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The first Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra concert

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Last night the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra returned to Davies Symphony Hall to perform the first of two concerts under the baton of their Artistic Director Yuri Temirkanov. This is Temirkanov’s 25th season in this position, as well as the season of his 75th birthday. Founded in 1882 by Emperor Alexander III, the ensemble is Russia’s first symphony orchestra; and it has been making international tours since 1946, several of which have brought it to San Francisco.

In writing about the performance of music, I often like to invoke the four lines that begin the final stanza of “Little Gidding,” the last of the four poems that T. S. Eliot published as Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Last night, performing with soloist Denis Kozhukhin, Temirkanov led the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 piano concerto in B-flat minor (his first). While the music was probably well known to almost everyone in Davies, this interpretation was, without a doubt, a know-the-place-for-the-first-time experience. The intense dramatism of the opening orchestral measures and the first forceful chords on the piano keyboard were as familiar as ever. However, as the music progressed, it was clear that both soloist and conductor had undertaken a highly imaginative exploration, which, for all of its novelty, never compromised the fundamental nuts and bolts of the score itself.

Much of this was a matter of rhetorical stance. Kozhukhin appreciated the music as a panorama of varying emotions, rather than a prolonged development of a single dramatic attitude. That variation was realized through judicious control of dynamics, often involving varying shifts in balance with the orchestral instruments, and, beyond the dynamic levels themselves, an attentiveness to touch that one is more likely to encounter in chamber music settings. Indeed, through his sense of touch, Kozhukhin suggested that there were even flashes of wit in some of Tchaikovsky’s thematic material; and Temirkanov’s support reinforced the sense that even melancholic Tchaikovsky was capable of a smile or two from time to time. Most importantly, all of these rhetorical devices were applied without the slightest suggestion of distorting the music as Tchaikovsky had composed it, thus demonstrating to the attentive listener the full breadth of the power of studied interpretation.

That commitment to fidelity may have explained why Kozhukhin chose to take a different stance in his solo encore performance. He presented the B minor prelude composed by Alexander Siloti. This takes the E minor prelude from the first volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, realizes it with rich nineteenth-century expressiveness and then repeats it with new lines of counterpoint added by Siloti. Kozhukhin presented a balanced reading that accounted for both the substance of the original Bach source and the elegant stylizations of Siloti’s “amendments.”

The major instrumental work on the program was Giya Kancheli’s “…al Niente.” This may best be described as a meditation on the dynamic specification “diminuendo al niente” (fade to nothingness). One may also approach it as a mediation on silence itself, if not an alternative perspective on John Cage’s conviction that here is no such thing as absolute silence.

In spite of the suggestion of its title, the composition covers a prodigious dynamic range. It begins as a nebula of almost inaudible sonorities, some of which sound almost like echoes of echoes, while others are “points of sound” that “complete the flow” of other points of sound coming from different instruments. Later in the score, there are almost ear-shattering bursts that probably require a record-breaking number of F signs in the score. However, these bursts are abrupt, making one immediately aware that the following “silence” is “filled” with the sounds of reverberation.

This piece was written for Temirkanov and completed in 2000. It was jointly commissioned by orchestras in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway; and Temirkanov led the first performance of the piece in Copenhagen by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. As might be expected, there were some signs of the usual audience unease that surfaces at that threshold of audibility. Nevertheless, Temirkanov approached the score with intense focus and an impeccable sense of how to balance his resources within the Davies acoustic space. For the most part the audience seemed to accept his commitment, and the music itself unfolded as a stunning panorama of subtle sonorities.

In contrast Temirkanov chose to begin the program with orchestral excerpts from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s eleventh opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya. As I recently observed about Scheherazade, while Rimsky-Korsakov tended to be limited in his thematic vocabulary, he compensated with a comprehensive capacity for instrumentation, which provided the foundation for a diverse spectrum of expressiveness. Temirkanov appreciated the nuances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, providing an interpretation in which the spatial effects of the disposition of the instruments played a key role in establishing the listening experience. Each of the excerpts thus emerged rather like a tone poem in miniature, and in some of those tone poems one could even detect the presence of lessons that would be successfully passed on to later composers, such as Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev.

At the end of the evening Temirkanov served up two encores of his own. The first of these was Edward Elgar’s Opus 12 “Salut d’Amour.” This recalled the ensemble’s visit in 2007, when Temirkanov concluded the evening with the ninth variation (“Nimrod”) from the Opus 36 “Enigma” variations. Opus 12 is very much a “salon miniature;” but Temirkanov was attentive to endowing each of its phrases with its own individual shape, providing an account of this “slight” piece that was anything but routine.

This was followed by a second something-completely-different encore. From the score that Stravinsky composed for the ballet “Pulcinella,” Temirkanov performed the eighteenth (Vivo) section. For this portion Stravinsky appropriated the Vivo movement from a duo for cello and bass by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, reassigning the cello part to a trombone. Temirkanov gave this a delightfully witty account, allowing his trombonist (Maxim Ignatyev) to take all possible liberties with the glissando passages. He also brought Ignatyev and Principal Bass Artem Chirkov to the front of the stage to take bows at the conclusion. Temirkanov left his audience making it clear that he had a sense of humor, and his approach to this particular Stravinsky excerpt could not have been livelier.

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