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Yuri Temirkanov, world-renowned conductor, dies at 84

Mr. Temirkanov, conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Strathmore music center in North Bethesda, Md., in 2005.Rich Lipski/The Washington Post

Yuri Temirkanov, an esteemed Soviet-born conductor who rebuilt the once-storied St. Petersburg Philharmonic after the collapse of communism and led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for seven inspired years at the turn of the 21st century, died Thursday. He was 84.

His death was announced in a statement by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, which did not provide additional details. Evgeny Petrovsky, a deputy artistic director for the orchestra, told the Russian news agency Tass that Mr. Temirkanov died in a hospital but did not give a cause.

Mr. Temirkanov was known for his expansive and colorful performances of Russian music and especially of the works of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich, the last of whom he worked with personally.

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He recorded all of the Tchaikovsky symphonies as well as the composer's most celebrated opera, "Eugene Onegin." As an interpreter of Gustav Mahler, he found a middle ground between the angst-ridden, confessional performances of the 1960s and the cooler spirit espoused by later generations of conductors.

Like such past masters as Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez, Mr. Temirkanov never used a baton, believing that he could lead more precisely without one. He was never much for podium glamour, preferring the role of master facilitator working among colleagues, letting the musicians play within a controlled but unfettered framework.

At times, he made an unusual motion with his left hand, wriggling it around as if shaking off a residue of water, but he always kept his right hand steady and exact — a combination that was fascinating to watch.

Mr. Temirkanov made his first appearance with Baltimore in 1992 and became the ensemble’s music director in 1999. His years there were judged a distinct musical success. He motivated the players to their best efforts, although his deep shyness off the podium and limited command of English kept him from becoming personally close to many of them.

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Never entirely comfortable away from home, he returned to Russia often. Accustomed during the Soviet era to national support of his work, in Baltimore he was reluctant to move beyond music that he did not know well, avoided the mass media as much as he could, seemed uninterested in contemporary and American works, and had minimal “meet and greet” sessions with the public.

Meanwhile, downtown street crime was high, attendance dwindled, and magnificent concerts were often played to near-empty houses at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

In 2005, the orchestra began playing some of its concerts at the newly constructed Strathmore performance hall in North Bethesda, Md., where it had easier access to a Washington audience. By then, however, the orchestra was in serious financial trouble: In early 2006, it spent nearly one-third of its endowment ($27.5 million of approximately $89 million) to pay off a $16 million accumulated debt and create a reserve fund.

Meanwhile, the board of directors appointed a new music director. The charismatic and media-savvy Marin Alsop, who became the first female music director of a major American orchestra, was radically different from Mr. Temirkanov in every way. Most of the musicians originally objected to her appointment, stating that they did not feel they had been consulted adequately. But management made it clear that the appointment was decided, and she remained the orchestra’s music director from 2007 until 2021.

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After departing, Mr. Temirkanov waited a decade to visit Baltimore again. In 2016, he returned to lead three concerts of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. He was welcomed enthusiastically by the orchestra and by the critics, but he soured his visit somewhat by giving an interview in which he reiterated his oft-stated disdain for female conductors, which was seen by some as a slap at his host. "There are women boxing and weightlifting; they can do that," he said to the Baltimore Sun. "But I don't like watching."

Yuri Khatuyevich Temirkanov was born in Nalchik, the capital city of the southern Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, on Dec. 10, 1938. His father, Khatu Temirkanov, was minister of culture for the republic and took Prokofiev into his home to work on his opera "War and Peace" far away from besieged Moscow. Not long after that, in 1941, Khatu was executed by firing squad during the German invasion.

Mr. Temirkanov and his three siblings were taken by their mother to the relative safety of the nearby Caucasus Mountains. “I remember that time not well — it’s like a bad dream to me,” he told the Sun. “I remember Prokofiev only dimly — he used to take me to the local bazaar — just as I remember my father.”

Mr. Temirkanov would encounter Prokofiev again a decade later when the pupil was 13 and studying viola and violin at what was then the Leningrad Conservatory. Mr. Temirkanov subsequently won what was then known as the Soviet All-Union Conductors’ Prize, and he appeared as a guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic in London, and other prestigious symphonies.

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He courted Soviet disfavor by leading officially forbidden works such as Shostakovich’s song cycle “On Jewish Folk Poetry,” which presented antisemitism as a basic part of Russian — and Soviet — history. He also preferred to advance orchestral musicians for their talent rather than their length of stay in the ensemble, which upset the highly structured cultural bureaucracy.

Mr. Temirkanov was chief conductor of Leningrad's Kirov Opera when, in 1988, he succeeded the recently deceased Yevgeny Mravinsky as the principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Mravinsky had led the orchestra for half a century, and his declining health in the later years of his tenure had left the ensemble effectively rudderless. Many of its celebrated musicians had emigrated before Mr. Temirkanov took over.

In 1992, after the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reversion of the name Leningrad to St. Petersburg, the orchestra again became known as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

An early project was a new soundtrack for the Sergei Eisenstein film "Alexander Nevsky," which had been made in 1938 to music by Prokofiev. The magazine Stereo Review likened the new recording by Mr. Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic to the restoration of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling in Vatican City.

Mr. Temirkanov stepped down as the Philharmonic's music director in 2022 but continued to divide his time between St. Petersburg and London, where he also kept a home.

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Critic Norman Lebrecht, writing in his online magazine Slippedisc.com, noted that the conductor had "negotiated Soviet and post-Soviet realities with great adroitness."

"He avoided joining the Communist Party," Lebrecht observed, "and he never became an acolyte of either [Boris] Yeltsin or [Vladimir] Putin, though the latter showered him with offers and honors."

Mr. Temirkanov's wife, Irina Guseva, died in 1997. He had one son, Vladimir, who played violin for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for many years, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Despite the fact that he lived most of his life in Russia, Mr. Temirkanov once said that he would have preferred to live in Italy. “It’s the only country where people really live,” he told the Sun in 2001. “Everyone has problems, troubles, work to do, but it’s just ‘domani, domani, domani’ [Italian for tomorrow]. In every town, there is music. And the taxi drivers can sing all the operas.”