St. Petersburg Philharmonic in OC concert of brilliance and love

By Truman C. Wang

It’s always a treat to hear the Russians perform classic works in the traditional Russian style – vivid and exuberant to the point of being blatant at times, tempered by that unique Slavic heart of darkness and melancholy.   With the homogeneous internationalization of musical education that started in the latter half of the 20th century, and the resulting disappearance of nationalistic styles, young musicians at major competitions today all possess great virtuoso skills but lamentably sound indistinguishable from one another.   Of the old German, French, Italian and Russian schools of playing and singing, only the Russian survived more or less unscathed.

The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, God bless them, is on a mission to bring world-class musicians and orchestras to what was (literally) a cultural wasteland of grazing sheep herds and orange groves some 50 years ago.  Among the beneficiaries are the thousands of school kids in their Youth Music Education Programs.  These kids play in youth orchestras that share the Segerstrom Concert Hall stage with the visiting orchestras. (Some ten school orchestras had performed on that stage in the week leading up to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic concert). 

About the concert itself.  Conductor Yuri Temirkanov and his St. Petersburg Philharmonic musicians obviously had the music of Prokofiev in their bones.  The Romeo and Juliet Ballet Suite featured nine selections that neatly fell into three sections (allegro-andante-allegro) of a classic sonata form.  The Montagues and Capulets group dance provided the contrasting subject to the lyrical theme of the Young Juliet.  The balcony love scene and Juliet’s Tomb occupied the slow middle section.  The tumultuous drama of Tybalt’s Death ended the suite with a fine demonstration of the Russian style of brass playing – big, black rolling tones that seemed to go on forever.  The whole suite was vividly symphonic with no lack of delicacy or spontaneity when called for. 

Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto heard Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji’s serenely beautiful and confident playing.  It is a concerto of stark and sudden contrasts, of romantic melodies and mechanical accompaniment.  Shoji’s playing was notable for its confident manner and wide expressive nuance – and in the finale matching the orchestra with a whirlwind of excited dance.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé  Ballet Suite No. 2 received a rapturous and sensuous account from the St. Petersburg musicians.  ‘Daybreak’ was a brilliant flash of light amid colorful birdcalls.  There was lovely woodwind playing in the ‘Pantomime’, and the violins’ gentle sigh was winningly delicate.  The principal flute then played his famous solo with the utmost brilliance, creating an enchanted euphoria leading to a thrillingly zestful ‘General Dance’. 

The Russians gave an encore of Elgar’s Salut d'Amour – a gentle love note from the Russians to the American people.  Hopefully the school kids in the audience will learn the very adult lesson of taming the wild political beasts through great art and music.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.