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St. Petersburg Philharmonic honors Russian Masters old and new

Dwight Casimere | 2/19/2014, 5:47 p.m.
Yuri Temirkanov has been the artistic director and principal conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra for nearly 25 years. ...

Yuri Temirkanov has been the artistic director and principal conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra for nearly 25 years. In that time, it is apparent that he and the orchestra have developed a bond that is unique. The two entities must have certainly absorbed each other's DNA to the point that Termirkanov can convey instructions from the podium with the wave of a cupped hand and an outstretched palm, or signal an accelerated tempo with rolling arm movements, or a delicate, filigreed passage with fluttering fingertips. What might appear as oddball or eccentric made perfectly good musical sense to this well-polished ensemble, which played the music of the Russian masters, both old and new, with exceptional authority and clarity.

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of its national tour. It will be in Chicago Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 3pm. For tickets and information, visit www.cso.org.

Temirkanov opened the program with a composition that is apparently one of his favorites, Excerpts from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Originally composed as an opera, the music is rarely performed. Indeed, most audience members at the Isaac Stern Auditorium would probably be surprised to learn that Korsakov composed quite a few operas, though none, not even the orchestral suites, have survived in current repertory. So it was with fresh ears that all heard a magical unfolding of the music that has influenced countless film scores, from Lawrence of Arabia to Indiana Jones, and many of our best-known Broadway musicals from the King and I to Phantom of the Opera. Rimsky-Korsakov founded what became known as the "School of Orientalism" and took it a step beyond, to form the tenets that are the very foundation of modern orchestral music.

The music, which tells the story of a vanishing city, is rooted in Russian mythology and Temirkanov and company told the story well. They used the sounds of chirping flutes, brooding bassoons and contrabassoon and a full cadre of Russian folk instruments to bring to life the magic of a city that vanishes while under attack by Tartar enemies.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and the orchestra arrives at the doorstep of a Georgian composer with a similar predilection toward the mystical. Giya Kancheli's ....al Niente (to nothing), is the composer's take on an oft used musical notation, diminuendo al niente, which signals the ending notes of a composition, with the music gradually dying away. Kancheli uses that musical instruction as a metaphor to comment on the gradual ebbing away of life and mortality. At the time the work was commissioned in the year 2000, the composer was turning 65.

Temirkanov and the orchestra captured the dreamlike quality of the music, using the sounds of murmuring woodwinds and the intermittent strumming of the harp and bass guitar to emulate the state between sleep and consciousness. The conductor used those fluttering fingers once again to brilliant effect, signaling abrupt changes in tempo and fluctuations in tone from resounding crescendo to complete silence. At times, the music broke out into some all out jazzy lines with clinking claves, thumping percussion (include a bongo drum) and blaring trumpets that reminded one of Leonard Bernstein's fight between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. Earlier, high-pitched strings recalled the suspense of Bernard Herrmann's shrieking music for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The sounds of distant English horns and piccolo and a few more notes from the bass guitar brought the piece to a complete hush. If only the audience has waited just one more heartbeat before beginning its applause, it would have been a transcendent moment.