Temirkanov: Sounding upbeat

Former BSO music director leads his Russian orchestra at Strathmore

  • Conductor Yuri Temirkanov will conduct the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at the Strathmore.
Conductor Yuri Temirkanov will conduct the St. Petersburg… (Handout photo )
April 09, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Some classical music artists, it seems, are available for a limited number of cancellations each year. That's a rap that, for awhile, seemed applicable to Yuri Temirkanov, the inspired Russian conductor who served as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director from 2000 to 2006.

He canceled several weeks with the BSO during his final season and several more, as music director emeritus, in 2007 and 2009. He likewise canceled engagements with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and others during those years.

Explanations included schedule conflicts, health issues and "personal reasons." That left some Temirkanov fans in this country wondering and worried.

But his absences on these shores did not mean he wasn't still fully engaged in his native country with his St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Russia's oldest and, to many ears, finest orchestra. He's back in the U.S. for a grueling coast-to-coast U.S. tour with the Philharmonic, a tour that includes a concert for the Washington Performing Arts Society Tuesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.

It seems the conductor is in great health.

"I have no complaints," Temirkanov said by phone from North Carolina, through his longtime translator Marina Stokes. "I now have medications for depression, very strong medicine, and I'm in a very good mood."

Then he gave a small laugh.

"Of course, you always need a talent to deceive yourself." Another laugh.

(There has been a good deal of talk behind the scenes of Temirkanov's bouts with depression over the years.)

Reviews from the tour so far indicate that Temirkanov, 72, is robust musically, too. He's even being a little provocative, just as he often was during his Baltimore tenure. Critics have been debating his unexpected tempos and phrasing in Brahms' Symphony No. 4, for example; that work will be on the Strathmore program.

"I don't put a special task for myself to make music fresh for me or for others," he said. "But I am a man of today, so if I conduct something today, it is fresh."

Some listeners insist that Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic make everything sound Russian, an opinion expressed in more than one review of the Brahms symphony during the tour.

"I know they will continue to write like that because it's easy," Temirkanov said. "They just see a Russian orchestra and a Russian conductor, so they decide it must be a Russian sound. But that's nonsense. Why don't they write that an American orchestra plays Brahms in an American way?"

One of the conductor's absences during his Baltimore years was caused when he stayed home to deal with financial malfeasance in the executive office at the Philharmonic, where Temirkanov has been music director since 1988. Today, he said, the orchestra is on solid ground.

A recently built recording studio for the Philharmonic has yielded a new flow of discs documenting the rapport between orchestra and conductor. Initial releases include works by Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Artistically, the ensemble "is now more or less OK," said Temirkanov, never one to dish out praise lavishly.

"It is the same with any orchestra; it is not perfect. But, of course, it wants to improve," he added. "What has changed is that now maybe I have made the players more connected to the music than was the case with the orchestra I inherited."

One of the soloists appearing with the Philharmonic during the U.S. tour is the much-touted young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, performing Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 (she'll play that work at Strathmore).

"This tour is the first time I have worked with her," Temirkanov said. "It was a big surprise, in a good sense. She's wonderful. I made a few small suggestions about the concerto, which she accepted right away, but, really, everything is fine."

Although St. Petersburg and its Philharmonic continue to be the central focus in the conductor's life, he also serves as music director of the Teatro di Regia in Parma. A production in that opera house of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" this season generated booing. Reports indicate that some of the jeers were aimed at Temirkanov, but Stokes disagrees. "The hooligans didn't like the mezzo," she said.

Regardless, Temirkanov will be back in Parma next fall. Engagements with ensemble in this country are not likely anytime soon. "His seasons are quite full," Stokes said. "He will not come next year, and probably not 2013, either."

There's no telling if Temirkanov will ever make music with the BSO again.

"But I miss the orchestra, the friends," he said. "I have only the best recollections."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. $35 to $95. Call 202-785-9727 or go to wpas.org.

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