The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic comes to town

This piece is sacred for this hall, for this orchestra” says the concert master of Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, Lev Klychkov, as we sit in the city’s magnificent Philharmonic Grand Hall. The hall was built in 1839; beautiful white columns, which emanate stability, as if saying that art is here to stay, rows of elegant white chairs, upholstered with dark red velvet, gorgeous chandeliers, pending from the high ceiling, a huge concert organ on stage. This positively is the Old World and the old cultural tradition.

Klychkov is speaking about the Seventh Symphony by Dmitry Shostakovich, which will be performed by the internationally acclaimed Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under its renowned music director maestro Yuri Temirkanov May 9 in Tel Aviv. The following day the orchestra will perform pieces by Rachmaninoff and Rimsky Korsakov, with pianist Nikolai Lugansky as soloist.

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The choice of concert date is not coincidental – in Russia, the victory over the Nazi Germany is celebrated on May 9, while Shostakovich’s monumental Seventh, also dubbed the “Leningrad Symphony,” is dedicated to the 900-day-long siege of Leningrad.

The Nazi invasion caught the Soviet Russia unprepared, with its army beheaded by Stalin’s purges, and within less than three weeks after the war started, on September 8, 1941, the last road to the city was severed.

The siege was finally lifted only in winter 1944.

The situation was disastrous. People in the heavily shelled and bombed city were dying of cold and starvation. During almost three years of siege the city, this gem of architecture, rich with theaters, museums and art schools, lost a third of its population, close to a million people, although the exact number will never be known. Yet morale was high, and under the motto “all for the front, all for the victory” people kept working hard at military plants.

In Russia, with its WWII cult, the siege of Leningrad has been always regarded a symbol of heroism and persistence, and for good reason. Yet today, looking back, one could say that the city was betrayed by the authorities, that the important factories were evacuated and not the people who had no choice but to die, since supplies were scarce. Which is also true.

Despite everything, on August 9, 1942, after the world premier in the city of Kuibyshev a few months prior, the Seventh Symphony by Shostakovich was performed in Leningrad. Make no mistake – Party officials did not care for classical music, but obviously wanted to boost the people’s morale.

There are conflicting accounts as to when Shostakovich began composing the symphony. According to official sources, he composed it in response to the invasion of German hordes in Russia. But according to his memoirs, published in 1979 in the West by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich had planned the symphony before the German attack. He obviously had other enemies of humanity in mind when he composed the terrifying invasion theme of the first movement.

According to the memoirs – and not only them – the Leningrad that Shostakovich had in mind was the one that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off. And although authenticity of Volkov’s book has been doubted, there is a fundamental truth behind this suggestion.

With Stalin at home, the composer did not need Hitler to learn what evil incarnate is about. In many ways, these were twin totalitarian regimes, which were crashing human lives. Almost every family had a member or a friend who perished in Gulag.

THE LENINGRAD Radio Orchestra under Karl Eliasberg was the only remaining symphonic ensemble in the city, yet very few musicians were available. Many had either died of starvation or left to the Red Army. All Leningrad musicians were asked to report to the Radio Committee. Orchestral players were given additional rations and still, during the rehearsal period several of them died.

The concert was given on August 9, 1942, the day Hitler had chosen to celebrate the fall of Leningrad with a banquet at the Astoria Hotel. The concert was broadcast not only on local radio, but also by loudspeakers throughout the city, for citizens in the streets, as well as for the German forces, to hear.

According to the memoirs of those who fought on the German side, “This was when we realized that it’s impossible to defeat this people.”

Klychkov goes on: “Orchestra players who participated in the Leningrad premier of the Seventh Symphony told me that people in the audience were so weak that the applause at the end of the concert could be hardly heard and reminded one of the rustle of the leaves under the wind.”

He adds: “At the postwar performances of Shostakovich’s masterpiece people fainted in the concert hall because of power of the music and power of their memories. We shall never learn the entire truth about the siege, because the survivors never spoke about it, similarly to WWII veterans – it was too terrible, too tragic. But the piece does tell the story, the music is very visual – while listening to it, you can see the scenes it depicts.”

Founded more than a hundred years ago, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is Russia’s oldest symphony orchestra. Many renowned musicians, such as Liszt, Berlioz, Sibelius, Debussy, Prokofiev, Mahler and Stravinsky, to name a few, performed in its Grand Hall. Pieces of major Russian composers, like Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, were premiered here. The hall’s acoustics are excellent.

This was under the baton of world renowned conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, who managed the orchestra for 50 years, from 1938 until his death in 1988, shaping the ensemble and bringing it to international fame. Lev Klychkov, who has been playing with the orchestra for 36 years, was admitted to the then Leningrad Philharmonic by Mravinsky and for six years played under his baton.

“I consider myself lucky to have this experience of playing with Mravinsky on the podium. From the very beginning, his was a difficult life. Just imagine – back in 1938 he entered an orchestra with great traditions. Do you remember a winding staircase behind the scene we passed by? This was where Sergei Rachmaninoff was sitting as he wept after the failed premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. And look at this,” he points at a heavy note stand made of dark wood.

“From this podium, Tchaikovsky conducted, and later, Richard Strauss. The orchestra was built up of first rate players who remembered great conductors and at first were quite skeptical about the young maestro, sometimes making him cry. But eventually, Mravinsky created an ensemble with a recognizable sound, which was applauded at throughout the world.”

Klychkov emphasizes that the Philharmonic Orchestra is “the product of the city of Saint Petersburg and its music school.

The latter was founded by the legendary violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, to whom the world owes an entire galaxy of outstanding musicians, Yascha Heifetz among them. After the Revolution, Auer, together with his students, emigrated to the West, by this contributing immensely to the development of the world violin school. A rich, flexible, singing sound of the strings has always been characteristic of Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, and we do everything to keep this tradition alive.”

The concert master admits that the renowned ensemble knew also not-sogood times.

“Life in Russia has never been simple.

Many orchestra players left to the West, but the orchestra has recovered, regaining its past fame. Strings are fine, while members of wind sections travel abroad to study with the best teachers around.

Thank God, now the world is finally open to us.”

For 30 years now, the orchestra has been headed by the renowned symphony and opera conductor Yuri Temirkanov. Born in 1938 in the Caucasus, Temirkanov studied viola and violin playing and later conducting in Leningrad Conservatory. He catapulted to a globe-trotting career before reaching 30 – after winning the All-Soviet National Conducting Competition in 1966, Temirkanov was invited to tour Europe and the US with violinist David Oistrakh and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.

The rest is history – during his more than a half-century-long career, he has been heading orchestras in Russia, that of the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theater among them, as well as holding positions in world’s leading orchestras, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. In 2015 he was assigned by Teatro La Fenice the prize “A Life for Music,” unofficially known as the Nobel Prize for musicians.

KLYCHKOV HAS nothing but praise for Temirkanov, for his openness and experience.

“Temirkanov builds on young musicians, and all of them join the orchestra through open auditions. He listens attentively to all opinions, but at the end pronounces a verdict of his own. Sometimes it sounds like, ‘Let’s give him/her a chance, I think we have a musician here.’ Because musicianship, music personality – this is what matters when he invites a new orchestra member to enter our home, to join our cause.

“For years, Temirkanov served as Mravinsky’s assistant, but the difference between the two is so striking! Rehearsals of the former were all tension and fear of occasionally play a wrong note, and I do not think that this was good for the performance.

This was not only about Mravinsky’s closed and detached character – this was the spirit of the totalitarian time.

While Temirkanov simply loves us musicians, often asking: ‘Play this phrase to me interestingly, play and I will follow you.’” The concert master adds that the difference between the two outstanding conductors can be seen even in their respective body languages.

“Mravinsky’s movements were dictatorial, dry, minimalistic and calculated; at the end of his career he, almost by a slight eyebrow movement, managed to command the entire orchestra. While the gestures of Temirkanov are full of plasticity. He is rather a director than a conductor. He stages music, he draws music scenes.”

Lev Klychkov says: “I think that the current style of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is an amalgam of the ultimate precision achieved by Mravinsky, and the precious freedom of expression, this fresh air, brought about by Temirkanov. And this is why I am so happy that we bring to Tel Aviv such a variegated program, which includes both the somber masterpiece by Shostakovich, the captivating Rachmaninoff piano concerto and the pictorial Scheherazade, by Rimsky Korsakov. I believe that under Temirkanov, the orchestra will present to the Israeli audience all hidden gems of the score.”

The 70-minute-long Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony by Dmitry Shostakovich will be performed by the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov at Heichal HaTarbut in Tel Aviv on May 9. It will be preceded by a lecture of Israeli composer and avid classical music promoter Gil Shohat.

May 10 at the same locale the orchestra will perform the Third Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff, with a leading Russian pianist of the younger generation, Nikolai Lugansky, as a soloist. The program also features the symphonic poem Scheherazade, by Rimsky Korsakov.

For reservations: Bravo, *3221, Lean, *8780.