Some of the season’s most anticipated concerts have run into conflicts with the weather this winter. A couple of weeks ago, the Takacs Quartet played through a snowstorm to a diminished audience in the Terrace Theater. On Wednesday night, the Washington Performing Arts Society brought the St. Petersburg Philharmonic to Strathmore, and there were so many weather advisories and state-of-emergency announcements that it seemed impossible that anyone would come.
No fear. The orchestra is a Russian national treasure, conductor Yuri Temirkanov one of the best in the world, and one could even assume that the Russian contingent of the audience — which was considerable — knows how to deal with a little snow. The hall was, if not packed, at least respectably filled.
The orchestra didn’t disappoint. The conditions, true, were a little unusual: The orchestra dropped the “Barber of Seville” overture from its scheduled program and played the two other pieces, Prokofiev’s second violin concerto and Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, without intermission as a concession to the audience’s need to get on the roads before the snow got too bad. You could argue that this detracted slightly from the sense of occasion and pacing of the evening.
But it took nothing from the sound of the orchestra: lush velvety clouds of it, pillowing out from the stage. Temirkanov is a brilliant conductor and a gentle one, leading with urbane understatement, coaxing the music out of the orchestra rather than trying to force himself upon it. The ear luxuriated in tactile, even simple aural pleasures: the chuff of a double-bass, the liquidy burble of the winds, or the spinning wonder of a well-balanced chord, dozens of voices enmeshed in a kind of spinning, suspended globe of sound hovering over the stage.
Sayaka Shoji, the soloist in the Prokofiev, was new to me. She was scheduled to perform the same work with Temirkanov in 2006, when he was music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but he had to withdraw from that performance, so this was a kind of make-up date. Her sound was light as a wire and a little steely, growing in authority and intensity as the piece progressed. It was a fine performance without quite being a dazzling one — something unfortunately spotlighted by the contrast with the sonic opulence of the ensemble behind her.
Temirkanov also played the Rachmaninoff second symphony in Baltimore. (How could he not? It’s a repertory staple.) On Wednesday, his dry urbanity tamed the score’s sprawl. This is a big and very pretty symphony, and Temirkanov and the orchestra did full justice to its beauty while making it sound downright elegant, not quite milking the bathos of the slow movement and bringing elasticity and verve to the final one.
It may not have been a profound evening, but it was an enjoyable one. Despite the implicit need to hurry home, the audience drew two encores from the orchestra: a little and understated but pretty piece from Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, and delightfully raucous trombone solos, juxtaposed with the double bass, in the Vivo from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.” The two soloists came forward, at the conductor’s insistence, for solo bows, something he forced on them all the more by literally pushing them down, without himself turning on the podium: a stamp on an evening that very effectively highlighted the playing of a wonderful orchestra and was a reminder of why we in this region miss the regular presence of Temirkanov.