While not exactly a Russian winter, the long-lingering summer was finally releasing its grip on North Carolina and precious rain was falling. In front of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, there were people scurrying around with one or two fingers in the air, signaling their pleas for extra tickets for the sold-out performance of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Any effort made to get through those well-protected doors was amply repaid, as it was an evening of orchestral excellence that would be long remembered.

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic, founded in 1882, is the oldest orchestra in Russia; it has a long and fascinating history. The group is currently led by the distinguished conductor Yuri Temirkanov, who programmed an evening of familiar German repertoire in the first half, followed by one of the grandest of the hundreds of great Russian orchestral works that could have been selected to showcase the ensemble’s talents and great heritage.

Eschewing the tradition of a rousing curtain raiser, the evening began with sedate and refined playing of the third Entr’acte from Franz Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde, a now-forgotten play. This is one of many astonishing Schubert melodic creations during which one marvels at how such simplicity can result in such beauty. The strings mostly took the lead and quickly displayed their refined and elegant sound. The tempo was exceedingly slow, even for the pensive nature of the work, but that allowed one to luxuriate even more in the sensuousness of the playing.

Brazilian-born pianist Nelson Freire filled out the international amalgam as he undertook the sole piano concerto of Robert Schumann. Premiered on New Year’s Day of 1846, this work evolved from a one-movement fantasie written for his beloved wife Clara into its current form. Freire is a perfect complement to this regal orchestra as his demeanor is one of restrained elegance and economy of physical fussiness. Although the concerto is in three distinct movements, its character is mainly that of its original “fantastic” intent and requires much interpretive and rhythmic license on the part of the soloist. Freire was a true poet and sculptor, marking his performance with unabashed personal revelations along with the impeccable technique to deliver such emotional punch. At the end of the first movement, nearly the entire audience burst into long, unrestrained applause. Of course, according to the “official” etiquette of orchestral concerts, this is a no-no. I consider this more of a sign of audience members who are perhaps attending their first concert– which is a good thing.

As much as I looked forward to this program and enjoyed the preceding works, I was definitely not alone in placing most of my anticipation of this evening in the second half’s Suite from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, the quintessential Russian composer. Is there something within the DNA makeup of Russian musicians that enable them to play this music more passionately than others? Can that theory be applied to other nationalities or ethnicities? Well, I certainly cannot resolve that question here, but I do know that the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s performance of Prokofiev’s masterpiece nearly knocked me over with its incredible passion, power, and interpretation and its frighteningly effortless technical prowess.

Pronounced “undanceable” by Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet when delivered by the composer in 1934, Romeo and Juliet has become a staple of dance companies, and the suites derived from the complete score have become orchestral favorites. The eight sections played in Chapel Hill are filled with depictions of every human emotion, brilliantly orchestrated and conceived with Shakespeare’s timeless story never far from the surface.

Temirkanov is not the kind of conductor to whom one looks for a clear beat, and in fact that seemingly necessary component is rarely evident. Instead, he shapes and gesticulates and at times appears to be just another player.

This was no pared down touring group, but a huge orchestra, including ten basses! The configuration was somewhat unusual, with the cellos smack-dab in the middle and the basses stage right, nowhere near their bass-clef cousins. The horns were ‘way in the back, in the stage-left corner. Whether this acoustically contributed to the awesome power of the brass section and the phenomenal precision of the strings is unclear, but it was a performance that immediately ascended to the top of my “one of the greatest” lists. For the hundreds of people who attended and “incorrectly” applauded after the first movement of the Schumann concerto, thisevening was a shining example of the power of live music and why it’s important to see and hear the real thing.