Friday, April 15, 2011

The Tale of Three Captains

Symphony Orchestras are, in so many ways, like ships. They sail many seas, endure numerous storms, enjoy colorful and calm sunrises and sunsets, and drop anchors in many different inlets-all under many different helmsmen turning the wheel and pulling the halyards. I have been privileged to enjoy the guidance of three such helmsmen (of which one happens to be a helms-woman). The latest one is, of course, the current one, Marin Alsop. David Zinman became the first one when he hired me a bit over twenty years ago. The one in the middle, Yuri Temirkanov, I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing at Strathmore Center on Tuesday night, as he steered and navigated the mighty ship named St. Petersburg Philharmonic, on their tour of the United States.

As I settled into an unfamiliar seat (the only ones whose feel I know were about to be occupied on stage by the orchestra members), realizing that I have never taken in a concert at Strathmore from that vantage point, I was pondering how many of my fellow audience members were wondering if the musicians' bus was running late. The stage was strangely empty, and it was about time for a downbeat. But this orchestra, like many orchestras outside of the U.S., makes a collective entrance that is as dramatic as it is, well, musically sensitive. There is something special about hearing the first piece of music in a concert emerge from a void of musical sound, rather than hearing most of the tunes from the program before the concert actually starts. As they quickly took their seats, that familiar figure of almost aristocratic poise but relatively quick pace emerged from the left, a slight but distinctive smile on his face as he greeted the audience.

The first sounds of Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter's Overture washed over the hall (all right, I'll now try to stop the maritime references) and reminded me and many of the BSO colleagues that traveled south for this concert of the type of sound Maestro Temirkanov drew from us when he was in town. Being of Russian origin, where choral tradition is strong and those deep, sonorous Slavic men's voices dominate the landscape of music, he always build his string sound from the ground up, that ground being thick and very firm underfoot (see, we're back on dry land). The basses in St. Petersburg Philharmonic are situated right behind the first violins, on the left side of the stage, and also behind the cellos, where are in the place familiar to us as reserved for second violins. The effect of this seating is startling and very, well, effective. The orchestra also seemed to sit more closely together, giving them a very cohesive sound that embraced the audience like honey hangs on a spoon. This was especially true in the Brahms' Fourth Symphony, which reminded me of a concert of, I think, his Second Symphony that Temirkanov conducted with the BSO years ago.

The great violinist Pamela Frank was a soloist in that concert, and, she chose, like only very few of her colleagues in the soloist circles, to join us in the second half, playing from the back stand of the Second Violins. As a very inspired and heart-felt reading drew to a close, Temirkanov bowed to the audience, then looked a Pam, in order to acknowledge her once more. I watched his face turn from a smile, to a display of puzzlement, then to maybe a smirk of self-satisfaction, as he seemed to manage to move her to tears. (Another explanation of her reaction is, I think, that as soloists, these incredible musicians sometimes miss out on the many joys of making and creating great music together with so many people on stage).

But I digress, though I really don't want to turn this into a review of the concert-that's better left for the professionals. The soloist in Tuesday's concert was a great cellist Alicia Weilerstein, who played a very deeply felt and energetic, virtuoso performance of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto. Right after, during intermission, Maestro Temirkanov was clearly pleased and touched to see so many of us there. Orchestras and conductors form a bond in every concert, at home and abroad, on tours, and that stays with us a memories never to be forgotten.

There are many such wonderful memories we share with David Zinman and there surely will be those that we'll recall once Marin Alsop leaves town. In the meantime, the ship sails on.

P.S. I understand there are only a few selected tickets left for our performances of Charlie Chaplin's movie The Gold Rush on Saturday night, and maybe a few more for Sunday afternoon. The music is absolutely beautiful and witty, and the movie is, well, Chaplin-definition of a genius. I strongly urge you to come and bring everyone you know. It's a rare movie that everyone in the family can enjoy, and, yes, it is very special when it is accompanied by a live orchestra.

-Ivan Stefanovic

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