St. Petersburg Philharmonic orchestrates over the controversy at the San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony /Courtesy

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Not many orchestras are interrupted by waving flags and DayGlo knit ski masks, but anything is possible in San Francisco, even at a classy affair such as the symphony.

March 3 marked the second night of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, conducted by world-renowned Russian maestro Yuri Temirkanov, at the San Francisco Symphony. Temirkanov, who has collaborated with leading orchestras on an international scale and has earned multiple awards in Russia, has also received backlash recently.

In a 2012 interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a daily Russian newspaper, Temirkanov controversially revealed that he did not think women could be conductors, because he believed “the essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.” He cited revolutionary German socialist and philosopher Karl Marx, who said his favorite virtue in a woman was weakness. Temirkanov agreed, saying, “The important thing is, a woman should be beautiful, likable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music!”

On the night of March 3, the lone protester, a gay rights activist seated in the terrace section of the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, addressed the Russian conductor. Wearing a neon ski mask and waving a rainbow flag, he yelled, “Yuri, you’re a sexist Putinist! Tell Putin to free Pussy Riot now!”

Pussy Riot, the infamous Moscow-based feminist punk rock group, was convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in 2012. Selected members were sentenced to two years imprisonment after a protest-performance in a Moscow cathedral. The protest, directed at church leaders in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin during his campaign, was transformed into a music video titled “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away!” Lyrics include the aggressive “shit, shit, the Lord’s shit.”

Though the connection between conductor Temirkanov and Pussy Riot is not explicit, there are some ties. Temirkanov has links to Putin. Most significantly, the musical maestro was one of Putin’s 500 Trustees, a conspicuous group that supported Putin’s re-election bid. Additionally, Temirkanov and Putin celebrated the conductor’s 75th birthday in December at a concert gala in St. Petersburg organized by the Russian president himself.

It is no surprise that Temirkanov’s misogynistic statements coupled with the backing of President Putin would spark resentment, especially in the liberal and politically active city of San Francisco.

The protest, put on by Gays Without Borders, was largely organized by Michael Petrelis, a prominent member of the organization that identifies itself as a “network of international GLBT grassroots activists.”

“Temirkanov and the visit by the government-funded St. Petersburg Philharmonic are the perfect cultural figure and musical performance to communicate a message to Putin and all of Russia,” said Petrelis. “We refuse to be silent as our brothers and sisters are denied free speech, the right to publicly assemble and full protection of their universal human rights.”

Despite the recent backlash in San Francisco, the orchestra has received extensive praise. The New York Times described a Carnegie Hall show as a “fresh, intriguing performance” and the San Francisco Chronicle said Temirkanov “made every measure shine.”

The March 3 performance was no exception. Temirkanov opened with Rossini’s overture to “The Barber of Seville” — a luxurious, surging comedy, well known in the repertoire of classical opera. The orchestra continued with Sergei Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor” with soloist Vilde Frang. Despite Temirkanov’s belief that women cannot make good conductors, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with female violin soloists. Frang played Prokofiev’s concerto with a musicality and understanding that clearly springs from an emotional connection.

The orchestra played Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2 in E minor,” a beautifully constructed piece with four movements. Much to the audience’s pleasure, the two encores of the night were Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd.

While the protester’s disturbance did make a point in highlighting the controversy surrounding Temirkanov, it did not necessarily overshadow the performance. The orchestra’s talent is undeniably a Russian treasure.

Addy Bhasin is the assistant arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].