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St. Petersburg Philharmonic Beats the Snow

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Prokofiev, Violin Concertos 1/2, S. Shoji, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Y. Temirkanov
I was very sad to see Yuri Temirkanov leave the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (his views on women aside), but his regular visits with his main band, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, are always a treat. Washington Performing Arts Society brought them here last in 2011 and 2007, and this year's concert, scheduled for Wednesday night in the Music Center at Strathmore (the first stop on a North American tour), was almost scuttled by the latest snowstorm. Not one to be cowed by a little of the white stuff, I fought the salt trucks on the beltway to make it there, with the understanding that the program would be shortened. A Rossini overture, from The Barber of Seville, was omitted -- no big loss -- and the other two planned works, a Prokofiev concerto and a Rachmaninoff symphony, were performed without an intermission.

Hearing these musicians in Russian music, their specialty, was certainly worth the risks of winter travel. The orchestra's sound in the lush parts of Prokofiev's second violin concerto -- and they are many -- was the high point of the first half, overshadowing the clean, impeccably tuned, but somewhat unpredictable solo playing of soloist Sayaka Shoji. I last heard her back in 2007, and much about this performance was as I remembered her playing then: often immaculate, a generally beautiful tone, but with a slightly frantic edge especially in her rhythmic sense, which kept Temirkanov and the orchestra always guessing. In the second movement, where the orchestra gave her an exquisite music box-like introduction of pizzicato strings and staccato winds, the nervous quality of her vibrato hand set the intonation on edge from time to time, a concern that the demanding multiple-stops of the third movement made even more evident. The rhythmic challenges of the finale, with all those metrical shifts, never quite aligned either.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic show sonic opu­lence at Strathmore

Tim Smith, Yuri Temirkanov and St. Petersburg Philharmonic in soaring concert at Strathmore (Baltimore Sun, February 14)
There were no such worries in the group's performance of Rachmaninoff's second symphony, which Temirkanov knew exactly how to pace, and his musicians were with him every step of the way. The first movement had a brooding opening, which gave way to a fast section steeped in a peculiarly Russian melancholy, yearning but never allowed to wallow, with a sense of rubato that was flexible, not soupy. The piece has a not at all unpleasant film score sort of feel, a series of little vignettes lined up one after the other, with the windswept passages of the development most effective, going a little helter-skelter in the fast parts of the second movement. The heart-melting third movement, one of those Rachmaninoff themes that fill so many "Classical Music for Lovers" compilations, had a quality more intense than saccharine, which is just what sounds best to my ear. Knowing how to bring an audience to its feet, Temirkanov and the orchestra goosed the tempo of the finale to a very fast pace, with the raucous piccolo shrilly shouting above it all. The effect was achieved, and two encores prepared for the tour were given in return, movements from Schubert's Moments Musicaux, D. 780, and Stravinsky's Pulcinella.

Two more visiting orchestras are on the WPAS schedule next month, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (March 18) and the Israel Philharmonic (March 30), both in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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