DPO Toasts to Three of Russia’s Most Talented Sons
By Joe Aiello
Say Russia, and many immediately think Soviet Union, Communism, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Others think Russian Orthodox Church, Chekov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. On Thursday, April 12 and Saturday, April 14 at 8p.m. in the Schuster Center, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will present Sons of Russia, the seventh concert in this season’s Miami Valley and Good Samaritan Hospitals Classical Series.
And possibly change your way of thinking about classical music.
Many of us can remember when the Soviets were always taking credit for being the first to develop or invent something. None of us took them seriously. We knew the truth. However, while Russians didn’t invent classical music, many — including me — believe they might just have perfected it. Why? Because Russian composers were really in touch with their emotions and possessed the uncanny ability to reach out and touch ours with their music.
DPO Music Director Neal Gittleman opens the concert with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, a work written to celebrate what Russians referred to as “The Bright Holiday.” The piece is joyous and exciting with blasts from trumpets and bell-and-gong-like percussion instruments (tamtam and glockenspiel) imbuing it with merriment.
DPO Concertmaster Jessica Hung brings her considerable talents to bear in the virtuoso performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Talk about emotional. It runs the gamut from nostalgic, non-affected, aloof and pastoral to unrestrained and bizarre.
But it’s Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the Pathetique, that is the concert’s crowning glory, a piece Tchaikovsky insisted was the best work of his entire compositional career.
The first movement Adagio, allegro non troppo (slow, then cheerful and lively, but not too much) opens with a dark, soulful, mournful passage with woodwinds and strings presenting a slowly building line soon joined by other sections of the orchestra in an eight-note call-and-answer before receding to a softer, melodic passage. In the 20th century, Glenn Miller popularized the melody of this passage in the song The Story of a Starry Night.
The mood lightens with another call-and-answer motif, this time primarily by the woodwinds, leading the orchestra’s reprise of the melody. I have always found it hard to suppress the urge to hum along with it while listening to this passage, it being both familiar and wistful, and invoking many pleasant memories.
Suddenly the mood undergoes a severe change, led by a lone clarinet trailing off into nothingness, until … a strong, massive chord and strings present what’s always reminded me of a small, musical whirlwind. The brass usher in a theme that builds, then trails off seemingly into thin air reprising more loudly and seemingly more animated.
It’s definitely a statement of sturm und drang intermittently running into bliss. Think of it as a musical voyage through a hurricane’s wrathful winds, then into the peace and serenity of its eye, back into the wind, and so forth, until finally and gently ending once more in the storm’s calm center.
The second movement is marked Allegro con grazia (cheerful and lively, with grace). A 5/4 (rather than 3/4) time waltz pervades the entire second movement with strings and woodwinds creating an air that is light and inviting, invoking pleasant feelings edged with a tinge of mournful foreboding. It’s almost as if Tchaikovsky is trying to tell us to enjoy the caprice while we can because something unknown, possibly a threat, might await us. It’s the musical equivalent of much of Russian literature, the acceptance of what happiness and good feelings we experience, even though we know with certainty that it’s too good either to be true or to last.
The third movement is marked Allegro molto vivace (cheerful and very lively). A lively, spiraling flute/piccolo line reminiscent of some of the music of The Nutcracker opens this movement, followed by a military-esque theme that echoes March Slav’s constant motion. When hearing this movement I find it extremely difficult to think of this symphony as anything even remotely approaching the description of “requiem” or the title of Pathetique (pathetic). If anything, I see it as a musical call to arms, an admonition to get up and live, to enjoy everything about life that is pleasantly portentous and worth pursuing. If the symphony had ended at the conclusion of this movement it would have received an extremely well deserved cheer.
The fourth movement is marked Adagio lamentosa (slow, plaintive, mournful). It opens with a doleful, almost heart-wrenching passage by the strings and a solitary horn, descending down the musical scale even lower. Then a second, more introspective line begins a climb back up toward the light. It is almost rapturously melodic with a sudden, tympanic beat pausing it momentarily.
The initial passage repeats, as if having allowed us to reach the climax only to tumble down the other side. Finally, it begins another upward spiral, more forceful than the first, as if promising us enough musical force to break through to the pinnacle, only to soften almost imperceptibly at first as if succumbing to the inevitable reality. A single tympanic beat signals the end of our emotional journey.
Hearing the symphony’s last note, having experienced more than a dozen changes in emotion, I always feel drained, yet totally at peace with the world and with myself. Perhaps that was Tchaikovsky’s intention. Perhaps he had finally found that for which he yearned and longed.
He died just a few days after the symphony’s premiere.
(See Sons of Russia Thursday, April 12 or Saturday, April 14 at 8p.m. at the Schuster Center. The concerts also include a “Take Note Talk” by Dr. Eric Street, Professor of Music at the University of Dayton. Single ticket prices range from $9 to $59, depending on desired tier. For more information or to order tickets, visit www.daytonphilharmonic.com or call (888) 228-3630.)
Reach DCP freelance writer Joe Aiello at JoeAiello@DaytonCityPaper.com