After a decade-long absence, Yuri Temirkanov is back in town this week to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which he led for seven memorable seasons. Now music director emeritus, Temirkanov is leading the BSO in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and, with powerhouse soloist Denis Matsuev, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
Following the final rehearsal, which generated hearty applause from the BSO players, the 77-year-old Russian conductor sat for an interview in his dressing room, speaking in between puffs on an electronic cigarette. (Questions and answers were communicated through his longtime translator, Marina Stokes.)
About a third of the players are new since you last conducted the BSO. Were there any surprises for you as you rehearsed?
No surprises. The new ones in the orchestra are very good. When I do something with the Tchaikovsky [symphony] that is not traditional, they pick it up very quickly. I love orchestras that want to play. Some great orchestras have the feeling that they are doing you a favor.
You have a very distinctive style of conducting. It's not just that you don't use a baton, which isn't so uncommon. It's how you use your hands and the way your eyes say so much. Most orchestra players are used to more straightforward style.
There are two conducting professions. One is the kapellmeister, who beats the time. But everywhere musicians are very professional and very good; they don't need that. The conductor has to show them what they don't know. The rest is in the score.
A conductor has to somehow convey why the music is written that way, to solve it like a detective story. You have to guess why the composer did what he did. Music is like a letter. The composer writes this letter, but he can't write absolutely everything he wants to say. Even Mahler couldn't do that, even though he writes down in every measure how he wants you to conduct it.
[Temirkanov starts to sing the main theme of the second movement from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. The singing is rhythmically steady, expressionless.] Tchaikovsky would never just play the notes like that.
I imagine him in his house in the evening with candles lit, a blanket over him as he sits at the piano playing those notes. [Temirkanov sings the theme again, this time much slower, more rhythmically free; his eyes look suddenly sad, almost watery]. That's how I imagine what Tchaikovsky felt at that moment. Seeing everything behind the notes is what the conductor should do.
You have to feel music. I'll look at orchestra musicians and ask: Why do you always play with the same expression on your face? How come? Don't you feel different in each movement? The opening of the Rachmaninoff [Concerto No. 3] is not nice music; it's tragic music. But when I was conducting Rachmaninoff with [pianist] Lang Lang, he kept smiling as he played. I told him, one more smile and you're out.
You have been leading the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for almost 30 years and you still tour with them frequently. Do you ever plan to slow down or even retire?
Do you know any conductor who retires? And, you know, the older you are, the better you are supposed to conduct. [He laughs.] When I work, I feel better.
A few years ago, you were quoted as saying that you did not believe women should conduct. That caused controversy and led to some protests. Just for the record, what is your view about women on the podium?
Yes, women can be conductors. I am not against them conducting. But I simply don't like it. There are women boxing and weightlifting; they can do that. But I don't like watching. It is only my taste. We all have different tastes. For example, I don't eat fish.