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The second Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra concert

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Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra gave the second of its two concerts, again with Artistic Director Yuri Temirkanov as conductor. All of the best qualities of the first concert were again on display, including a meticulous attention to the details of not only the notes and their phrasing but also the many subtle qualities of instrumentation. The soloist for this occasion was the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, performing Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 concerto in G minor, the second of two he wrote for a violin soloist.

Prokofiev composed this concerto in 1935, and it was his last work to be written on a Western European commission. (Prokofiev would return permanently to the Soviet Union in 1936.) He composed it at the time he was working on the score for the Romeo and Juliet ballet, and there are several moments in the course of the concerto when the listener may think (s)he had wandered into that ballet’s territory. Also, like the ballet, the music unfolds in a generally affable rhetoric, a far cry from the spikier tropes of his earlier encounters with modernism.

Those harsher gestures have been replaced by more considered approaches to both thematic material and its instrumentation. The first theme is stated in the opening measures as a violin solo in a pattern that repeats itself in a shifting relation to the downbeat, seizing the listener’s attention with its hemiola effect. The Andante assai portion of the second movement unfolds as an interchange with the orchestra involving the shifting role of who plays melody and who plays accompaniment. By the conclusion of the movement, the soloist has settled comfortably into the role of accompanist, echoing the pizzicato introduction to the first statement of the movement’s first theme. The final movement is a vigorous rondo whose repetitions are always underscored by castanets (without the slightest suggestion of Spanish style), each time returning with a slightly different rhythmic pattern.

In the midst of all of these intricately conceived thematic details, there is no shortage of virtuoso passages for the soloist. Frang glided through these with calm confidence in her own expertise. Also, she clearly understood the embellishing role of those passages and always found ways to execute them to remind the listener that, among all of those notes, the theme being embellished was comfortably embedded. Temirkanov expertly partnered her, always summoning the instrumental engagements with the soloist at just the right dynamic levels for balance. This was a reading in which the listener was well aware of the intricate instrumental relationships that Prokofiev had conceived, making the experience highly satisfying.

The same could be said for the symphony selection for the second half of the program, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 27 in E minor (his second). Like many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, this piece is thickly textured, particularly within the string section. Lesser conductors do not always grasp the subtle contrapuntal devices through which the different voices in the string section interleave; and, in such weaker hands, the music comes out sounding like mush (often dismissed as sentimental mush).

Temirkanov did not allow this to happen. He managed the strings in such a way that they almost sounded like chamber music with a few extra players. The listener could thus more easily relish Rachmaninoff’s attentiveness to contrapuntal detail, combined with his capacity to unfold a variety of different thematic units from a relatively modest set of core motifs. Those motifs would recur from one movement to the next, lending the entire symphony an integrated tightness that one rarely attributes to this composer.

In a much lighter vein the evening opened by Gioachino Rossini’s overture for his opera The Barber of Seville. This allowed Temirkanov to reveal further aspects of his capacity for wit, which he had suggested in the second encore he had prepared for Sunday night. Much of the “Rossini rhetoric” has less to do with thematic invention and more with dynamics. Rossini had a knack for playing out a gradual crescendo over an extended duration, almost like the rumbling of a volcano before the eruption finally bursts. Temirkanov knew how to milk that technique for all of its comic worth, complete with the almost clownish outbursts of the bass drum at the moment of climax.

That lighter side also wrapped up the evening with two encores, both from the ballet scores of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The first was the dance for the four cygnets in the second act of Swan Lake, followed by the Russian dance (trepak) from The Nutcracker. These were both given energetic accounts in which Temirkanov always seemed to find just the right phrasing to give each gesture its own characteristic kick.

It is probably worth mentioning that the Rossini overture was preceded by a brief outburst of protest from the Side Terrace. This seemed to be modeled on the Pussy Riot disruption of a church service in Moscow, but the disruption was minimal. Temirkanov offered some light applause, probably to acknowledge the tactful way in which the Davies usher removed the protestor. He probably just took her to the nearest exit door and told her to go on her way. As we know, the consequences for the members of Pussy Riot who disrupted that church were far more severe. A more detailed account of the protest and the protesters point of view has been provided by Michael Petrelis in a post to his Petrelis Files blog.

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