Davies Hall in San Francisco was the site of a special performance on Monday night that showcased the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra,(Russia’s oldest symphony orchestra) conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who was joined on this occasion by distinguished pianist Nikolai Lugansky. On the program were two of the most popular and revered works of the Russian classical repertoire: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
As the lights of the hall dimmed, Lugansky and Temirkanov appeared on stage, and the muted mysterious chords from the gorgeous Steinway began the famed concerto. Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is often considered the archetype of the virtuoso piano concerto with its astonishing outpouring of gorgeous melodies and big romantic gestures. It also requires a pianist who can plumb the depths of this familiar work and find new facets of meaning to engage the attention of an audience. Lugansky’s dazzling technique combined power with graceful flair, and it delivered in spades. With fingers positively dancing across the keys, sometimes lightly and sometimes with fury, there was no question that we were in the presence of a master pianist. And so the work went, the first movement full of drama with its great heights, the iconic second pulling at the hearts of the audience, and the third movement ending in a glorious climax that pulled the crowd to its feet and brought Lugansky back four times in response to the cheers from the audience.
This was only half the evening. After intermission, we took our seats full of high expectations after such a spectacular opening. Not many works can stand up to the grandeur of a Rachmaninoff concerto, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is one of those. Scheherazade, inspired by the classic eastern tale “The Book of One Thousand and One Nights” (or sometimes just referred to as “The Arabian Nights”), calls to mind the great adventures told by the young queen Scheherazade. The St Petersburg Orchestra was at its best, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant orchestration created fantastic sounds that beautifully evoked the adventures and excitement of the Arabian Nights. The ending unfolded slowly and mysteriously, allowing the audience to bask in the magic of this magnificent work. The enthusiastic and persistent applause finally convinced Temirkanov to return to the stage, to lead the orchestra in a short and exquisite encore, Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, which closed the program and ended a wonderful evening on a note of grace and beauty.
Brian Bekker is a 18-year-old high school senior, who is also an accomplished young pianist.