The name says it all: Allentown Symphony concerts have all-Tchaikovsky program
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a name that most of us know because of his popular ballet, “The Nutcracker,” and his overture, the “1812 Overture,” with the famous part for bombastic canons. Both of these pieces are performed regularly at thousands of concerts all over the world.
Tchaikovsky was a leading composer in Russia, living between 1840-1893, but he led a complicated, emotional life with bouts of depression, a disastrous marriage to one of his students, and a long-time relationship by letters with his patron Madame Nadezhda von Meck, even though they never met in person.
He was also surrounded by rumors of being a homosexual at a time when this was simply not accepted. There is a theory that a forced suicide, because of his homosexuality, might have been the cause of his death in 1893 at the age of 53, in contrast to speculation that he died from drinking a glass of cholera-contaminated water.
He died about one week after the premiere of his “Symphony No. 6 in B minor,” Op. 74, subtitled the “Pathétique Symphony,” from a Russian word, “Pateticheskaya,” meaning emotional, or passionate. The “6th Symphony” is one of his most profoundly moving and tragic pieces of music.
The premiere of the “6th Symphony” was not successful. It was not a disaster, either. But rather it was a piece that people just didn’t discuss or talk about after the performance. This would be a depressing situation for any composer who had poured his or her heart and soul into a musical composition.
The audience reaction to the “6th Symphony” was most likely because of its ending.
Most symphonies end on a high note. With the “6th Symphony,” Tchaikovsky broke all the rules and made the third movement the high point of the work, with a lively march, while the last movement opens us up to the depth of his despair, foreshadowing his untimely death.
The symphony’s fourth movement descending notes ache with heaviness, sighs and bittersweet memories, accompanied in the final minutes by a pulsating funeral march rhythm from the timpani and low strings that fades into nothingness.
The audience, accustomed to big, flamboyant, happy endings, simply did not know what to do with the “6th Symphony.” My guess is that they applauded after the third movement march, which concludes on such a triumphant note, and they probably were contemplative, reflective, or even confused, when the piece finished soon after, with a relatively short last movement that certainly did not end on a happy note.
“Symphony No. 6” was performed a second time a few weeks later, after Tchaikovsky’s death, at a memorial concert for him. Through the great sorrow that surrounded his unexpected death, the piece became his musical farewell letter. In this work, we hear his celebration of life, triumphant at times and sometimes whimsical. But we also hear his frustration with life and his depression and despair. The “6th Symphony” has been considered a masterpiece of the repertoire.
For the Allentown Symphony Orchestra concerts, 7 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2 p.m. Nov. 10, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, we will perform Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6” in the second half of the concert. But I could not end the concert on such a deeply distressed mood. We will follow “Symphony No. 6” with the finale section of the Tchaikovsky’s famous “1812 Overture,” a piece that definitely ends happily. And yes, there will be some “cannon-like” sounds at the concert.
Performing a concert of “All-Tchaikovsky” music allows us to explore, compare and contrast his compositional style over a period of time. The music on the program for the concerts spans 1874 to 1893, from when he was 34 years old, to his death at the age of 53.
Two of the pieces on the program, the “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B♭ minor,” Op. 23, and selections from the “Swan Lake” ballet, were written within one year of each other at the beginning of this time period. The “Piano Concerto” was first written between 1874 and 1875, and “Swan Lake” was completed in 1875-1876.
The piece that begins our concert, the “Trepak” better known as the “Russian Dance,” is from “The Nutcracker,” written toward the end of Tchaikovsky’s life in 1892, one year before “Symphony No. 6.”
Tchaikovsky was very famous for his ballet music. His three ballets, “The Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake,” have become standards of the repertoire.
When you play ballet music, it is always so much nicer to actually have ballet dancers. Joining us on stage for the concert will be dancers from the Repertory Dance Theatre. They will dance to selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” the Scene and the Waltz. You might also, recognize this music from its prominent use in the film, “Black Swan” (2010).
Performing Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” with the Allentown Symphony is rising star pianist Drew Petersen.
Petersen is an Avery Fischer Career Grant Award winner (2018). He also won the American Pianists Award in 2017, which is a cash award and two-years of career advancement, including serving as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Indianapolis, all valued more than $100,000.
In the United States, many of us associate Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” with the historic performance by the 23-year-old American pianist Van Cliburn, who became the first American to win a gold medal in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.
The opening chords of this famous piano concerto speak to a much happier time in the life of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, when he wrote with confidence and power, but also crafted such memorable melodies.
Through his ballet music, his “Piano Concerto No. 1” and the bombastic “1812 Overture,” to his final composition, “Symphony No. 6,” Tchaikovsky made his mark on the world and musically-influenced people of all ages and backgrounds for the past 150 years.
The upcoming concerts of the Allentown Symphony will give you a wonderful overview of Tchaikovsky’s music, his compositional style, and his passion for sharing his amazing depth of emotion with his audience.
It will be quite a journey and I hope you will be there to experience it with us.
See you at the Symphony!
“Meet the Artist,” noon Nov. 8, discussion and question and answers with Allentown Symphony Orchestra Music Director-Conductor Diane Wittry and pianist Drew Petersen; Jennifer Haltzman Tracy, Repertory Dance Theatre; Trinette Singleton, Repertory Dance Theatre, and Alexandra Kovatch, Conducting Fellow. Bring lunch to enjoy during the talk. The talk is free and open to the public.
Diane Wittry is Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Music Director and Conductor of The Garden State Philharmonic, New Jersey, and author of “Beyond the Baton” and “Baton Basics.” She teaches conducting workshops throughout the United States and Europe.
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715. Free student tickets for those up to age 21, underwritten by a grant from the Century Fund, are available for Allentown Symphony Orchestra concerts.