Passion and pathos

Springfield Symphony Orchestra to perform two Tchaikovsky pieces

By Sara Mastbaum

Writing about Tchaikovsky from an office with views of snowy rooftops just seems right. After all, Russia isn’t known for its temperate climes. It’s fitting, then, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra should present their concert of Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D-Major” and Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique” during the chillier part of their 70th anniversary season.

On Saturday, Feb. 22, the SSO will explore two popular works by the great Russian composer. The program will open with Symphony No. 6, an unusual programming move according to the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor, Peter Stafford Wilson.

“The symphony is more introspective,” Wilson said. “It ends very quietly, and ends up asking more questions than it answers. The concerto is a very definitive work […] it’s difficult to follow with anything, which led me to program the symphony in the first half.”

Both pieces, however, are monumental in Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre. The symphony is called “Pathétique,” but the translation is closer to the idea of pathos than “pathetic.” Program notes by Richard Rodda state: “The music of the ‘Pathétique’ is a distillation of the strong, residual strain of melancholy in Tchaikovsky’s personality rather than a mirror of his daily feelings and thoughts.”

“He lived a troubled life and I think that comes through a lot in the ‘Pathétique’ symphony,” Wilson added. “It’s very highly emotionally charged. All of his music is, but in particular, the symphony.”

The concerto, composed while Tchaikovsky recuperated from the emotional strain of his divorce, was finished in 1878. Rodda’s notes mentioned, “Much to the composer’s regret, [a violinist] returned the piece as ‘unplayable,’ and apparently spread that word with such authority to other violinists that it was more than three years before the violin concerto was heard in public.”

Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s friends weren’t up to the challenge, but there’s little doubt violin soloist Janet Sung is. Sung first played with the SSO as a last-minute substitute in 2010 and has rejoined the orchestra for the first time since then.

“This particular concerto is one of the most beloved in a violinist’s repertoire,” Sung said. “It’s one of the most famous violin concertos; it has really stood the test of time.”

Because the piece is a standard for violinists, Sung is very familiar with the work and will be joining the orchestra to rehearse more interpretive aspects of the piece. “It’s a piece I’ve performed many times,” she said. “So, I join the orchestra a few days before the concert to get a feel for the differences between how I interpret the piece, a feel for the timing.”

Although the concerto is standard repertoire in the classical music world, modern audiences aren’t universally familiar with it.

“Many people are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s music through the ballets – ‘The Nutcracker,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Swan Lake’ – they contain the elements we love about Tchaikovsky’s music, all the passion and emotion,” Sung said. “This piece has the true gift of miracle writing – it is heartbreakingly beautiful, but it also contains virtuosic fireworks.”

“The first and third movements are fast-paced,” she continued. “The third movement is kind of at a breakneck speed.” Not only is the third movement fast-paced (Allegro vivacissimo, to be precise), there is no break between the second and third movements. Fireworks aside, “there is something that really touches people in Tchaikovsky’s work,” Sung said.

All involved are excited to perform the works. “Tchaikovsky’s such fun to conduct,” Wilson said. “He brings a brilliant sound to the orchestra. He’s one of those composers that sounds a lot more difficult technically than perhaps really he is. His music is very playable” – take that, Tchaikovsky’s pals – “so the orchestra really has a chance to dig in and play. […] Tchaikovsky was a master at orchestration and knew the instruments of the orchestra well.”

Not that the orchestra will be having all the fun. “You’re in for a great experience with a Tchaikovsky symphony,” Wilson said. “Both listening and playing. They’re as delightful to perform as they are to listen to.”

“With a dynamic guest artist and a symphonic work like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 to showcase the incredible talent of our musicians, this concert is what we are all about,” added SSO Executive Director Robyn Zimmann. “This 70th anniversary season has been such a wonderful celebration of everything the orchestra has meant to the city and surrounding region. Year after year, we bring quality symphonic music to an appreciative public, and this concert will be no exception to that.”


The Springfield Symphony Orchestra presents Masterworks II: Tchaikovsky! featuring Janet Sung, violin, Saturday, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m., with a preconcert talk at 7:15 p.m. The performance will be held at the Clark State Performing Arts Center, 300 S. Fountain Ave. in Springfield. For tickets, please call 937.328.3874. For more information, please visit


Reach DCP freelance writer Sara Mastbaum at


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