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Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

The current subscription performance concert going on at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) features our new assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger at the helm for his first of hopefully many engagements. To get my effusive praise of Mr Lehninger out of the way, I think that he’s an excellent addition to the BSO and brings a lot of energy to the podium. He led the BSO in a concert featuring Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for a Scandal, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Being a great admirer of the Romantic period, I was giddy with the possibility of hearing the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky performed live by the BSO. This excitement only escalated after attending the Wednesday night rehearsal the previous evening. Tonight, I was accompanied by my trusted symphony friend CB as we sat in excellent center second balcony seats.

What I was not at all familiar with was Barber’s Overture to The School for a Scandal. This piece fit in naturally with the remainder of the program. Barber spends time developing themes and reintroduces them, and in this work, he creates a groundswell of emotion that continually builds and can easily be attributable to some kind of movie action chase scene. I think there are probably superheroes involved. The main melody is quite beautiful and provides moments of tranquility between the action. It finishes in a spectacular way as well, as it rings out, repeats a chord, and instead of either sustaining that chord or even raising in pitch, it descends down in somewhat of a surprise. This gives me the impression that, while grandiose, it’s not necessarily a happy ending to whatever narrative was told here. I’ll be interested to read more about the piece when I can, but I highly recommend it. It’s always satisfying when the piece I know least about turns out to be the one I appreciate greatly.

For the Beethoven, violinist Pinchas Zukerman joined the BSO, and to have a giant of music on stage was, once again, a treat. The cadenza is worth noting once again, as it was every bit as spectacular as I had experienced just the night before, and I really would like to learn more about who penned it and under what circumstances. It’s quite a unique feature of classical music that the cadenza can strongly flavor the concerto, leave the unique signature of a modern performer, and still respect the original composition. If not so daunting, it makes me want to learn carefully the cadenza variations of some of my favorite violin concertos to be able to distinguish differences in interpretation and writing in these sections.

The Beethoven is quite long, with the first movement alone approaching 25 minutes in some performances. But one thing I noticed tonight about Beethoven is that he takes a musical fragment or idea and then explores it fully, breaking it apart and piecing it back together again, handing off the melody to different instruments and reworking the entire music around it. It means that multiple performances of the piece are continually rewarding, in that one discovers turns of the central themes that are explored in new ways. It’s another example of Beethoven’s genius to have been able to understand this immediately.

Finally, Tchaikovsky is another of my favorite composers, and perhaps my favorite symphonist, so Symphony No. 5 was a treat. Not to diminish his abilities, but he was among other things an excellent song writer. The piece is approximately 50 minutes long, but I find it endlessly engaging. There’s a suspense that builds gradually, and Tchaikovsky is a master at utilizing different instruments as different voices in his symphonic narrative. From the first, détaché notes of the clarinet, the melody exists somewhat but not quite alone. Soon they are accompanied by the bassoons, taking their time and ending on a muted, unceremonious end. A moment of silence passes until the instruments reappear, to finally give way to the slightly brighter strings. Great restraint is built up slowly and beautifully here and punctuated by brief moments of gaiety.

The theme introduced in the Andante cantabile by the horns is longing and hopeful, an introduction to a movement that moves me every time I hear it. The gracefulness of the third movement waltz unsurprisingly harkens to a ballet. In the last movement, the strings take the lead in the grandiose theme of the final movement that eventually gets usurped by the horns before being returned. There’s a march-like quality in the percussion that culminates in a drum roll before the triumphant ending. The entire piece is marked by fluidity and seems to have a particularly identifiable character.

I appreciated the tight programming of this concert. I’m fine with this especially since I learned about the Barber, my asterisk piece for the evening. I greatly enjoyed hearing for the first time live a great violinist in Zukerman perform Beethoven, the BSO doing what they do best during the Tchaikovsky, and the new (to me) Barber which excites me to further explore his music.

I’m a huge fan of NPR’s First Listen, an online resource at which full albums spanning a wide variety of musical genres are available to stream in their entirety before the commercial release. The quality is what one might expect from streaming, but at least NPR are very good at streaming. I’ve mentioned First Listen in the past, though I more often forget to mention things I’m listening to more casually.

Currently featured on First Listen is yet another recording of Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet “The Nutcracker”. However, the praise for this recording is high, and it features Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, whom I have been fortunate enough to see live in Symphony Hall, home to our beloved Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). I haven’t listened to this recording yet but am hoping to soon. It’s not posted when it will expire, but it’s usually around the time of the CD release, which is 25 Oct 2010.

Another interesting looking recording featured is Bob Dylan’s The Whitmark Demos 1962-1964, for which select songs are available through Oct 19.

Tonight the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performed the first in series of concerts for their current program, led by assistant conductor Julian Kuerti and featuring Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Cm, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in Cm. I’ve often noticed that performances tend to evolve over the course of multiple concerts in a program; by the final performance, the musicians seem more relaxed; having performed the music several times in front of a live audience, they have had the chance to work out the details and are together like the moving parts of a clock. In contrast, first performances often show a bit of roughness, and in many ways, tonight was not an exception. Despite this, the group managed to end on a wonderful note, making the Tchaikovsky soar throughout the Hall.

The Ligeti piece was the only one that was new to me, and despite being a mid-20th century composition, it fit in stylistically with the other two selections. In many ways, in fact, it was an incredibly safe program in this regard — there were no real challenges to the audience in this program. For the first time, I appreciated the difficulty in programming a concert; much like a track listing for an album, the selections must complement each other or tell a story of some sort. While I enjoyed all the pieces here, it would have been nice to have either a more complete story (All-Russian, All-Mozart, etc.) or a more diverse offering (modern juxtaposed with classical).

For me, the Ligeti explores various themes ranging from something that feels like a western to gypsy music. It’s overall a very fun piece, but it was the first indication that there was some roughness in the performance. For her part, concertmistress Tamara Smirnova performed to task on the many difficult solos, though one or two moments appeared to be tricky as well. For the entire orchestra’s part, there seemed to be a general lack of organization, including some early entrances and rhythmic confusion. It’s not completely clear if it’s my unfamiliarity with the piece or an actual problem, but something was amiss in a few sections.

The Shostakovich was performed by pianist Marc-André Hamelin and BSO principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs. Specifically, the Lento second movement was expertly performed, with Hamelin coaxing its nuances and subtleties beautifully. The final Allegro con brio movement had elements that reminded me of something of a horse race, and Rolfs throughout was impressive in his sole role as entire brass section. It was an interesting addition by Shostakovich to the full string orchestra, but its role was well employed. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it seems as if Shostakovich kept it as simple as possible but no simpler. One upside to having a primarily string orchestra was the expanded role of the violas that I appreciated. Alexander Velinzon led the first violins for this piece and appeared to do a fine job of it, once again. The piece finished to a rather tepid applause, and I think for the first time the conductor was only called out twice.

Finally, the piece I had been most eager to hear was the Tchaikovsky. This particular piece is one of my favorites, and to hear the BSO perform it live was absolutely charming. While I have minor quibbles with some of the interpretations, such as the use of vibrato in certain long, sustained notes from the winds (though in other places it was perfect), by and large this was an emotionally complete piece for me. It’s not particularly moody, but it has a strong rhythmic power that showcased the excellent percussive capabilities of the orchestra. Tchaikovsky demonstrated again in this piece many sequences and themes that were reminiscent of ballet music. In the second movement, the Andantino marziale quasi moderato, the main theme is reminiscent of a carefree person, perhaps a peasant or even a soldier in a moment of relaxation, wandering about his day. The Scherzo is short and filled with action, but the Finale was a spectacle tonight — what power!

I’ve maintained perhaps forever that the BSO are at the height of their excellence when they are playing grand symphonic works, and tonight gave me yet another indication of that. The Tchaikovsky was so well done: pretty when he wrote it to be so and likewise fiery and everything in between. It’s unfortunate that I do not think that tonight’s audience got a strong sense of that. For me the Tchaikovsky was its best showing by far on tonight’s occasion, but I appeared to have been a minority in that assessment. I suspect that the program will get more popular as the performances get tighter in the coming concerts.

On a personal note, my concert neighbors down in row K of the orchestra were two older gentlemen, one of whom grew up in Symphony Hall, as his mother and sister were apparently opera singers who had performed right on this stage. Additionally, Ms Smirnova seems to be very friendly, as she returned my impromptu greeting pre-concert outside the Hall.

Like many, I would number the Brahms and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerti among my favorites in the standard repertoire. For the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major (Op. 35), I find it to be both fulfilling and beautiful. From the moments in the overture building to the solo, one can sense that greatness can be achieved in just a few bars. The dynamics fall, only briefly, to emerge the solo violin in a sweet and subtle melody that conjures an image of a spirit rising. It adds a few playful touches and never exhibits even a moment of harshness in its rich chords. The first movement ends brilliantly, building throughout to reach the final epic triumph. The second movement is brief but tender. It develops almost cautiously, and it ends almost without resolution, serving as a true bridge to the thrill-a-minute finale.

It has been said that the Tchaikovsky was greeted with a chilling reception by critics upon its premiere, and violinist Leopold Auer famously called it “unplayable.” If this last endorsement was not sufficient in gaining a sense of the magnitude of immense difficulty in the piece, finally hearing the piece live performed by a young artist certainly gave me a completely new appreciation for the piece.

Tess Varley is that artist, a senior violin performance student at the College of Fine Arts (CFA) at Boston University, who gave her capstone senior recital with a performance of the Tchaikovsky with a piano reduction of the orchestra. Varley also played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in C Minor (Op. 30 No. 2), accompanied on both by pianist Maja Tremiszewska.

The recital took place in the CFA’s Concert Hall, which acoustically resembles perhaps that of a high school’s dilapidated auditorium. Acoustic paneling at the rear of the stage appeared to be a last-ditch effort at squeezing some semblance of reasonable sound out of the place, and while Varley’s violin filled the space admirably well, one had no sense that her dynamic range and tone could have been appreciated fully. Transients and decays of notes died instead of lingered and not purposefully. It was the first performance I had heard in the place, and admittedly I am spoiled by my primary venues of Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall, but this was surprisingly poor for the primary recital space of the CFA. From my recollection and without direct comparison, the Tsai Performance Center at BU is markedly better but admittedly too large of a venue for a small recital such as last night’s.

It was the first time I had heard the Beethoven that I can recall, and it was a very nice piece. Particularly intriguing to me was the Scherzo: Allegro third movement that really displayed Varley’s talent and confidence on the spiccato passages, where she seemed relaxed. This would also be evident in several places in the fast movements of the Tchaikovsky as well and I think demonstrates that bow control is among her greatest strengths.

It was the first time I had heard the Tchaikovsky with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts, and it was a unique experience. Only the privileged few have access to the resources and time of a full orchestra as partners for the piece, and it was naturally less rich as a result. But this is a piece I know well (of course not even in the same class as Tess), and I swear I could hear the faint orchestral overlay onto the piano part as they played. Especially powerful were percussive parts and the march-like horns that are simply irreplaceable.

Varley’s poise and maturity were plainly evident, as the piece pushes any soloist to the limits of the instrument in several places, only to return to more solid ground in brief moments. In some spots, especially with large runs shifting wildly up and down the fingerboard and crossing over the range of strings, she may have been on the brink of losing control like a race car driver taking a turn perhaps too quickly, but inevitably she prevailed and maintained her line. Her confidence did seem to vary slightly from passage to passage, especially notable in the early first movement, where it seemed less secure than during her cadenza, which allowed her the freedom of expression, as she may have been able to rely on her clearly expert preparation and her careful attention to her practiced and polished technique. She simply nailed the cadenza in the first movement with polish and grace. One could sense that this young woman controlled her nerves well, and she required no audible settling time. Even before appearing back on stage before the Tchaikovsky, when the lights were dimmed and her friends and family (and I) eagerly awaited her return to the stage, we could hear guffaws of laughter coming from backstage, which surely were signs of her ability to relax in an understandably high stakes moment.

I was thrilled to hear the piece performed live by this wonderfully talented violinist, and I would like to thank Tess for the opportunity. Her interpretation of the piece was also quite notable, I felt, and it reminded me of the interpretations I enjoy most in the recorded repertoire (the likes of Joshua Bell or Janine Jansen rather than Jascha Heifetz). She gave me a better sense of the technical demands of the piece, as I mentioned, and her execution was, overall, superb. I hope that she enjoys a long and fruitful orchestral career if she so chooses, and I strongly suspect that she would be an asset to any orchestra in which she plays.

In my second BSO concert of the season, I saw a program of Martinu, Stravinsky, Thomas, and Tchaikovsky, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. My expectations were minimal considering I was not familiar with any of the pieces, but with fantastic seats and a new season, I was trying to keep an open mind, especially for the contemporary composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers).

Unfortunately I soon failed in doing so for too long, as I found Thomas’s composition to be overly dissonant and fractured. Honestly, the simplicity of good songs or themes can be incredibly powerful when knit into a fuller, richer score. The piece held my attention for approximately 20 bars, through some interesting percussion, and I admit that I stopped listening actively for most of the first third to two thirds, in anticipation of the Tchaikovsky, for which I had great expectations after a mildly interesting Martinu and mediocre Stravinsky.

The Martinu Frescoes of Piero della Francesca were decidedly uninspired today, and honestly I cannot recall the piece well. On the other hand, I remember solo pianist Peter Serkin’s performance of Stravinsky’s Capriccio well enough to have been completely underwhelmed. The Capriccio is a piece full of vitality, and yet I did not think that either Serkin’s or the pared down orchestra’s performance was reflective of this necessary energy.

So the transition into the Tchaikovsky left me with but a little hope that the evening could be salvaged from the depths of mere adequacy for an otherwise typically stellar experience with the BSO. Because I did not know the piece, I was relying simply on the program notes that gave the backstory to Francesca da Rimini. From what I could glean, while trying to drown out and forget the Helios, the piece would be intense and confrontational.

These themes were clearly evident in this performance, as the orchestra came to life in dramatic fashion. Morlot was at his best this evening with the Tchaikovsky, and the BSO responded to his instruction with a stunning dynamic range that took me instantaneously yet gracefully from the whispers of pianissimo to the magnificence of triple forte. This is composition at its finest, telling the story while inspiring a fierce emotional reaction. It will not be often that my mood matches that of a jealous husband who goes on a murderous rage after discovering his wife’s secret affair with his brother, but I know now what soundtrack and performance might just be able to capture such a complex feeling in music. While I think on this evening with the Tchaikovsky firmly in mind, I suppose I’ll have to wait until another day to feign understanding of contemporary art in any form.


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