With the premiere of a nebulous, esoteric piece and a dark, densely sobering Brahms concerto behind him, Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith picked up the microphone to address the audience before the second half of the Quad City Symphony's November 1 concert at the Adler.
The audience was likely looking for some emotional relief, but Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony loomed, with its morose "Finale" - creating the potential for a depressing albeit well-performed concert.
Smith set an optimistic tone. He called the Pathetique "Tchaikovsky's greatest symphony" - pointing out the "life lived" through this music and focusing attention on its innovations.
His words were the right message at the right time. In framing the concert's centerpiece, Smith helped pull the audience through the performance, allowing it to appreciate the trio of challenging pieces without getting sucked under by bleakness.
Commissioned by the Quad City Symphony as part of its centennial celebration, James Romig's Bridges - a slow, meditative span of sound in time - was an atypical starter that prompted one concertgoer to say: "What kind of opening piece was that?"
No, it was not your routine lively, highly rhythmic and melodic work to start a concert. Bridges began quietly with a seemingly unchanging chord in the strings, a cloud of lingering sound. As one new note was gradually added, another was taken away. Similar to the changing colors of a slowly revolving kaleidoscope, the "colors" or timbres in the music melted into each other over its six-minute duration.
Within these simple, slow changing sounds, a "breathing" effect was also present, steadily crescendoing and diminuendoing.
In this Zen-like musical state, the suspension of familiar musical characteristics such as melody and accompaniment challenged listeners to fill the void with something from their own imagination.
One attraction of new music is the element of surprise, and as much as I value Maestro Smith's introductory insights from the podium, I wish he would have said nothing and just played this unusual piece. A key part of Romig's Bridges is its unconventionality - the instant departure from the expected - and to some extent that was diminished by Smith's comments. I thought the piece was musically appealing and thought-provoking in its ambiance, and it could have stood on its own - stretching listeners' ears and broadening their idea of the potential of music with only its most basic elements.
Following Romig's meditative, technically uncomplicated piece, Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe more than survived the dense, neo-classic construction of Johannes Brahms' perilously difficult Violin Concerto.
Keefe brought two essential elements to her performance: the chops to cover the blizzard of black notes blanketing the solo part, and also the artistic facility to manage them without losing the melodic line around which they were written. The former depended on the technical strength of the soloist, but the latter relied on her ability to differentiate, through dynamic or rhythmic nuance, which notes formed the tune and which ones made up the ornamentation.
In the solo part of the third movement, the swirling 32nd notes, the double and triple stops, the arpeggiations, and the disjunctive melodic fragments from the top of the instrument to the bottom were a tour de force for Keefe. She ripped through the arpeggios and threw out the high notes with dazzling passion and flair. Her performance was serious musical muscle flexing with humorlessly difficult music.
In the second movement, where the melodic notes were infrequent within dense ornamentation, Smith's hand warnings and the orchestra's clearly conscious effort didn't always resolve the competition for the same lower timbre range - making it difficult for Keefe's part to cut through. And Smith's tempo seemed rigid, forcing Keefe to cram the notes into each bar instead of letting the intricate gestures breathe.
Despite these problems, there were many magical moments of musical communication between the soloist and accompanists when the scoring was light. The give and take of the second theme in the first movement, the exchange of melodic fragments between Keefe and the horns in the second, and the expanding orchestration that builds from the solo violin and slowly adds the orchestra - all gathering volume, tempo, and momentum to the end - showcased impressive ensemble playing.
While Smith's reassuring Tchaikovsky-symphony comments helped the audience, the orchestra's performance sealed the deal with moments of sizzling intensity and inspiration with only a stumble here and there.
As the Pathetique began, the soft, dark lower strings and solo bassoon created an atmosphere gripped by mystery and musical suspense. The iconic second theme was well-shaped; the energy pushed through the inverted melodic arch and relaxed on the ends of each phrase. The hair-raising "Allegro vivo" episode was musically frightening with sudden explosions of sound in the brass and driving rhythms in the basses. Brass chorales, repeated by woodwinds, were balanced, in-tune, and phrased evenly near the end of the movement.
The beginnings of the second and third movements were erratic before settling into a comfortable tempo. And in the third, constructed of repeating triplets, the orchestra lost its rhythmic cohesion when the triplets were split into fragments between instruments.
Still, the handing off of scale figures within the brass and string sections was smooth near the end of the second movement, and the two long, dynamically building sections with the "march theme" and triplets figures joined together in the third were powerful in both their momentum and measured increasing volume.
But the Pathetique lives and dies with the performance of its final movement - a closing section that was uncharacteristic for Tchaikovsky. In his Fourth and Fifth symphonies, the finales were dashing races to the end, triumphant declarations, or a combination of both, but not in the Sixth. The last movement of the Pathetique is a slow, lamenting musical cry of resignation, depression, and futility. The fading musical heartbeat in the pizzicato basses that ends the work is surprising in its bold realization that all symphonies don't require a lively, emphatic ending - and it's shocking as an omen of Tchaikovsky's own death nine days after the work's premiere.
Musicologists have argued over the Sixth's "Finale" as a musical suicide note, but all theories were rendered superficial against the gloriously painful and beautiful sadness that the orchestra infused into its performance. Combining intense bow pressure with speed, vibrato, and artistic nuance, the color of the string-section sound was riveting in the repeating melodic sequences, each more forceful than the last. The orchestra touched greatness in its performance of this movement. The experience was transcendent.
For more information on the Quad City Symphony, visit QCSymphony.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.