Classical: Orchestral manoeuvres in the East

These are hard times in post-Soviet Russia, even for institutions that were once among the jewels of the USSR's devotion to the arts. Rob Cowan travels to St Petersburg to hear the fortunes of the Philharmonic
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The Independent Culture
ST PETERSBURG'S Swedish-designed Pribaltiyskaya Hotel sits on the Bay of Finland like a huge armchair awaiting some mythic god. The neighbouring beach is littered with junk. Wiry teenagers clamber over a washed-up Lada like sharks snatching at a carcass, while coach-loads of sightseers punctuate the long, "white" nights of summer.

It is a city with things on its mind; pensive, insecure and impatient. But the band plays on - more so now, in fact, than when the Soviets were in power. "In St Petersburg, there are around 3,500 concerts a year; that's if you count small-ensemble activities in our palaces and museums," says Anton Getman, from the Philharmonic. "And we hold 500 concerts here at the Philharmonic Hall."

The palatial "Big Hall" seats 1,300, and the "Chamber Hall" 400. "Big- name soloists and conductors always attract a good audience," says Getman. "But it's difficult to maintain standards when you're giving 17 concerts a day."

The Philharmonic was founded in 1802, and shares its regal homestead with the rival Symphony Orchestra, a less refined band that sprang to life as a radio orchestra in the Thirties, and played Shostakovich's "Seventh Symphony" during the Siege of Leningrad. Neither the Philharmonic nor the Symphony has any official connections with local government (a small subsidy comes from Moscow), whereas there are six other orchestras that do belong to the government of St Petersburg.

Tickets sales and sponsorships are crucial to the Philharmonic's survival. The chief conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, has effected a modest expansion of the orchestra's repertoire since the days of the feared and revered Yevgeny Mravinsky, whose 50-year association with the "Leningrad Philharmonic" ended with his death in 1988.

"We are going to play Ravel at Carnegie Hall," Temirkanov tells me, then switches the subject to Borodin's three symphonies. "They're not played very much," he says with a shrug. "Which doesn't mean that I'd like to play them - I wouldn't." He notes my disappointment, then laughs and throws in a counter-suggestion: "People in the West ought to know the first three Tchaikovsky symphonies better."

He talks of the "codes" in Shostakovich's music. "The purpose of the conductor is to work them out," he says quizzically. But if you then talk "standard rep", he bemoans the unlikelihood of ever being able to record Brahms or Beethoven symphonies. "It is impossible," he says, shaking his head and lighting up for the umpteenth time. "First of all, there is no time; and secondly, the recording companies are cutting contracts and complaining that everything has been recorded too much already. Nowadays, the number one objective of a record company is sales, not quality."

Temirkanov rehearses with the minimum of physical gestures, admonishing occasionally in a soft, grainy voice. Mravinsky was soft-spoken, too, but don't let that fool you. "Like all great men, he could be either kind or terrifying," says concertmaster Lev Klychkov, who played under Mravinsky's baton for six years. "Some people even had heart attacks on stage. It was not easy.

"You would sit there during rehearsal, nervous, uncomfortable - not thinking about the music, but about the rate of your heart. If he looked in your direction, that was enough."

But has Temirkanov's more "humane" approach meant a dip in playing standards? "No, it's just very different," says Klychkov. "In rehearsal, although Maestro Temirkanov congratulated the orchestra for playing "very well, technically", he also asked us to `switch on our hearts more'."

Point taken. "It's a more flexible ensemble now, more creative," says the orchestral manager, Sergei Tcherniadiev. "Nowadays, we are able to make a programme from three rehearsals, plus a general rehearsal, whereas under Mravinsky we could work eight or nine days on a programme that we had played countless times before."

Most new members of the Philharmonic are head-hunted from the local music conservatoire. Years ago, the management used to audition people from as far afield as Georgia and Ukraine, but now "it's only Russia". Getman explains: "If musicians are from different republics, it's as if they're from abroad. In the old days, all Mravinsky had to do was phone the right Communist official and he could arrange accommodation for any new player.

"The problem now isn't political, it's financial. We cannot afford to rent apartments for members, and yet, before 1991, this was the best-paid orchestra in Russia: the concertmaster's salary equalled that of the Minister of Culture, and even a back-desk newcomer earned double the salary of a student doctor. It was easy to get musicians to come here, because we were considered the aristocrat of orchestras, the perfect example of how it `could be' under socialism. Now, people are leaving and the salaries are miserable."

And yet, listening to the St Petersburg Philharmonic in concert confirms that it is still one of the great Russian orchestras. But it needs to attract new audiences, especially among the prosperous. "Many rich people have no idea what `classical' music is about," says Getman. "But they certainly have the notion that it is prestigious to be seen at our concerts - perhaps by a Governor, or someone similar. And they, like students, have a right to a musical education.

"I personally know of an extremely wealthy middle-aged couple who attended their first Philharmonic concert two years ago, and who have now become regulars. They're here every week, because they want to hear something new."

And there's yet another side to St Petersburg musical life: its 25 FM radio stations, two of which - Orpheus and Classic FM (no relation) - are purely classical. "More and more of our radio stations are moving towards classical music," confesses Getman. "Five years ago, they played only rock and pop, but now the station El Dorado devotes the last 15 minutes of every hour to classical music.

"We have organised for Balticus Radio to broadcast live concerts direct from Philharmonic Hall, and ticket sales for these concerts has risen by around 30 to 50 per cent. You know how it is: people go to the office the next morning, ask their colleagues whether they heard the concert on the radio, and can then say, with pride, `Ah, but I was there!'"