Sweet sound of tradition

Times Staff Writer

Asked to name the flagship orchestra of Russia, many people would answer the Kirov, helmed by the indefatigable Valery Gergiev. He and his players, after all, have received considerable media attention for, among other things, presenting Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in the U.S., including at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.

But other, perhaps more experienced music lovers wouldn’t pause a second before naming a different ensemble from the same city: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic led by Yuri Temirkanov. Southern California audiences will have their latest opportunity to see why when the orchestra plays four area concerts this month, beginning Nov. 12 in San Diego and continuing in Santa Barbara, Costa Mesa and Los Angeles.

The St. Petersburg’s pedigree is more than impressive. The orchestra traces its origins to 1802, when a group of music-loving aristocrats formed Europe’s first Philharmonic Society. It went on to present the world premiere of Beethoven’s mighty “Missa Solemnis” in 1824.


The orchestra also premiered works by such iconic 19th century Russian composers as Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. And the tradition continued into the 20th century. Six of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies received their first performances by the Petersburg, which was renamed the Leningrad Philharmonic when St. Petersburg changed names in the 1920s after the Russian Revolution. (The orchestra would revert to its original name in 1991, shortly after the city returned to its earlier name as well.)

For 50 years, from 1938 until his death in 1988, the orchestra was led by the great Evgeny Mravinsky, who spread its international fame through tours and recordings. After he died, Temirkanov took over.

“When I came to this orchestra, it was the premier orchestra in Russia,” Temirkanov, 69, said through an interpreter recently from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where the orchestra’s 20-city U.S. tour opened. “It remains that today. This is my great pride.”

His pride appears justified. Of the opening performance in Washington, Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith wrote: “All of Temirkanov’s familiar traits that local audiences got to savor during his seven seasons as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were very much on display. The alternately sweeping, fluttering, slicing arm gestures that fly in the face of how-to-conduct textbooks; the combination of control and spontaneity; the sense of music being not so much made as being lived -- it was great encountering all that magic again.”

Temirkanov led the Baltimore Symphony from 2000 to 2006 and remains its music director emeritus. In fact, his plate is full. He is also principal guest conductor of the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow and the Danish National Symphony, conductor laureate of the Royal Philharmonic in London and artistic director of St. Petersburg’s annual Arts Square International Winter Festival. Then there’s his guest conducting in Europe, Britain and the U.S.

“My schedule varies from year to year, but the main thing is the St. Petersburg Philharmonic,” he said. “I spend a lot of time touring with them and plan my season around the orchestra.”


The ensemble’s Southern California presenters include Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

“The orchestra’s remarkable history parallels the history of the development of Western music in the 1800s and 1900s,” Borda said. “They also have an absolutely beautiful hall in St. Petersburg called the Grand Hall, which is one of the greatest places to hear music. You sit there and think about the ghosts of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, who actually conducted the orchestra.

“When any Russian musician or music lover talks about it, they speak in deep reverential tones,” she observed. “Plus, when you see these people in the orchestra, you know their fathers played in the orchestra. There’s a real tradition that’s been handed down.”

Said Corey: “I remember the great Leningrad Philharmonic which this orchestra was -- or is -- which certainly was the dominant orchestra over anything at the Mariinsky Theatre. Recently, with Gergiev, that certainly has greatly changed people’s perspective. Still, it’s this great orchestra. We’ve had them twice since I’ve been here, but never with Temirkanov.”

Corey is aware that some people may not know the orchestra’s illustrious history. “Branding of orchestras in general has changed dramatically from what it was,” he said. “Take the Cleveland Orchestra. Older folk remember the great George Szell years, or classical aficionados know them from their great recordings. But for someone new to classical music, Cleveland is where Drew Carey is from.

“I’ve found with the Kirov, that name is a little tough to sell,” he added. “The Bolshoi Orchestra, which is not as good, sells easily. Anything with ‘Moscow’ in front of it sells really well. ‘Russian.’ But ‘St. Petersburg’? Some people may be thinking it’s from Florida. That’s part of the great transition as we move to the future.”


Still, he said, “Any time they’re available, we’ll try to bring them. The quality is high. It’s the real thing. Our main folks are very aware of who they are and know their history.”

Temirkanov acknowledged all the compliments, but he was equally complimentary about American orchestras. “There is a Russian sound,” he said. “It is a good sound -- when the strings are not just playing the notes but engage in the music. They give themselves to the music and the result is a very good sound, a special sound. But I remember the same applied to the Philadelphia Orchestra. All string players are special.”

Temirkanov, however, has one advantage that most American orchestras don’t -- the luxury of rehearsal time. “In my orchestra, I can work as much as I want, and fortunately we don’t have trade unions that get in my way,” he said.

He put the same idea more forcefully in an interview with the Times of London in 2005. “If trade unions continue to exist as they are they will kill culture,” he said. “At least here [in Russia] nobody in management says: ‘You let the orchestra go an hour early, but we have to pay them for three hours.’ At first, the intention of trade unions was very good. The Communists also wanted to make everybody happy. But any good intention when it’s taken to extremes becomes absurd.”

As for the great Russian performance tradition handed down from families of players, “Yes, there’s a very strong tradition, but membership in the orchestra depends on the auditions,” he said.

For the good of all

After this American tour, scheduled to end in Seattle on Nov. 20, the orchestra is booked in Paris and then for the Winter Festival in St. Petersburg, “which is where we invite the best of the Russian artists and also some new, young talent,” Temirkanov said.


Beyond that, he hopes to record all of Mahler’s symphonies and music by Prokofiev. “I value Prokofiev very highly because he is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century,” he said. “This is my dream. Not all of his works are performed enough.”

(The orchestra’s program at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa will include Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and the suite from his ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Temirkanov will also conduct the latter the following night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, along with the Entre’acte III from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” and Schumann’s A-minor Piano Concerto, with guest soloist Nelson Freire.)

As for Gergiev and the Kirov, Temirkanov has no feelings of rivalry. Gergiev made his opera debut when he was assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera under Temirkanov, and he took over there as chief conductor and artistic director only after Temirkanov left to helm the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Moreover, it is thanks to Temirkanov that both orchestras -- and others in Russia -- still exist. When they were imperiled because of seriously reduced state funding, Temirkanov knew exactly who to go to.

“About five years ago, I asked President Putin if I could talk to him about the state of our orchestras,” he said. “As a result, five major orchestras and two conservatories in Moscow were given grants which increased the musicians’ salaries probably eight times.

“But the provincial orchestras are still in a very difficult situation,” he said. “So I am going back to the government to get support for them too.”



St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Where: Orange County Performing Artscenter, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 14

Price: $30 to $250

Contact: (949) 553-2422 or

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 15

Price: $40 to $142

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or