This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony and conductor Stuart Malina open the new season with a masterworks concert that includes a well-known favorite – the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with pianist Di Wu – an almost unknown but delightfully tuneful jazz-classical cross-over hit from the 1930s by Morton Gould – his “American Symphonette No. 2” with its once very well-known “Pavanne” which many listeners might recognize even if they don't know the piece – and a grand symphony by a late-Romantic French master – Ernest Chausson's only symphony, in fact – which few people in the audience may have had many opportunities to hear live.
The Saturday night concert begins at 8:00; the Sunday afternoon concert, at 3:00. There's a pre-concert talk, as usual, an hour before each performance with a post-concert Q/A “Talk Back” session with Stuart and a guest or two (perhaps the soloist or a member of the orchestra).
Here is Di Wu playing Franz Liszt's transcription of Gounod's "Waltz from Faust," one of her performances at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009.
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Several seasons ago, Stuart Malina mentioned, when faced with conducting a ubiquitous favorite like Beethoven's 5th again, a quote he'd heard from conductor Robert Shaw who said something to the effect that every time you perform a work like Beethoven's 5th there's always somebody who is hearing it for the first time – and somebody who is hearing it for the last time.
Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto is just such a work.
I'm sure there will be people in this weekend's concert audience who've never heard the whole piece before, live or otherwise – beyond its famous opening – and who knows who in the audience we may lose between then and the next time Tchaikovsky's concerto will be performed?
Our soloist for the first concert of the New Season is Di Wu who appeared here a few seasons ago to play another concert favorite, the Grieg Piano Concerto.
And since she was a finalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, founded by the great American pianist who won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the height of the Cold War and who was even treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York City when he returned – when was the last time a classical musician received a tribute like that? – it seems appropriate to include here a video of the complete concerto recorded from Cliburn's return to Moscow in 1962, again with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.
And yes, that is Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev smiling and applauding at the concert's conclusion. In 1958, when the judges had decided on Cliburn as the winner, they felt compelled to ask Krushchev if they could award the first prize of this competition – designed to demonstrate Soviet prowess in the arts the year after they'd launched Sputnik – to an American. Krushchev is reported to have asked “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!”
Incidentally, Cliburn performed two great Russian concertos during that competition. The other was Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, a work you can hear when the HSO concludes the 2015-2016 season with Ann Schein in May.
While it's difficult for me to imagine a better performance than Cliburn's, for those of you who might prefer a more “modern” recording of the Tchaikovsky, here is a 2001 Van Cliburn Competition winner born in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, Stanislav Iudenich, with James Conlon conducting the Fort Worth Symphony. This performance is from the actual competition final round, not just a live concert performance (talk about pressure). That year, Iudenich shared the Gold with another Russian pianist, Olga Kern who, incidentally, played the Rachmaninoff 3rd in her concerto competition final.
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But what makes a popular hit like the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto?
Since it's called the 1st, clearly there must be at least a 2nd, and there's also a 3rd, but since these are little known and rarely heard, it's also clear Tchaikovsky did not have the same luck with the public with these two later works.
Here are some early reviews of one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved works, beginning with the world premiere, Hans von Bülow, the soloist, which took place, of all places, in Boston in October 1875.
“This elaborate work is, in general, as difficult for popular apprehension as the name of the composer... There are long stretches of what seems, on the first hearing at least, formless void, sprinkled only with tinklings of the piano and snatchy obbligatos from all the various wind and string instruments.” – Boston, Evening Transcript, October 25th, 1875.
“Tchaikovsky is unmistakably a disciple of the 'new school' and his work is strongly tinged with the wildness and quaintness of the music of the North. Taken as a whole, his Piano Concerto appeared chiefly as a novelty. It would not soon supplant the massive production of Beethoven, or even the fiery compositions of Liszt, Raff, and Rubinstein.” – Boston Journal, October 25th, 1875.
“This extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian concerto is the composition of Peter Tchaikovsky... We had the wild Coassack fire and impetus without stint, extremely brilliant and exciting, but could we ever learn to love such music?” – Dwight's Journal of Music, published in November, 1875.
At it's first performance in Russia, a concert in St. Petersburg the following month, the critic of Novoye Vremya was more succinct. “Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.”
Tchaikovsky's said of that same Petersburg performance pianist Gustav Kross had reduced his concerto to “an atrocious cacophony.”
It should also be mentioned that, the Boston critics aside, the audience at that world premiere cheered the concerto enough that the finale had to be encored! George Whitefield Chadwick, a leading composer in Boston, wrote the performance was not well rehearsed and at one point, when the trombones came in early during a passage in the middle of the first movement, the soloist could clearly be heard singing out “the brass may go to hell.”
Anyway, just a few things to keep in mind when you hear a new piece for the first time...
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You can read more about the other works on the program in a subsequent post on this blog.
Over the summer, I was asked to read and review a new book by English author Sheila Seymour, a novel about Tchaikovsky called Sons of Janus. You can read that review, here.
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|Tchaikovsky, Early 1875|
Tchaikovsky, who had always wanted to be a musician though when he was growing up there were no music schools in Russia where he could study, had finally graduated from the recently formed St. Petersburg Conservatory founded by pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein who then sent his younger brother Nikolai (also a pianist and composer) off to Moscow to open a branch there along with Tchaikovsky who would teach theory and composition, though he was just out of school himself, totally inexperienced and not yet successful.
So far, he had composed a small number of works but the only ones that endure are the song “None but the Lonely Heart” (rarely heard today, but once another ubiquitous favorite); his 2nd Symphony (later to be eclipsed by the popularity – and comparative greatness – of his 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies); the original version of his Romeo & Juliet though we know it by the 3rd version rewritten 11 years later; and the 1st String Quartet but only because its slow movement became popular as the Andante cantabile.
If you look at the published opus numbers, it would look like the ballet Swan Lake pre-dates the concerto, also, but he didn't begin composing it until after he had completed the concerto. Arguably one of the great ballets in the repertoire, it, too, by the way, was a complete failure at its premiere.
And then all hell broke loose.
“It turned out,” Tchaikovsky wrote years later to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck, “that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. 'Here, for instance, this—now what's all that?' (he caricatured my music on the piano) 'And this? How can anyone…' etc., etc.”
He continued, “I was not only astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition, and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are delivered so harshly and unfriendlily [sic]. I need and shall always need friendly criticism, but there was nothing resembling friendly criticism. It was indiscriminate, determined censure, delivered in such a way as to wound me to the quick. I left the room without a word and went upstairs. In my agitation and rage I could not say a thing. Presently R[ubinstein] enjoined me, and seeing how upset I was he asked me into one of the distant rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. 'I shall not alter a single note,' I answered, 'I shall publish the work exactly as it is!' This I did.”
Hoping that Nikolai Rubinstein would premiere the work, instead (somehow) he convinced the German conductor and pianist, Hans von Bülow, a friend and champion of Brahms (who at the time had not completed his 1st Symphony), to take on the first performances even though he quickly dropped it from his repertoire.
But by the Moscow performance in November of that same year, Nikolai Rubinstein had changed his mind about the piece and, even though Tchaikovsky's own student Sergei Taneyev was the soloist, Rubinstein conducted the performance. Later, he would perform the work frequently as soloist, especially on his European tours.
Regardless of the composer's reaction to Rubinstein's suggestions – most of which were about the piano-writing or technical issues of “balance” between soloist and orchestra, as well as concern about the famous Introduction being in “the wrong key” and, beautiful as that theme is, never being heard from again – Tchaikovsky did make slight revisions on three subsequent occasions: in 1876, after a German pianist had given the London premiere; when the work was finally published in 1879, following advice from the Russian pianist Alexander Siloti, one of his own students (who later taught Rachmaninoff); and finally a few more simplifications and adjustments made in 1890, fifteen years after the premiere, the edition we usually hear today.
In the five years after showing his piano concerto to Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky then composed Swan Lake, the opera Eugene Onyegin, the “Rococo Variations” for cello and orchestra, the Violin Concerto, the 4th Symphony and The 1812 Overture.
You could say he was on a roll.
- Dick Strawser