Salon 1/18/15 – van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1

The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of that country’s technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957.

It was pretty much fore ordained that a Russian would win.

However Van Cliburn’s performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on April 13 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes.

When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Then give him the prize!”

Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. His cover story in Time magazine proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”

Tonight we will will listen to a performance by Van Cliburn recorded just after his shocking win, with the conductor the same as at the competition, invited to the US by Van Cliburn.  This was the first classical recording to ever go platinum.


The music

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was neither the greatest nor the most innovative musician of his time, yet his contributions to music are still felt today, for it was his gift to write beautiful, evocative melodies that are not easily forgotten. From the love theme of the Romeo and Juliet Overture (1870), to the music of Swan Lake (1877) or his Sixth Symphony (Pathétique, 1893), to the well-known opening of the Piano Concerto No. 1, his music has become almost inescapable, a part of the collective conscious.

Yet the oft-told tale of the Piano Concerto’s conception reminds us that even Tchaikovsky’s melodies could fail to charm. He completed the work in December of 1874, and dedicated it to his teacher and friend, the great Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.

He described the scene in a letter to a friend: “I played the first movement. Not a word, not a remark. If you only knew how disappointing, how unbearable it is when a man offers his friend a dish of his work, and the other eats and remains silent!” Tchaikovsky played the entire piece and then, he wrote, Rubinstein told him it was “worthless, impossible to play, the themes have been used before … there are only two or three pages that can be salvaged and the rest must be thrown away!”

Rubinstein offered to play the piece if Tchaikovsky rewrote it, but the composer replied, “I won’t change a single note,” and instead gave it to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow did not share Rubinstein’s distate, and premiered the work in Boston on October 25, 1875. Though a critic there called it an “extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto,” the audience was enthusiastic, as was a second audience in New York a week later, demanding an encore of the final movement. Rubinstein later recanted and performed the piece as well, while fifteen years later Tchaikovsky made some of the changes Rubinstein had requested. Rubinstein’s criticisms still have merit, for the piece is in some places nearly unplayable, while other passages for the soloist are barely audible. And the famous opening theme, for all its grandeur, is just as remarkable in its disappearance — for after storming in with blaring horns calls, sweeping strings, and maestoso ascending chords from the piano, the theme continues for only 110 measures and simply drops out of the piece, never to be heard again.

Yet it is at that point that the first movement, Allegro, may be said to truly begin. Two themes are introduced in double exposition, with the athletic first theme reappearing to interrupt the more restrained second at dramatic moments, and the piano “indulging in cadenza-like flights of startling execution,” as the Boston reviewer wrote in 1875. The movement ends in a burst of pyrotechnics from both orchestra and soloist.

The gentle Andantino simplice offers a respite from the bold gyrations of its predecessor, with the flute, oboe, and viola taking turns with the solo piano to develop the gentle, lilting first theme. The second theme is a rapid scherzo, based on a French song, “Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire” (One must amuse one’s self by dancing and laughing), a song favored by the opera singer Désirée Artôt, with whom Tchaikovsky had once been infatuated.

The first theme for the final Allegro is based on a Ukrainian folk song, “Viydi, viydi Ivanku,” (Come, come Ivanku), and it dances up and down in brilliant syncopations. A second, more lyrical theme sweeps in above the virtuosic piano line, and the piano answers in kind. The two themes build to a maestoso tutti followed by bravura fireworks all around.



Sakura Salon 7/13/14 – Tchaikovsky Symphony #6 ‘Pathetique’

Tchaikovsky has something of a mixed reputation: He is loved for his great tunes, yet derided for repeating them once too often with a great deal of emotional embellishment in the strings. And he’s been ill-served by scholarship; biographers have tended to interpret his music based on incorrect perceptions of his life. This is perhaps especially true of his great final symphony, the “Pathétique.” The symphony was completed and premiered close to the time of Tchaikovsky’s death, but was not a premonition of it. (Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly during a cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg.) And while the music is certainly “pathos-laden,” or full of feeling, as the nickname suggests, the morbid feelings in question are not personal.


Tchaikovsky’s final symphony explores the metaphysics of death, musically contrasting the idealism of humankind and our naive dreams of transcendence with our pathetic material condition, the fact that we are made of flesh and blood, and that we will all die. The composer hinted to his friends and admirers that the work might contain secret messages, but he never told them what they were. “Let them guess,” he said.


What caused the most guessing is an obvious quotation from the Russian Orthodox Requiem just after the climax of the first movement. This reference to a sacred ritual is paired, at the end of the fourth movement, with a symphonic enactment of the actual experience of death. The orchestra articulates, through morendo dynamics and the darkest instrumental coloring possible, the dying of the light. Ultimately, however, death is unknowable, and the structure of each of the movements is thus as irrational as its subject matter. Conventional forms are shunned as are conventional harmonic patterns. Even the movement between tonal areas or keys is unusual: Rather than using fifths, or fourths, or even thirds, Tchaikovsky moves between keys related by semitone, lending a leaden affect to the proceedings. And then there are the weird references to fanfares, waltzes, and marches-a patchwork of half-remembered musical tropes that suggests the score is a collection of deathbed memories. Each of these references is distorted, rendered strange. The second movement, for example, is a waltz with five beats to the measure instead of the familiar three.


Tchaikovsky was pleased with the “Pathétique,” and told his publisher that he was extremely proud of himself for assembling such a gorgeous work. It was composed during a wonderful time in his life-a life he had no sense was about to end. During an outing to the theater in his final week, he was disheartened when the conversation with his brother and their friends turned grim. He changed the topic, declaring, in the flush of the success of the “Pathétique,” that he was certain he would “live a long time.”

Sakura Salon 3/2/14 – Two Violin Concertos

Tonight we will be listening to two violin concertos, the Mendelssohn in e minor and the Tchaikovsky in D Major.


Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e minor

There is perhaps no more popular or beloved violin concerto than Felix Mendelssohn’s masterpiece in e minor.  The prodigy’s concerto breaks the Romantic violin concerto tradition of vapid showpieces with little need for artistry or passion, and whose orchestra parts are sparse, insipid, and uninteresting.  Mendelssohn referred to these Paganini inspired works as merely “juggler’s tricks and rope dancer’s feats.”  Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was the first significant concerto for violin since Beethoven’s of 1806, and was the last until the concertos of Bruch in 1868, and Tchaikovsky and Brahms, both written in 1878.

In 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to the violinist Ferdinand David and stated, “I would like to compose a violin concerto for you next winter; one in e minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.”  Mendelssohn had been appointed the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835, and immediately named his childhood friend, Ferdinand David, the orchestra’s concertmaster.  The concerto would be Mendelssohn’s last orchestral endeavor, and took him six years to complete from the time he initially wrote to David.  David was involved in every aspect of the concerto’s composition and served as its technical advisor – a testament to how much Mendelssohn respected David, seeing that Mendelssohn was a capable violinist himself.  The work premiered on March 13, 1845, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, David as soloist, and Neils Gade conducting.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is groundbreaking and goes against established concerto conventions in several ways, beginning overtly in the opening of the first movement.  Instead of a lengthy orchestral introduction which would lay out the principal themes of the concerto, Mendelssohn writes a measure and a half introduction, that really only serves to outline the key of e minor, and immediately brings in the soloist with the principal thematic material.  This changes the formal structure of the first movement by alleviating the need for a double exposition (one for the orchestra, and one for the soloist).  Mendelssohn again breaks with tradition in the placement of the concerto’s cadenza – putting it before the recapitulation instead of after it.  It is believed that Ferdinand David was possibly responsible for the cadenza’s material, which notably, Mendelssohn wrote into the score.  It would have been standard procedure of the time to leave it up to the performer to improvise a cadenza.  Mendelssohn again goes against standard concerto format by not breaking between the movements of his concerto, instead, creating a single movement work with three distinct movements.

As with all popular and ubiquitous works, there can be critical backlash that questions the artistic or musical value of an oft-played piece.  Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has escaped this fate because it is undeniably a masterpiece in the violin repertoire.  In 1921, the esteemed musicologist, Sir Donald Francis Tovey, wrote, “I rather envy the enjoyment of anyone who should hear the Mendelssohn (violin) concerto for the first time and find that, like Hamlet, it was full of quotations.”


Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major

Tchaikovsky composed the concerto in 1878, while visiting Clarens, Switzerland. Dissatisfied with the original slow movement, he replaced it with the one known today. He sent the concerto to Leopold Auer, the distinguished Hungarian soloist. To his horror, Auer declined to perform it, citing technical and artistic shortcomings. Crushed, Tchaikovsky shelved it.

Some time later, German soloist Adolf Brodsky expressed an interest, then spent the better part of two years preparing to give the premiere. That took place at a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Richter conducting, on December 4, 1881. The audience loved Brodsky’s playing, but they hissed the piece. The press, led by the arch conservative critic Eduard Hanslick, heaped abuse upon it, too.

Despite this initial hostility, the concerto lost little time in establishing itself as a concert favorite. Brodsky’s continuing advocacy had much to do with this. In gratitude, Tchaikovsky changed his original dedication plan, switching it from Auer to Brodsky. Auer later changed his view. He became one of its most persuasive champions and made sure that his many pupils, including Jascha Heifetz, performed it as well.

It is considerably less dramatic and more lightly scored than Tchaikovsky’s only previous concerto, the First for piano (1875). In breadth of conception and richness of contents, the opening movement is virtually a complete concerto in itself. Since both principal themes are lyrical, Tchaikovsky achieves the necessary contrast by alternating lightly scored passages for violin and orchestra, with more forceful sections scored for orchestra alone.

Woodwinds introduce the wistful, elegant second movement. The soloist uses a mute, giving the instrument a veiled, restrained sound most appropriate to the music. The vivacious, folk-flavored dance rhythms of the finale burst in abruptly. Two warm contrasting ideas are subjected to elaborate presentation. The solo violin then leads off an exhilarating chase which brings the concerto to a dashing close.