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Soul of a City - The Philadelphia Orchestra Takes Listeners on a Musical Tour of St. Petersburg

December 04, 2014

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg

Each great city has its great music, composers and works that embody its history, geography, culture, and character. Paris remains in our minds the city of Berlioz and Debussy, London of Handel and Elgar, Berlin of Mendelssohn and Kurt Weill, Vienna of Mozart, Schubert, and Mahler. St. Petersburg, the bristling “Venice of the North,” represents in many ways the soul of Russian music: If Moscow is the intellectual center of Russian culture, St. Petersburg is its heart—the city not just of Pushkin but of Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff.

Composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938 (Photo: Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives) 

This season The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrates this historic city on the Neva River with its St. Petersburg Festival, three weeks of subscription concerts in January devoted to music of, and about, the city—and the first of a series of festivals devoted to a single city. With its storied Mariinsky Theatre, its skyline dominated by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, its breathtaking Hermitage and Winter Palace, and its bustling Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg is as essential to the music of the 19th and 20th centuries as Vienna was to that of the 18th. The Orchestra’s focus, which to a larger extent spans the whole 2014-15 season, embraces music written by composers who made their careers in St. Petersburg, works first heard by the city’s audiences, and music whose very character is defined by the city’s cultural climate.

At the center of this distillation are works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff, composers with deep historical associations with The Philadelphia Orchestra. First among these, for the current season and Festival, is the music of Rachmaninoff, and through the course of the season Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in his third season as the Orchestra’s eighth music director, will lead all three Rachmaninoff symphonies and Stokowski’s transcription of the composer’s Prelude in C-sharp minor.

“The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff is the one of the things that makes people fall in love with the sound of The Philadelphia Orchestra,” Nézet-Séguin says, “and the close relationship between Philadelphia and his music is a tradition that of course I’m very honored to keep alive.” Indeed, Rachmaninoff himself noted that he frequently composed with the sound of The Philadelphia Orchestra in his head—especially its incredible ability to sustain long, vocally inspired melodies. “When I was a young man I idolized [Russian opera singer Feodor] Chaliapin,” he told the Orchestra during a visit in 1941. “He was my ideal, and when I thought of composition I thought of song and of Chaliapin. … Nowadays when I compose my thoughts turn to you, the greatest orchestra in the world.” Moreover Rachmaninoff noted that, as piano soloist, he would “rather perform with The Philadelphia Orchestra than any other of the world.”

In addition to the works of Rachmaninoff, the St. Petersburg Festival features music that is part of the Orchestra’s 40/40 Project celebrating Nézet-Séguin’s 40th birthday in March 2015, with 40 works (such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suites and movements from Glazunov’s The Seasons) that are making their first appearances on subscription concerts since Yannick’s birth in 1975.

The Festival is, to some extent, also a way of putting together repertoire that is already part of the Orchestra’s lingua franca while reminding audiences of the music’s origins and suggesting new ties, says Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning. “Yannick carefully crafts and curates a season so that there is an overall theme, so that when you come into the hall every week the program has some connection to the season as a whole, or to something you heard last season, or to concerts that week or in recent weeks. We’re constantly exploring the repertoire to find new connections and new ways to relate these pieces to each other.” The idea of focusing on a musically rich city in January is going to be expanded into future seasons, he adds. “Yannick loves the experience of working with the Orchestra to connect with audiences over a period of three weeks.”

St. Petersburg saw the premieres of all three works on the Orchestra’s January 15-17 concerts: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in 1888, his Nutcracker ballet in 1892, and the St. Petersburg-born Glazunov’s “Winter” from The Seasons ballet in 1900. The January 22-23 concerts feature, in addition to the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s jazz-inspired, rhythmic Piano Concerto (with soloist Marc-André Hamelin), Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony with its notable Philadelphia connection: The composer conducted the work’s U.S. premiere with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1909, just a year after leading its world premiere in St. Petersburg. 

Tchaikovsky is the subject of the first week of the St. Petersburg Festival (January 15-17), when his Nutcracker suites and Symphony No. 5 will be performed.

The concerts of January 28-31 feature Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (featuring Russian-born soloist Kirill Gerstein) and excerpts from his music for the film The Gadfly. Shostakovich’s long ties to The Philadelphia Orchestra, which gave U.S. premieres of several of his works including seven of his 15 symphonies, reached a culmination during his 1959 visit in connection with Mstislav Rostropovich’s U.S. premiere (and world premiere recording) of the First Cello Concerto with the Orchestra—one of the most heavily publicized musical events of the Cold War era.

The final St. Petersburg Festival concert also features Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, included with the music of Shostakovich as part of Nézet-Séguin’s ongoing initiative to underscore the ties between the two. “They are the monumental symphonic figures of their respective centuries,” Rothman says. “Yannick has put the two together to show that Shostakovich was the great symphonist of the 20th century, the Beethoven of his time. He did everything for the symphony in his century, you can say, that Beethoven did in his—in terms of structure and orchestration, in terms of using music as a voice in political and cultural issues. And also in terms of becoming a solitary figure, the bust on the mantle.”

Russian music as a whole is a theme throughout the 2014-15 season, with additional works by Prokofiev (Symphony No. 5, February 12-13; Peter and the Wolf, April 16-18; Romeo and Juliet excerpts, April 23-25) and Stravinsky (Violin Concerto, November 21-22; Symphony in C, February 12-13). “And in the middle of the season, when it’s January and winter, we’re going to travel musically to St. Petersburg,” Nézet-Séguin says, “not only with the music of Rachmaninoff but also Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Glazunov, to feature this major city which brought us such a rich tradition of music that we still play today—and that we want to hear in a different perspective.”

In 1959 a delegation of Soviet musicians visited Philadelphia for the first recording of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 following its U.S. premiere by the Orchestra and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; from left to right, Ormandy, Rostropovich, Shostakovich (seated left) with an unidentified interpreter and a recording engineer. (Photo: Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives)

The Russian connection is not arbitrary: Through the last century The Philadelphia Orchestra, perhaps more than any other major American ensemble, has made rich, Russian sound one of its hallmarks. Dating back at least to the Eugene Ormandy years, it is something the ensemble wishes to bring to the fore with the St. Petersburg Festival. “It’s a sound that originates in the strings,” Rothman says, “a freedom of line and of phrasing. There’s an expressiveness and emotional depth, but it’s unified, the players ‘move together’ in a way that is unique. There are more connections between notes creating a lush, pliable string sound. Yannick loves working with the musicians … to return to that sort of full-bow sound. It’s something in the DNA of the Orchestra, and a sound that just ‘speaks’ through this repertoire.” 

Paul Horsley is performing arts editor at the Independent in Kansas City. He was The Philadelphia Orchestra’s program annotator and musicologist (1992-2000) and classical music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star (2000-08). He holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University and teaches at Park University in Kansas City.