Feb. 19 2014 12:00 AM

Yuri Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic make local debut

Russia is big, bewitching and infuriating. Yuri Temirkanov, music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, brings the whole troika to the Wharton Center Monday.

Monday’s all-Russian slate of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev promises to be one of the biggest orchestral nights at Wharton in years. It’s the first time Russia’s oldest orchestra (formed in 1882) has played in East Lansing. “This art form elevates listeners above everyday life,” Temirkanov, 75, said in an in terview with City Pulse last week. “It speaks to the soul.”

But as the maestro strives to elevate, he is weighted by unwelcome baggage on the current tour. The classical world is squirming anew over a 2012 interview he gave in a Russian newspaper in which he declared that it’s “unnatural” for women to be orchestra conductors.

“The essence of conducting is strength,” Temirkanov told the interviewer. “The essence of women is weakness.”

Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, brought the remarks to American readers in a post on the magazine’s website Oct. 23 entitled “Women, Gays and Classical Music.” Mindful of classical music’s rap as a clueless palace of privilege, Ross called the remarks an “embarrassment” to anyone who cares about the art.

That bag demanded to be unpacked. Temirkanov told me his remarks were “taken out of context,” but he didn’t backpedal far.

“It´s my own opinion that this profession is not for women, even though there are exceptions,” he said. “It´s like some sports, like boxing or weightlifting or wrestling, which women do, but it´s not really for them. It´s their physiology, the way God created them. It´s just my personal opinion.”

As if that weren’t enough, a visit from any of St. Petersburg’s cultural pillars opens another suitcase: indignation over Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” laws and the city’s widespread anti-gay violence. Last August, Lansing’s City Council voted to end its sister city relationship with St. Petersburg over the issue.

Here, the maestro stood on firmer ground.

“I don´t know whether there are gays or not in my orchestra,” he said. “It doesn´t matter for me at all. I find persecution of gays appalling, crude and criminal. It happens because there is no education in Russia. It comes from ignorance. They think it´s some kind of disease or fashion or debauchery.”

With the baggage unpacked, for better and worse, the music will take over Monday. For years, Wharton Center executive director Michael Brand wanted the St. Petersburg orchestra to do an all-Russian program, with Temirkanov on the podium, not an assistant conductor, and waited a long time to get what he wanted.

A keen local observer, Lansing Symphony Music Director Timothy Muffitt is glad Brand held out.

“The real excitement is the chemistry of a Russian conductor, Russian repertoire and an orchestra that is from the heart of the culture,” Muffitt said. “Russian music tends to be high octane and the orchestras play it that way.”

Temirkanov has led the St. Petersburg Philharmonic over 25 years. As a music student in Leningrad, he played violin and viola. Then, as now, there are slim chances of making conducting a career.

“What you say is true, but in my youth, when I worked in an orchestra, I met quite a few bad conductors, and I thought I can do better,” Temirkanov said. “Probably my vanity came into it, too.”

The musician’s musician, Johann Sebastian Bach, was the prime inspiration for Temirkanov when he started out. In the course of his career, he got to know many 20th-century greats personally, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.

One of the great conductors of the Soviet era, Evgeny Mravinsky, was a mentor.

“He and I were very different people in everything, but he showed me how seriously you must regard your profession,” Temirkanov said.

On the podium, Temirkanov draws mighty sounds with small gestures. Michael Butterman, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, talked about the link between Mravinsky and Temirkanov on a visit to Lansing in 2006.

“You watch old films of Mravinsky and think, ‘what is he doing? That can’t even be helpful,’” Butterman said. “Temirkanov is the same way, just a flinch here and there. The orchestra’s playing with a tremendous amount of clarity and uniformity of approach, and it’s clear he’s merely offering some subtle reminders of what they talked about.”

Two eras of Russian musical history will sweep the hall at Monday’s concert. Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto will provide a 20th-century spike of Soviet-era energy, especially with 26-year-old Norwegian violinist Vide Frang as soloist.

“What´s important for me is the unique humor in Prokofiev´s music,” Temirkanov said. “It´s quite a rare quality in composers.”

He called Prokofiev a “genius with a musical language all his own.”

“If the conductor knows and understands the composer´s world and his language, the public will feel it,” he said.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ultra-lush Second Symphony, the major work on the program, will serve up romance with big, dripping beluga caviar spoons.

“Rachmaninoff, like most Russian composers, is not embarrassed to open his emotions,” Temirkanov said. “It´s like a striptease of the soul. Maybe for Germans or others it´s kind of embarrassing, but he´s not embarrassed. He doesn´t hide anything.”

St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Yuri Temirkanov, conductor Vilde Frang, violin 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $15-77 (800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com