Saturday’s concert began innocuously enough with the tried-and-true overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. A concert favorite, the QCSO captured the spirit of the work.
Next, the orchestra performed the North American debut of Carl Vine’s Percussion Symphony. Somewhat mislabeled, the piece is actually a concerto for percussion and orchestra. Unlike typical concertos, the orchestra played a complementary role instead of competing with the quartet of soloists, who perfprmed on a variety of instruments.
Pulsing forward, the piece and the orchestra captured the primitive nature of percussion instruments. With hypnotic sustained rhythms, the quartet kept the audience on the edge of their seats for most of the evening. A cross between John Adams-style minimalism and a movie score, the work might not appeal to some listeners, but the layering of the instrument sounds was mesmerizing, and the audience generally responded enthusiastically.
But it was the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony (see sidebar) that captured the hearts of the audience, challenging it. Overall it was a clean performance, even though the first sounding of the “fate” theme was a bit uneven. Schleicher and the orchestra worked hard to ensure a near errorless performance.
Surely, there is a place for Tchaikovsky that tempers the high drama, contains the emotion, and controls the orchestra’s players. And a more refined European or American approach to Tchaikovsky (which the QCSO took) opens the door of the music to listeners who might have an initial bias against the composer. But in taking that tack the orchestra missed an opportunity to seize the music and make something special out of it.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Explores Tortured Soul
Tchaikovsky was gay, and this irrefutable fact is a truth in his music that is ever-present and important.
The composer’s final three symphonies illustrate a journey of self-discovery. To me the Fourth Symphony is an honest acknowledgment of his sexuality and his personal struggle with this self-revelation. The result is a symphony of divergent emotions and fluctuations. (The Fifth Symphony is the most artificial of the three closing symphonies, while the Sixth reverts back to the angst and high emotion of the Fourth.)
The Fourth Symphony is the outpouring of a man immersed in a psychological crisis. At the same time he is struggling to comprehend his homosexuality, he is marrying a young female pupil. During the period he composed the Fourth, Tchaikovsky attempted suicide because of his despair, while finding professional and financial success through the completion of his opera Eugene Onegin. Adding to the mess of contrasting extremes is Tchaikovsky’s own belief that his life was beholden to fate.
The ominous power of fate underpins the Fourth, and the theme is established with the horns trumpeting the first few notes of the work. Connecting it to his own feelings, Tchaikovsky described fate as “the power which hinders our striving after happiness.” The first movement plunges the listener into an emotional quagmire, with the fate theme oppressively holding the orchestra in check, battling with it for emotional supremacy.
Yet the second movement, an andantino, takes a different approach. Of the final three symphonies, this movement is among the best, and listening to it is wrenching. The strings draw the listener in, bringing the individual soul to the surface. The melancholy of the second movement is brushed aside with a cheery scherzo. However, the scherzo’s brief romp is overwhelmed with a blazing allegro con fuco. The finale is swirling and reintroduces the fate elements of the first movement, letting everyone know that despite the happiness and the joy around you, fate is still there like a sword of Damocles.
Suggested Recordings: Leningrad Philharmonic, Evengy Mravinsky, DG 419 745-2; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert Von Karajan, DG 453 088-2