Philharmonic. As a demonstration of pure orchestral mettle, the performance would have been striking enough. As an expression of music's visceral power, it was simply profound.

Temirkanov looked drained afterward, but responded to the persistent ovation with an encore, the same one he offered after the Philharmonic's 2002 concert here - Elgar's soul-cleansing Nimrod. Coming after the Pathetique, the effect could not have been more cathartic.

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