Fighting Fate Through Music: The Quad City Symphony, April 13 at the Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Monday, 22 April 2013 12:25

Pyotr Tchaikovsky said his Fourth Symphony was about fate, and even used a “fate motif” – a recurring musical representation of a central programmatic idea – as an autobiographical statement. The topic was deeply personal, as he considered homosexuality his destiny.

In correspondence with his patroness, Tchaikovsky wrote in code about his struggle with his “condition,” calling it his “fate, the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness.”

This intensity of internal conflict represented in the music elevated his fourth symphony from his first three and created a model for his next two. Tchaikovsky’s torment and his longing to find happiness were resonantly brought to life in a searing, tender, and ultimately triumphant performance by the Quad City Symphony Orchestra and Musical Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith on April 13 at the Adler Theatre.

In a program that also presented Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and the return of soloist Tom Sauer to perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Tchaikovsky’s dramatic personal story dominated the concert.

The towering opening movement of the symphony – marked “moderato con anima” (moderately with spirit) – was easily the most technically complicated music of the evening. With its pulsating counter-rhythms, sorrowful melodies, insistent “fate” motif, and dramatic orchestration, Smith chose a slightly restrained tempo that cranked up the tautness of the music, clarifying the complex inner rhythmic structure and pervasive use of melodic fragments. It also made the contrast between the sweeping, elegantly shaped main theme and the scorching “fate” motif more dramatically distinct. The orchestra showed attentive discipline in holding the performance together at the slower pace, and the result produced darker, richer colors of sound that deepened the gravitas of the musical statements.

This music is emotionally intense and dynamically extreme with delirious repetitions of melodies and raw power in climatic moments. Thankfully, Smith and the orchestra reached that level of intensity in the paramount moment near the end of the movement and made Tchaikovsky’s musical spirit arresting. With the change to a quicker tempo in the coda, the orchestra finished off the tragic concluding chords like blows from a sledgehammer and slammed into the last fermata with harsh brutality – a wonderful moment.

The “Andantino” second movement displayed the composer’s ability to construct artful and satisfying melodies, but it also spotlighted the skill of the principal winds to play them with captivating nuances. The solo oboe made a story out of the 20-bar melody, toying and dancing with the leaps and hesitating on the landings to hold the listeners’ attention and draw them into the performance. With variations, the tune in the viola and bassoon was accompanied by spiccato exchanges between the first and second violins with pizzicatos in the cello and bass, an effective mixture of simple yet delightful orchestra colors.

But in slow movements such as this, it can be tricky to maintain a musical flow while pushing and relaxing tempos – musical breathing between phrases. And Smith slowed the transitional sections earlier than marked in the score, and instead of moving smoothly, with only a slight calming of tempo from one section into another, it nearly brought the decreasing musical pulse to a stop, segmenting the phrases.

The lively third “Pizzicato Movement” was a fresh change of orchestration and showcased sparkling interplay between the strings and upper woodwinds, but it was performed too fast to allow solo winds to articulate their intermittent musical flourishes and clearly and fully shape the melodic elements of the pizzicatos.

With an explosion of sound, Smith unleashed the orchestra on the dazzling iconic finale in joyful F Major – Tchaikovsky’s hopeful and determined musical solution to his depressing “fate” motif. Based on the Russian folk song “In the Field a Birch Tree Stood,” the bubbly new tune was presented concisely at first and then developed into bewildering musical tornadoes of connecting scales. As they repeated up and down the instrumental families of the orchestra, they culminated in the symphony’s final, apocalyptic return to the intrusive “fate” brass fanfare. After a dramatic pause, the orchestra rejuvenated the folk tune, increasing the tempo and creating a blistering race to a glorious, positive close – a storybook ending possible in this musical metaphor but not in the composer’s life.

To open the concert, the slow and solemn introduction of Russian Orthodox chant in the Russian Easter Overture was played without vibrato, producing a hollow, vocal-like sound in the woodwinds representing the solemnity of the chanting priests in the religious service. The arpeggiated figures in the solo violin, flute, and cello were consistent with each entrance. A smooth, extended trombone solo recapped the chant theme, but the diminished seventh chords in the trombones and tuba were out-of-tune and needed more first-trombone volume to balance the broader lower voices. The lively pagan-festival section was an exciting change from the earlier, haunting chant and brought the music to a stirring finish.

Following the Overture, piano soloist Sauer – originally from the Quad Cities and now living and working in New York City – joined the orchestra in a lyrical but uneven and, at times, inaccurate performance of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto.

There was substantial strength in many technical aspects of Sauer’s playing, especially in the complete keyboard arpeggios and contrary motion between chromatically descending notes in the left hand and thematic ascending sequences in the right in the first movement. His tone was huge in the Adler, and, despite missed notes, he held his own in vigorous conversations with the orchestra. In the slow “Adagio,” he created distinctly different musical characterizations between the musical nuances of accompanying triplet figures while simultaneously producing an overriding melodic arch in duplets.

The Emperor is full of free-flowing cross-rhythms that, when varied by slight tempo changes called “rubato,” make personal expression richer in a solo-recital venue. But with the orchestra, this technique by Sauer produced inner rhythmic ambiguity.

Smith’s interpretation of Beethoven’s tutti sections was decisive and sensitive. In the introduction to the second movement, the breathy sound of the strings added warmth and intimacy to Sauer’s artfully constructed melodic playing. The conductor’s emphasis of key notes in the “Rondo” propelled the melody, giving it drive and providing supportive energy for the piano.

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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