Music review: St. Petersburg Philharmonic begins U.S. tour with Alisa Weilerstein


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The St. Petersburg Philharmonic was founded in 1882 and proudly identifies itself as the oldest Russian orchestra. It is also no doubt the most Russian orchestra. On Tuesday night it launched a 26-day U.S. tour at Walt Disney Concert Hall with an all-Russian Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich and Brahms program. No, I didn’t know Brahms was Russian either. More about that later.

When the St. Petersburg Philharmonic last performed at Disney in 2007 under artistic director Yuri Temirkanov, the group stood out for being somewhat older on average than is typical these days and for the relatively few women players. Not much has changed. But, then, the orchestra knows a thing or two about tradition.


From 1938 until his death in 1988, the legendary Russian conductor Evgeny Mravinsky headed the orchestra, then called the Leningrad Philharmonic. Temirkanov, once an assistant conductor to Mravinsky, succeeded him. That’s two music directors in almost three-quarters of a century!

Perhaps it is that kind of collective memory that provides these St. Petersburgers with the confidence for individual expression. Concertmaster Lev Klychkov has a lion’s mane of long, graying hair and has a soloist’s commanding tone. As if possessed, a percussionist in Rimsky’s “Russian Easter Festival” crashed together his cymbals with enough force to crush a skull. An oboist waved his instrument in the air as he played like a jazz musician in search of a spotlight.

The overall character of the performance was that of a hybernating orchestra awakening after a cold, dark winter, one musician at a time. Rimsky provides many rosy solos and they were all blushingly singular, be they mellow or crude. Temirkanov is a micromanaging conductor but also one with a flair for sweeping dramatic gestures that seemed here designed to tell stories.

Under Mravinsky, the St. Petersburg was practically Shostakovich’s house band. It premiered several of his symphonies as it did his First Cello Concerto in 1960 with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist. Alisa Weilerstein was on hand to play the concerto Tuesday.

As an American, young and a woman, she might have been expected to have had three strikes against her facing this team of heavyweights in heavyweight music that they own. Moreover, this is an orchestra that can get a little surly with outsiders, as it did on its last visit to Disney when the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire was soloist.

But in the intense Weilerstein, the players met their match. She tore into the concerto with a ferocity that all but left the orchestra stunned. She is not undisciplined. She projected a rich lyrical tone when she wanted to or when Shostakovich wanted her to, and she played as if lost in reverie. But she was most in her element when on the percussive attack.


Temirkanov conducted with detached bemusement. He let her rip. To make the supposedly expressive, mellow cello shine, Shostakovich left out all the brass except for a single horn. Temirkanov let the horn rip too, as if to see what would happen. Neither the hard-bearing horn nor the orchestra scrambling to keep up with Weilerstein could withstand her impressive assaults on her cello.

At intermission I heard what seemed like half the audience humming the opening march motif, so effectively did she drill it into our heads (I’m still humming as I type).

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony after intermission was extraordinary. Temirkanov sought out a Russian soul that the German composer could not have known he had. The phrasing was flexible, with strings in the first movement sighing Slavic sighs. Reedy, ripe woodwinds in the Andante might well have been playing saturnine Tchaikovsky, with the horns and brass snarling in the background. A flute solo in the Finale was an Onegin in the ravages of self-pity, as the movement, based on a Baroque chaconne structure, inexorably brandished fate’s will.

The encore was the “Nimrod” movement, opaque and expansive, from Elgar’s very British “Enigma” Variations. This time it was “Nimrodsky,” someone joked. RELATED:
Cello virtuoso Alisa Weilerstein is always at the head of her class

Sweet sound of tradition

-- Mark Swed