- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

Russia, said Winston Churchill, "is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." The same can be said of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which plays an all-Russian program tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Despite less-than-perfect instruments, an ever-shrinking budget and an always hectic touring schedule, the orchestra still manages to embody dusha, that spirit of Russian soul that is both all-encompassing yet uniquely Russian.
"For 200 years people like Tchaikovsky have worked with that orchestra," says pianist Yefim Bronfman, soloist for Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. "You can hear that history in their sound."
Mr. Bronfman has soloed with nearly every leading orchestra in the world and received a 1997 Grammy Award for his recording of "Bartok: The Three Piano Concertos." Yet he relishes the time spent with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.
"They're wonderful," he says. "Playing music with them is like going to the source. I love their spirit."
It is a spirit made obvious under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov, the charismatic conductor who refuses to give up on the orchestra that gave him his start in 1976. Mr. Temirkanov also directs the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Dusha is good thing to have these days, especially after Russia's oldest orchestra was put off a United Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Los Angeles on Feb. 18 for "rowdy" behavior. The orchestra has since issued a formal apology to the airline, although its publicist is not returning phone calls.
Fans of the philharmonic attributed the outbreak to stress related to the group's straitened circumstances. After the collapse of the Soviet system, funding abruptly dried up. The musicians also lost the status they had enjoyed in a society that valued the arts. Many orchestra members now make less than $60 a month.
"The tragedy is that one of the world's greatest orchestras is being forced to tour," says Merritt Lutz, chairman of the American Friends of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, a nonprofit organization that works to raise money to repair and purchase instruments for the group. "But without touring, they wouldn't be able to make it."
The orchestra's roots reach beyond the communist era into the heart of the Russian past. Organized in 1882, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic has performed under a succession of noteworthy conductors, including Sergei Koussevitsky. As the Leningrad Philharmonic, the orchestra regularly presented the music of Dimitri Shostakovich, premiering seven of his symphonies. Through the years, the orchestra developed its distinctive sound, which depends on strings schooled in the Russian tradition, a strong sense of history and no small measure of Russian soul.
"Whatever they do, it seems right," Mr. Bronfman says. "When you hear them, it seems that this is the only way to do it."
Mr. Temirkanov has been an advocate for the group and recruited American and British businessmen to help him raise needed funds. When Mr. Temirkanov conducts the St. Petersburg, the orchestra of his youth and home, the potential for that transcending musical moment becomes the probable.
"Their sound is absolutely overpowering," says Mr. Lutz, an investment banker by day. "The passion for those works is just wonderful."
Promoters regularly call for the orchestra to perform programs from the past. No other orchestra can capture the spirit of Russian composers quite so well. The musicians' technical proficiency and emotional clarity have garnered the beleaguered orchestra rave reviews at every stop on its North American tour. Too often, orchestras today are seamless yet soulless, with a quasicorporate approach to music making that can leave an audience cold.
"They're not just playing on autopilot," Mr. Bronfman says of the St. Petersburg orchestra. "They really listen to the soloist. If I play softer, they play softer."
Now nearly as popular as the perhaps overworked Piano Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto mirrors the composer's internal conflicts. Unsympathetic to the revolution, Rachmaninoff left his home country at age 45. He found a measure of freedom in the United States, where his works were often adopted and adapted by Hollywood, but he always longed for Russia, Mr. Bronfman contends.
"He missed Russia a lot," Mr. Bronfman says. "He needed to have Russian soil under his feet in order to make music."
Rachmaninoff's Russian-sounding melodies certainly contain a sense of yearning.
The concerto poses its own set of challenges to the soloist, particularly since the composer himself recorded the piece at tempos few other pianists approach.
"Rachmaninoff was shy of his own genius," Mr. Bronfman says. "He underrated his own music, which is why he may have rushed."
The piece contains any number of memorable moments, including the scherzando motive that prefigures the second theme. It also has references to Richard Strauss, a composer writing in a more modern style, and a few nods to Rachmaninoff's new adoptive land with a little jazzy influence.
"It is a masterpiece in emotional content," Mr. Bronfman says. "The melodies are just gorgeous, but you can tell that the man was deeply conflicted about his identity as a composer."
Mr. Bronfman plays a complete version of the concerto, which suffered a series of cuts from record company executives who were looking to market the piece. He also plays the longer cadenza.
"The music is noble and very beautiful," he says, "and it's easy to achieve with this orchestra."
The evening begins with Modest Mussorgsky's "Dawn on the Moskva River," from his opera "Khovanshchina," which chronicles the struggle between the forces of reaction and tradition during the time of Peter the Great.
Along with Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky made up the "Mighty Five," the group of late 19th-century Russian composers who worked to create music with a distinctly Russian sound. The men, only one of whom was a professional musician, met frequently in St. Petersburg to discuss how to create a new school of music that would break from traditional European forms and establish a new musical identity.
Rounding out the program is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, a sweeping statement of lyricism and angst that is ranked among the best of his symphonic output, along with the fifth and sixth symphonies.
"This is Fate," wrote Tchaikovsky of the opening fanfare to his patroness, Mme. Nadezhda von Meck. "It is the inevitable force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized. It is inescapable and can never be overcome."
Tchaikovsky, who had just had a nervous breakdown after leaving an unfortunate marriage to a conservatory student, was certainly aware of the vagaries of an overwhelming destiny. It can be heard in the harmonies of this very distinctive work, which relies on inverted and chromatically altered chords to maintain tension in what was, to Tchaikovsky, a "musical confession of the soul."
Through the years, the symphony has grown in popularity, as much for its lyrical qualities as for its opening fanfare, which Tchaikovsky later confessed to another composer owed something to the opening strains of Beethoven's Fifth.
The rest of the piece, however, owes much to the Russian soul. The popular third movement scherzo, for example, rendered pizzicato by the strings, is reminiscent of plucked balalaikas. Meanwhile, the finale includes a set of variations on a folk song, "In the Woods There Stood a Birch Tree."
Then the fate motif, back from the first movement, reappears.
"Go to the people, who know how to enjoy themselves," Tchaikovsky explained to Mme. Von Meck in a letter about the work. "But fate returns again."
Such is the case with Russian music. Just when you think you have it pegged, something comes back to haunt you.

WHAT: St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under the direction of Yuri Temirkanov with Yefim Bronfman on the piano; sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. tomorrow
TICKETS: $30 to $75
PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide