Friday, January 4, 2013

It's a New Year: Starting off with Wagner & Tchaikovsky

We’ve turned the calendar over to find 2013 has begun and with it, the Harrisburg Symphony’s first Masterworks Concert of the New Year is less than two weeks away.

The soloist is Chee-Yun – you’ve probably heard her recordings on WITF-FM in years past – who’ll be playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, one of the most popular of all concertos. The program opens with the grand and festive prelude Richard Wagner composed for his opera, Die Meistersinger (“The Mastersinger of Nuremberg”) and concludes with the Third Symphony of the best-known Danish composer, Carl Nielsen, his Sinfonia espansiva.

Stuart Malina conducts the concerts are Saturday, January 12th at 8pm and Sunday, January 13th at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. I’ll be doing the pre-concert talks an hour before both performances, so I hope you’ll come and join us.

Recorded when Stuart previewed the entire season at the Midtown Scholar in September, here’s the part about our up-coming concert.
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Richard Wagner: Prelude (or Overture) to Die Meisteringer (“The Mastersingers of Nurenberg”)

Whether it’s called “Prelude” or “Overture” is immaterial – the technical difference is that a prelude leads directly into the action that follows and an overture comes to a stop before the curtain goes up and then the opera begins. Since in the opera house, Wagner proceeds directly into the opening scene without a break, it would be a Prelude, but with a revision to final resolution before that transition begins, Wagner creates a “concert ending” that turns it into a complete piece with a satisfying conclusion. So I guess that makes it, now, an “Overture.” Whatever you call it, it’s the same music and it’s a great piece of music, at that.

It is, as Stuart says, Wagner’s only comic opera – comedy not being something we associate with Wagnerian operas with the stereotype of huge women in breastplates and horned helmets – and it is one of the longest operas in the repertoire, clocking in past six hours with intermission or about 4½ hours of solid music (which is a lot of playing for the orchestra: at least the singers aren’t on the stage singing the whole time). It is also the only opera Wagner composed that’s based on an original story and which doesn’t deal with mythological or supernatural elements – it’s about as “real-life” as many operas ever get: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy almost loses girl but wins her in the end (quite literally).

Here’s a performance with Klaus Tenstedt conducting the London Philharmonic on tour in Tokyo (hence the Japanese captions) of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
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Now, you don’t really need to know all the details of the plot to enjoy the prelude – or overture – except to know the opening theme represents the gathering of the Mastersingers Guild (with a march and then a fanfare which begins at 1:38), a lyrical theme represent the romance between Walter and Eva, a variant of his Prize Song (begins at 4:02), and then a humorous version of the Mastersinger’s March that will be heard when the apprentices make fun of their pompous masters (at 5:14) which Wagner slyly turns into that most academic of old pompous forms, a fugue (at 5:55). Various themes are then heard in various combinations: for instance, at 6:44 to about 7:24, you hear the long-line of the Prize Song theme in the middle strings, the Mastersinger’s Fanfare in the trumpets, their March in the tuba and lower strings, and meanwhile, chuckling along in the background with the violins, the apprentices’ fun version of the Mastersinger’s March. It is amazing how effortless Wagner makes this sound! This continues as the main themes then come back in a glorious conclusion that would make almost any other opera anticlimactic.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major

Chee-Yun, our soloist, has won numerous prizes and made several recordings on the Denon and Naxos labels (you can check out her discography, sample and purchase recordings through this link ). She has appeared with major orchestras around the world since winning an Avery Fischer Career Grant in 1990, from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Philharmonic to the Hong Kong Philharmonic and many more in between as well as performing in recitals ranging from Kennedy Center to Mostly Mozart.

Here’s a not very good video (I suspect it was recorded off a TV set) but it will give you an idea of her performance. She’s playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”) at a New Year’s Day concert on Korean television. I’m assuming it’s the Seoul Philharmonic, but this video, like many on YouTube, is uncredited and another video (listed the same way) is clearly a different concert. Neither conductor is acknowledged, but hey – the video is here so you can hear Chee-Yun’s playing.
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She’ll be playing a famous concerto that certainly needs no introduction to the audience, but did you know that, at its premiere, it was labeled as “music that stinks in the ear”?

These days, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto needs no introduction and the fact that anyone ever could have thought it “stinks in the ear” is amazing to us – one of the great bad reviews usually trotted out to point out the fallibility of critics and defend anyone so viciously attacked in the press (not that they write reviews like that anymore, anyway).

In fact, the author of that review, Eduard Hanslick, is sort of the common denominator in this concert: he hated Wagner and usually reserved his best worst comments for his operas (including Meistersinger) but he also had low regard for the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. As a friend of Brahms, Hanslick did more to spark the rivalry between the Conservative and Contemporary factions of the day than anything the composers themselves could do. And Tchaikovsky, though too western for his Russian colleagues known as the Mighty Handful or the Russian Five, was too wildly Russian for the sedate German-speaking conservatives of Vienna.

At the pre-concert talk, I’ll tell you more about this rivalry and the role Hanslick played in the Style Wars of the Late-19th Century between Wagner and Brahms and how this relates to Tchaikovsky (who disliked Brahms’ music as much as Brahms hated his – imagine being poor Mrs. Edvard Grieg sitting between them at a dinner party!)

Here’s a classic recording of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D with the legendary David Oistrakh and Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Moscow Philharmonic:
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Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto in 1878 originally for a friend of his, Josef (or, in Russian, Iosif) Kotek who was then a student of Josef Joachim, arguably the greatest violinist of his time. Meeting while Tchaikovsky was recuperating in Switzerland following his disastrous marriage, Tchaikovsky and Kotek played through Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole – Tchaikovsky was a fan of French music, especially Bizet’s Carmen – and that sparked ideas for him to write his own concerto for Kotek who, when it was finished, however, refused to play it. The implication was that it was beyond him (no doubt) but he thought it would be badly received and would probably ruin his budding career.

Consequently, Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Leopold Auer (even had the piano reduction printed with the dedication on it) but Auer, though gratified, thought the work unplayable “in its present form.” Whether Auer thought “unplayable” period is a matter of inference: later, whether trying to save face or not, Auer said he was misunderstood: he wanted to make changes in various passages he thought were uncharacteristically written for the violin and his version would make it sound more natural for the instrument. Tchaikovsky refused.

Ironically, Johannes Brahms had gone through a similar experience with the violin concerto he was writing for Joachim who, looking at certain passages, duly made suggestions which Brahms duly ignored. Joachim was enough of a violinist and a close enough friend of Brahms, however, that he went ahead and premiered Brahms’ new concerto on New Year’s Day, 1877, in Vienna.

Tchaikovsky, having finished his concerto the following year, had to find yet another violinist willing to take it on and finally located Adolph Brodsky who agreed to premiere the work in 1881 – in Vienna.

That was when Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’ friend, described how "the violin was not played but beaten black and blue" and how the finale took “us to a brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks in the ear.”


Today, of course, it's one of the most frequently performed and recorded concertos in the repertoire. While it's helped make Tchaikovsky a concert-hall favorite, it hasn't done anything (at least, in a positive sense) for Herr Hanslick.

You can read a separate post on the symphony that concludes the program, Carl Nielsen's Espansiva.

-- Dick Strawser

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