Friday, October 10, 2014

Symphony Preview: Tchaikovsky's big bang theory at Powell Hall, October 10-12

The "1812 Overture" in Melbourne in 2005
"The overture will be very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and so it will have no artistic merits at all." That was Tchaikovsky complaining to his patron Nadezhda von Meck about the piece that closes St. Louis Symphony's all-Tchaikovsky concerts this weekend, "The Year 1812, festival overture in E-flat major," Op. 49.

Many critics have agreed about the lack of artistic merit, but audiences continue to love it. Composed on commission for a concert commemorating completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, it's one of Tchaikovsky's most popular works—especially in outdoor "pops" concerts where the large orchestra can be supplemented with the brass band, bells, and cannons called for in the score. There won't be any artillery inside Powell Hall this weekend, but the orchestra has the next best thing: the "Mahler box," a massive (around 8' tall) unfinished wooden box struck with an equally massive wooden hammer.

It's called the "Mahler box" because it was constructed to deliver the "hammer blows" called for in the finale of Mahler's "Symphony No. 6." Mahler said the sound should be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)." Having heard the box in action when Semyon Bychkov conducted the Mahler 6th back in January of 2011, I can attest to the visceral impact of the sound. When the percussionist whacks that box with the hammer, you feel it right through your chest.

The rest of the program is a mix of the composer's "greatest hits" and some of his rarer gems. In the former category is the "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture," first performed in 1870 and then revised in 1877 and 1880. It manages the neat trick of compressing the essential emotional themes of Shakespeare's five-act tragedy into around 20 minutes of music. The "love theme" is, as Daniel Durchholz writes in his program notes "one of Tchaikovsky's best and most memorable melodies." With lyrics by Buddy Bernier and Bob Emmerich, it even became a hit song: "Our Love," recorded by the Larry Clinton band in 1939.

Tchaikovsky in 1906
Almost as popular is the opening piece this weekend, the "Polonaise" from the 1877 opera "Eugene Onegin." In the opera, the music accompanies a lavish ballroom sequence in Act 3 in which Onegin, seeing the woman he rejected some years earlier, suddenly realizes he has been a chump and resolves to win her, even though she has married another (yes, it's another opera about Men Behaving Badly). Listening to it as an orchestral excerpt, though, you can forget the melodramatic plot and simply enjoy the lively and engaging melodies.

The other big work on the program—one of those "rarer gems" referred to above—is another of Tchaikovsky's Shakespeare-inspired tone poems: "The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasia After Shakespeare," Op. 18. The critic Vladimir Stasov, to whom the Tchaikovsky dedicated the work, suggested the idea to the composer in 1873. Stasov also provided the following brief summary of the story line, which was printed in the score:
The Sea. Ariel, spirit of the air, obedient to the will of the magician Prospero, evokes a tempest. Wreck of the ship which carries Ferdinand. The Enchanted Isle. First timid stirring of love between Miranda and Ferdinand. Ariel. Caliban. The love-lorn couple abandon themselves to the triumphant sway of passion. Prospero lays aside his magical power and quits the isle. The Sea.
That's a lot to cram into 18 minutes of music, which may explain why (as Mr. Durchholz observes) the work "is not so tightly focused dramatically" as the later "Romeo and Juliet." Still, it's attractive stuff, especially the sea music, which (as composer and music writer Phillip Ramey observes in his notes for the 1985 Chicago Symphony recording) is "so vivid as to be nearly cinematic, depicting both a calm and stormy ocean."

Sandwiched between the "Eugene Onegin" polonaise and "Romeo and Juliet" are two lovely little pieces for soloist and orchestra.

The "Sérénade mélancolique," op. 26, for violin and orchestra opens and closes on (as you might guess from the title) a wistfully sad note, but there's something rather like joy in the more dramatic middle section, so the soloist gets to display a nice emotional range. Joo Kim, from the SLSO's First Violin section, will be in the spotlight for this.

The "Pezzo capriccioso," op. 62 for cello and orchestra is probably the least familiar work on the program. Dating from 1887, it is (the title not withstanding) a mostly rather dramatic piece, although the lively and virtuosic middle section certainly has its "capricious" elements. "I think the piece has turned out rather poorly," lamented the composer in a letter to cellist Anatoly Brandukov (who gave the work its first public performance in 1889). I beg to differ, and suggest that it will offer a fine opportunity for soloist James Czyzewski (who has been with the SLSO for a decade now) to show off.

The essentials: Cristian Macelaru conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and soloists Joo Kim, violin, and James Czyzewski, cello, in a program of the music of Tchaikovsky, featuring the "Romeo and Juliet—Fantasy Overture" and the "1812 Overture," Friday at 10:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 10-12. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, visit the symphony web site.

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