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Yuri Temirkanov, Conductor Who Celebrated Russia’s Music, Dies at 84



Yuri Temirkanov, a well-traveled Russian conductor steeped in his country’s bygone musical culture, died on Nov. 2 in St. Petersburg, the city where he held sway for over 30 years. He was 84.

His death was announced by both the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, where he was music director from 1988 to 2022 — his tenure began when it was still the Leningrad Philharmonic — and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 2000 to 2006. A close associate in Baltimore said Mr. Temirkanov had had heart trouble and had died in a care facility.

When he was a boy, Prokofiev had held his hand; in his prime, he was artistic director of one of the world’s great opera companies, the Kirov, in what was then Leningrad, taking that post before he was 40; and in his later years, he consulted with Shostakovich, conducted some of the world’s major orchestras, and was the object of almost cultlike adoration in his native land.

At a glittering memorial service for him on Sunday in the columned hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, his coffin lay open as the orchestra played Tchaikovsky.

In the Russian repertoire with which he was most closely associated — Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev — Mr. Temirkanov drew bold, rich sounds from his orchestras, each phrase laden with meaning. But he also found subtleties in the understated works of Haydn.

Critics praised his ability to shape extended lines with minimal hand gestures — he eschewed the baton — but were puzzled by what some called his unpredictability and inconsistency. And he created an uproar in 2012 when he declared to a Russian interviewer that women shouldn’t be conductors because it was “counter to nature.” A woman, he explained, “should be beautiful, likable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music!”

His handpicked associate conductor in Baltimore, Lara Webber, said in a phone interview that those words were “completely incoherent with the experience I had.”

Mr. Temirkanov, she said, was a “really supportive boss” and a “tremendously empathetic humanist.”

Mr. Temirkanov largely tried to steer clear of politics; he once insisted to the British critic Norman Lebrecht that while living in the Soviet Union he never joined the Communist Party. But he told the critic Time Smith of The Baltimore Sun in 2004 that President Vladimir V. Putin was a “very good friend, very good.” Mr. Smith noted that Mr. Temirkanov had successfully lobbied Mr. Putin for funding and that he was the first recipient of a new medal created by the president.

Gregory Tucker, who had become close to Mr. Temirkanov as publicity director for the Baltimore orchestra, said that as Russian orchestras faced financial crisis in the post-Soviet era, Mr. Temirkanov “had a very frank discussion with Putin, that if the state doesn’t step up, these institutions won’t survive.”

To his American associates, Mr. Temirkanov was a mysterious but compelling presence, a visitor from the lost world of the Soviet Union’s last years and a disciple of old modes of music instruction that now barely exist. The Baltimore Sun critic Stephen Wigler noted in 1999 that Mr. Temirkanov “doesn’t own a TV set and doesn’t even know how to drive a car.”

He spoke English but hardly used it, and he did not go out of his way to cultivate audiences, though those who knew him in Baltimore said that this was less a sign of aloofness than of shyness.

“My back must be to the audience, not to the orchestra,” he told The Sun. “When I conduct, I am like an actor, I am talking to the audience, but the words belong to the composer, and I am just the vessel through which they pass.”

In 2005, the critic Anne Midgette wrote in The New York Times: “‘Unpredictable’ is a word that has consistently cropped up in assessments of Mr. Temirkanov’s work. And it seems to apply not only to his conducting — which he does without a baton, using circular hand motions that can seem enigmatic to outsiders — but also to his musical tastes and, indeed, to the man in general.”

He was known to audiences around the world. Over his career he variously conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among other ensembles.

His arrival in Baltimore was greeted with some astonishment: A world-class conductor was coming to an orchestra that, although considered good, was not in the country’s top five. The city had “landed a big one,” a Sun editorial said in 1997. The tone was set for an awed and respectful relationship.

For the musicians who played under Mr. Temirkanov in Baltimore, the experience was unlike any they had had with any other conductor.

“He was very much into expressiveness, through hands and body movements,” Jonathan Carney, the Baltimore Symphony’s concertmaster, said in a phone interview. “It was like a ballet, watching him. He was not into controlling an orchestra. He was trying to entice us to go into a certain direction. For me, it was like watching a poet on the podium.”

That Mr. Temirkanov used few words only added to his aura and helped create a “certain almost fear that you would have,” Michael Lisicky, the orchestra’s second oboist, recalled. Yet, he said by phone, “he would sing the phrase back to you. Everything, when he sang it back to you, it made sense.”

“You never knew what he was thinking,” Mr. Lisicky said. “He kind of gives you these hand gestures, as if he was blessing you.”

In an interview from his home in Prague, the pianist Evgeny Kissin, who played with Mr. Temirkanov many times over the years, said simply, “He was an extraordinary man.”

Yuri Khatuyevich Temirkanov was born on Dec. 10, 1938, in Nalchik, the capital of the southern Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, in the Caucasus. He was the son of Khatu Sagidovich Temirkanov, the republic’s culture minister, and Polia Petrovna Temirkanova. His father was shot and killed by the Nazis when Germany invaded Russia in 1941; shortly before that, Sergei Prokofiev and his wife, who were evacuees, had stayed with the family.

Mr. Temirkanov studied violin at the Leningrad Conservatory, graduating in 1965. He won a prestigious Soviet competition in 1968 and was named music director of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra the next year.

After becoming director of the Kirov Opera in 1977, he was named principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London in 1980. (He would later become the orchestra’s principal conductor.) In 1988, he was named principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic (later the St. Petersburg Philharmonic).

Mr. Temirkanov remained active as a conductor roughly until the onset of Covid in 2020, Mr. Tucker said.

Mr. Temirkanov’s son, Vladimir, a violinist in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and his wife, Irina Guseva, died before him. No immediate family members survive.