Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Peterburg Philharmonic ran into politically aware/(over)active San Franciscans twice Monday night during their appearance at Davies Symphony Hall. They handled it with good humor.
First, there was a demonstration outside the hall against "Putin-friend Temirkanov" (apparently confusing him with Valery Gergiev) because of Moscow's recent atrocious anti-gay campaign. The organizers explained in online messages:
Queer lesbian feminist of Ukrainian heritage Nadia Stulkowsky-Winstead and Todd Swindell have rounded up Pussy Riot supporters who will wear the group's iconic bright dresses and balaclavas. All are encouraged to dress up and join them as they host a Pussy Riot dance party at our rally. For the time being, they've adopted the name Pussy Riot/SF, which may be the world's first affiliate of the Russian feminist punkers.
Then, in the hall, after Temirkanov took his initial bow and lifted the baton to start the concert, a masked woman stood up in the terrace, right over the orchestra, unfurled a rainbow flag, and shouted something undecipherable ("Respect gay rights!" or "Stay out of Ukraine!" or both?). The timing was exquisite, right on cue, not interfering with the music, and the demonstrator left readily without causing any trouble.
The response from Temirkanov and the orchestra (with several Ukrainian members and surely some gay ones) was striking: broad smiles and applause. True, what else could they have done, but their sincerity and friendliness was genuine. The audience applauded them, and the orchestra launched into a Rossini overture with extra relish.
Although this report is about politics and music, not the concert, a notable San Francisco debut must be mentioned. Vilde Frang, 28, from Norway, played the solo in the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto with a stunning combination of flawless technique and palpable, appealing emotion — her single appearance here only whets the appetite for many more returns.
Back to the subject at hand. Yes, politics in music goes back for centuries, from the anti-aristocracic stance of The Marriage of Figaro, to Fidelio's powerful statement against dictators, to the nationalist hymn of "Va pensiero" in Verdi's Nabucco, to the anti-capitalist rallying cries of Mahagonny-Songspiel.
But, again, that's part of music, not in demonstration against musicians and performances, such as last night's here or the recent anti-Putin protests at the Met, targeting Gergiev and Anna Netrebko.
There are so many causes and so many good ones — music lovers of a certain age remember well the incomplete, spotty de-Nazification after the war — but other than calling attention to a cause, what exactly is the expected result? Demonstrations outside concert halls and opera houses are not a problem, but interrupting performances (which almost happened tonight) is.
At any rate, Temirkanov — himself from the Stalin-purged Caucasus — needs no prodding to refrain from either invading countries or discriminating against gays. He is all right.