XIAN ZHANG DEBUTS AS MUSIC DIRECTOR
XIAN ZHANG conductor
SIMON TRPČESKI piano
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Don’t miss this! Xian Zhang arrives with a bouquet of Tchaikovsky scores, sure to showcase her “dynamic presence” (The Cincinnati Enquirer) and the Orchestra’s artistry.
TCHAIKOVSKY Polonaise from Eugene Onegin
Darker currents lie beneath the surface of this charming dance.
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1
Russian and Ukrainian folk songs lend a dash of Slavic soul to this hugely popular concerto. Majestic, with flashes of triumphant energy.
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5
Regally tempestuous. Tchaikovsky considered it a failure, but history has judged it a masterpiece.
Make Your Own Music—Thu, Oct 27 before the concert
Arrive early and sing along to the melodies of Cole Porter, prior to a program of Tchaikovsky, who also knew a thing or two about great tunes. Free for ticketholders.
Russian Poetry Reading—Sat, Oct 29, and Sun, Oct 30, after the concert
Savor an evening of Tchaikovsky’s music plus a rare opportunity to hear poems of his favorite poet, Alexander Pushkin, and more, both in the original Russian and English translation. Victoria Juharyan was a sensation at readings in 2015; she reprises her role here. Free for ticketholders. More info.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2016
TCHAIKOVSKY: Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Viatka District, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia
Composed: between May 1877 and February 1878; full score completed in 1880.
World Premiere: A student performance took place in March 1879. The opera premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow on January 23, 1881.
NJSO Premiere: 1979–80 season; Thomas Michalak conducted.
Duration: 4 minutes
If one only knows two excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera, Eugene Onegin (1879), they are the unforgettable Waltz at the beginning of Act II and the Polonaise that opens Act III. Waltzes and polonaises are both eastern European dances that enjoyed considerable popularity in 19th-century Russia. After the success of Tchaikovsky’s opera, these two examples from Eugene Onegin became favorites in the concert hall as well as on the stage.
Polonaises are generally stately, with a pronounced and repeated rhythm in steady triple time. Tchaikovsky’s, however, has enormous flair, with large orchestral gestures and the kind of catchy tune that one hums for weeks after a concert. In Tchaikovsky’s opera, the Polonaise takes place during an elegant ball in the home of a wealthy Russian noble. We hear an exuberant fanfare summoning the guests to the dance. The brasses continue to punctuate Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise with crisp dotted rhythms; woodwinds and cellos offer contrast in the gentler middle section.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
Composed: November 1874 to February 1875
World Premiere: October 25, 1875, in Boston; Hans von Bülow was the soloist.
NJSO Premiere: 1931–32 season. Rudolph Ganz was the soloist; Rene Pollian conducted.
Duration: 32 minutes
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is a perennial audience favorite: one of those unforgettable works—like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—whose opening gambit is immediately recognizable even to the non-music lover. Musical scholar Joseph Kerman, in a wonderful book called Concerto Conversations, calls it “the best known of all concerto incipits,” and describes it thus:
The piano chords that crash in after four bars may or may not constitute what is usually thought of as a texture, but they certainly introduce a marvelous sonority. One gets to the point where those invincible ringing chords block out, if they do not drown out, the great tune in the strings. In a stroke, Tchaikovsky has given the piano an edge it will never lose throughout the whole of this relatively contentious composition.
That very argumentative quality is at the heart of what a concerto is about: the fundamental conflict between a lone instrument and the large orchestral ensemble. Ironically, those majestic keyboard chords that Kerman mentions are actually in D flat, the relative major, although the concerto is nominally in B-flat minor. In fact, the odd opening in minor mode never recurs.
Tchaikovsky was at the most basic level a man of the theater and of theatrical instincts. He understood how to maximize the inherent drama of piano plus orchestra. He was not, however, a top-tier pianist, and that gap in his musical expertise led to a lack of self-confidence when composing for keyboard. His letters to his family and his patroness, Nadejhda von Meck, reflect his hesitation about writing a virtuoso work for keyboard. Late in 1874, he consulted the Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein about his new concerto for piano and orchestra. Rubinstein’s initial reaction was scathing. His harsh criticism included accusing Tchaikovsky of writing unplayable music and stealing others’ ideas.
Tchaikovsky was both incensed and deeply wounded. Three years after the fact, he was still smarting, writing to von Meck: “An independent witness of this scene must have concluded that I was a talentless maniac, a scribbler with no notion of composing, who had ventured to lay his rubbish before a famous man. … I was not only astounded, but deeply mortified, by the whole scene.”
His immediate reaction was to erase Rubinstein’s name from the dedication and substitute that of the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Bülow played the premiere of the B-flat minor concerto in October 1875 while on tour in the United States. In this country, the reaction was quite the reverse of Rubinstein’s summary judgment. Bülow reported that he was often cheered on to repeat the entire last movement. Shortly after his return to Europe, Tchaikovsky’s concerto was introduced to Russian audiences. Rubinstein recanted his initial judgment and went on to become one of its most celebrated interpreters.
The concerto’s rough birthing process is an unlikely prologue to one of the greatest success stories in the history of music. This piece has captured and retained the popular imagination as have few others. Perhaps it defies our mental image of Russia as a dark, gray, grim place with little sunlight in winter. Yet when one visits Moscow and sees the brilliant colors and glint of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, it changes one’s perception.
Russian music and art, as well as architecture, share those vibrant hues. This concerto invites a broad palette of color from the performer. From the commanding chords that mark the soloist’s entrance to the ferocious Cossack dance that closes the work, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto seduces our ears with warmth, powerful emotions, lyricism and a wealth of persuasive melodies. The familiar themes that anchor the outer movements have origins in Ukrainian folksong, making the concerto a legitimate contender as a nationalist work. The lovely slow movement, on the other hand, draws on French song material and includes a scherzo-like middle section in elfin contrast and sharp relief to the flamboyant gestures of the opening movement.
While the first movement may be disproportionately long in comparison to the two that follow, the concerto as a whole is hugely successful. Tchaikovsky combines drama and sentiment with dazzling technique to produce a showpiece that is a classic of its kind.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings and solo piano.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Composed: May–August 1888
World Premiere: November 17, 1888, in St. Petersburg; the composer conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 1937–38 season; Rene Pollian conducted.
Duration: 50 minutes
If Beethoven and Brahms were intellectual symphonists, Tchaikovsky favored the emotional side of the genre. As is the case with most generalizations, there are plenty of gray areas once one begins to elaborate such statements. Tchaikovsky certainly understood the principles of musical form and development that he had learned during his conservatory training. In fact, he favored those ideals more than most of his Russian contemporaries. Many of them were caught up in a more specifically Russian nationalism, seeking to separate themselves from Western musical models and embrace folk music and Russian Orthodox Church melodies into their art music. Even though Tchaikovsky was more classically oriented, he was still an intensely emotional man who regarded music ultimately as a lyrical medium. More to the point, he believed that the symphony was the most lyrical vessel in which to express musical ideas. For him, the symphony was a prism through which the innermost reaches of the human soul could be refracted.
The inherent conflict between these two approaches to the symphony—left brain/right brain, if you will—is at the heart of both the success and the flaws in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. There have always been critics of the formal shortcomings in his music, particularly his grasp of first-movement sonata form. Yet this work has earned its enormous popularity because of an emotional immediacy in the music that reaches the listener on a very personal level.
Is there any symphony more immediately moving and ingratiating than Tchaikovsky’s Fifth? From its opening measures, where the clarinet declaims a lugubrious Russian march tune, this symphony grips and retains our emotional involvement. Nowhere is Tchaikovsky less subtle, and nowhere is he more effective. The lovely horn melody that dominates the famous slow movement is one of the triumphs of the symphonic literature: memorable and eminently singable, it lingers in the mind’s ear for weeks after a hearing of this symphony.
And the waltz—a bow to Berlioz’s similar ploy in the Symphonie fantastique, also replacing the scherzo—is graceful and alluring, ever a reminder that Tchaikovsky was the greatest ballet composer of the 19th century. His reliance on dance rhythms in this symphony, particularly waltzes and marches, contributes to its cyclic unity and emphasizes his innate gift as a composer for the ballet stage.
Tchaikovsky began work on his Fifth Symphony shortly after moving into his new country house at Frolovskoye, near Klin. He moved there in April 1888 and, at first, was entranced by gardening and the natural beauty of his surroundings. By midsummer, however, the urge to compose had returned. He commenced work on the E-minor symphony, his first in more than a decade, and was orchestrating by August. The premiere performances took place that autumn in St. Petersburg. Their failure depressed Tchaikovsky, whose opinion of his own new compositions tended to vacillate wildly with public and critical opinion. He was much encouraged by Johannes Brahms’ kind words the following spring in Hamburg, when the new symphony was first heard in Germany on tour. In a letter to his brother Modest from Hamburg in March 1889, he wrote: “Brahms stayed an extra day to hear my symphony and was very kind. We had lunch together after the rehearsal and quite a few drinks. He is very sympathetic and I like his honesty and open-mindedness. Neither he nor the players liked the Finale, which I also think rather horrible.”
But two weeks later, from Hanover, this harsh self-criticism had passed, and he was able to write: “The Fifth Symphony was beautifully played and I have started to love it again—I was beginning to develop an exaggerated negative opinion about it.”
Like its predecessor, the stormy Fourth Symphony, the Fifth focuses on mankind’s futile struggle with destiny. This is, however, a more spiritual work than the F minor symphony; specifically it deals with man’s spiritual helplessness and inadequacy. These thoughts are most evident in the finale, which opens with great solemnity. But the entire symphony is filled with operatic crescendos and dramatic, sudden shifts in tempo, all of which bespeak a soul in torment, searching for its own catharsis.
Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo); oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs; four horns; two trumpets; three trombones; tuba; timpani and strings.