Yuri Temirkanov and St. Petersburg Philharmonic in soaring concert at Strathmore

The scary snow forecast was not enough to deter a decent-sized crowd from trekking to Strathmore Wednesday night for a concert by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra led by its longtime music director Yuri Temirkanov. I, for one, would have risked even more threatening weather for the opportunity to experience this level of artistry.

Many of us will never forget the magic Temirkanov so frequently ignited during his all-too-brief tenure at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, so any chance to reconnect with the conductor's soulful style is a big deal (several BSO players and the orchestra's president were in the Strathmore audience Wednesday). Any chance to hear the Philharmonic, one of the best, is likewise welcome.


Thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society, we get such an opportunity every few years. Happily, the organization did not cancel this appearance by the Russians when the forecast turned more and more dire, but chose a sensible means of shortening the event instead so folks could head home earlier.

First, the planned opener was scrapped. Sigh. It was to have been "The Barber of Seville" Overture, and if you remember the amazing way Temirkanov freshened another well-worn curtain-raiser, "The Marriage of Figaro" Overture, during a previous WPAS presentation, you know that Rossini gem would have emerged with a whole new sparkle.


Second, the intermission was done away with, which resulted in a tightly packed 90 minutes or so of great Russian fare -- Prokofiev's intimate Violin Concerto No. 2 and Rachmaninoff's stirring Symphony No. 2.

This is familiar Temirkanov fare; his repertoire is not the broadest in the business. But with truly distinctive conductors, you never really tire of hearing them interpret the same music. You know you will get a meaningful experience each time. So it was on this occasion.

The Prokofiev piece featured a promising young soloist, Sayaka Shoji, who has recorded the composer's concertos with Temirkanov and the Philharmonic. Her performance here revealed impeccable intonation and an ability to sculpt phrases with considerable eloquence. Conductor and ensemble provided supple support.

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There are some people, bless their hearts, who cannot abide Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony (or much of anything he wrote). Every time I hear this work, at least when performed with utmost conviction, I find it harder and harder to understand how it could fail to move a listener.

The richness of melodic invention and intense lyricism, the breadth of development, the wealth of orchestral coloring make this symphony one of the monuments of late-Romanticism.

Nobody believes in the score more deeply than Temirkanov. His account on Wednesday was notable for the underlying pulse, which gave the music exra tension, and for the way he let the most rhapsodic passages bloom fully. His application of rubato was masterful, as was his ear for inner voices in the symphony.

The orchestra responded superbly. The 10 basses provided a lush foundation that each of the other string sections built upon with great technical and expressive strength. The woodwinds had abundant character, the brass plenty of power that never turned harsh.

I thought encores might get jettisoned, too, under the circumstances, but the audience was in no hurry to depart.


Temirkanov granted two extra goodies, starting with an exquisite string arrangement of Schubert's "Moments musicaux" No. 3 in F minor. This gave Temirkanov a chance to show his impish side, conducting more by sly smile and arch of the eyebrow than any traditional means, and it gave the players room to show their subtlest articulation. The trek to Strathmore would have been worth making just to hear this gem.

Impishness continued with the final encore, the Vivo from Stravinsky's "Pulcinella," with its off-balance match-up of bass and trombone. Temirkanov and the musicians seemed to take equal delight in this brief, snappy burst of humor.