Lovely Cadiz

Lovely Cadiz
Cadiz - my favorite place so far in the trip to Southern Spain

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bloggo Orchestrale Finale: Tchaikovsky at the GSO

Ah, the last concert of the season! A fine one it was, all Tchaikovsky – two pieces, his Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was the young and talented Rachel Lee, and his Symphony No. 5.

For the first time, only one composer to write about! So, some of you are thinking, Dottore Gianni might keep this one brief.

Not necessarily, I don’t think I would count on it, in fact it’s doubtful…

Do you know the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Pirates of Penzance? Dottore Gianni does! In it there’s a clever ditty called The Policeman’s Song, in which is repeated the famous phrase, “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” To paraphrase G&S, “Tchaikovsky’s lot was not a happy one,” though for very different reasons…

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was in terms of classical music, 
Dottore Gianni’s first love. Admittedly, from a very early age I had a penchant for Russian culture. Perhaps it was the dark nature of their world, as I discovered in the novels of Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment in ninth grade! Others of that author’s novels shortly thereafter – then on to Tolstoy (I seem also to have set myself a challenge to read the LONGEST novels possible, which of course were the Russian novels). And still in high school Chekhov, who remains one of my favorite writers, for me more in his plays than in his great short stories. It was almost natural that I should become a Russian linguist when I had to serve my time in the U.S. Air Force, and in addition to the constant and rigorous drill we had learning Russian all day every day at Syracuse University, I made time to take a night course in nineteenth century Russian literature, where in addition to my early Russian literary loves I also began to enjoy Griboyedev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, even Saltykov-Shchedrin, though my very favorite of the newbies was Nicolai Gogol.

There is a darkness and an emphasis on passionate feelings (rather than rational thoughts) as evident in Tchaikovsky’s music as it is Dostoevsky’s
Dostoevsky Museum St Petersburg
 novels, and I fell for it hard. The music was very easy to love, primarily for a musical dunce like me, because of his amazing ability to write beautiful, memorable melodies. In fact Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the New York Times back in the 1960s and 70s, put this down to the composer’s "sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody.”

And British musicologist David Brown elaborated on that notion:

“Tchaikovsky's most characteristic melodies…are ‘expressively full’ and tend to unwind broadly; their ‘clear periodic structure’ can be "disguised by the very expansiveness of the individual phrase and by its sequential extension, which may be prolonged."
(both above quotations from

But while the young Dottore fell for Tchaikovsky’s melodies hook, line and sinker, he was gradually lured away by more highly critical musical minds than his own. One of these was his high school friend Alan Hart, a gifted pianist who went on to Oberlin after his graduation. Hart and others dismissed Tchaikovsky’s allure as an ability to wow concert-goers with melodies that had little depth.

Looking back at my research for this post, Brown, quoted above, notes that for many western critics “the same qualities in Tchaikovsky's music that appealed to audiences—its strong emotions, directness and eloquence and colorful orchestration—added up to compositional shallowness.” At the same time “Russian critics and musicologists such as Asafyev considered it musical snobbery.”

The poor composer must have thought, “A plague on both your houses! As Mercutio famously said in Romeo and Juliet, for which Tchaikovsky wrote some of his most beautiful music. The sniping criticism of his work is one reason that Tchaikovsky’s lot was not a happy one. I suppose I began to side with the western critics as I was pulled away from the soaring melodies in to the modernity of Stravinsky and others, and later the more ordered style of eighteenth century composers such as Bach, Haydn and Mozart.

Another. perhaps stronger reason that that composer’s lot was not a happy one was his homosexuality. He had to hide it of course in the very repressive Tsarist Russia, and he tried, falling for a Belgian soprano named Désirée Artôt, who ultimately rejected him. It’s been suggested that he fell for the brilliant performances of a diva, not for the woman herself. God knows Dottore Gianni can relate, as that was the story of every one of his three long-term relationships. But enough of the good doctor! Back to Tchaikovsky, who eventually married, for a very short period of time.
Tchaikovsky & his wife
He waited until he was 37, and married a much younger woman, former pupil Antonina Miliukova, shortly after she wrote him a series of passionate letters. It was a disaster, lasting less than three months, at which point Tchaikovsky literally ran away from his young bride, to Switzerland first, then traveling through Europe for a full year before returning to his native land.

If he could not love openly in the way he needed to, Tchaikovsky began to be loved, if not by the diva, his wife, or many critics; by audiences all over Russia, Europe, and North America. His six symphonies, particularly the last three, his piano concerti and his brilliant violin concerto, his 1812 Overture, Romeo and Juliet, his operas Eugene Onegin and the Queen of Spades, perhaps especially his great ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were played everywhere during his lifetime, and the pieces I named above, along with others, continue to be part of the standard repertoire for orchestras, ballet companies and opera houses everywhere.
It is said that the composer died of cholera, but there is a large faction that believes he committed suicide. We will never know. Distressing, that a man whose music thrilled so many was plagued by demons all his life.

While his life makes me sad, I am happy to say that the concert I attended on Sunday allowed me to throw off my former disdain for Tchaikovsky’s music and admit my love for it once more. I have already purchased MP3s of the last three symphonies and the Violin Concerto. The performances of the symphonies I purchased were conducted by Yevgeny Mavrinsky, a towering figure in Russian music, who was one of Maestro Tchivzhel’s mentors in St. Petersburg. Mavrinsky’s influence shows in Tchivzhel’s interpretation of the Fifth Symphony, which is marked

I.              Andante. Allegro con anima
II.           Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenzo
III.         Valse; Allegro moderato
IV.        Finale: Andante maestoso; Allegro vivace

The orchestra responded to Tchivzhel’s conducting wonderfully, and with power befitting the piece, particularly the final movement, which is after all to be played “maestoso,” with majesty.

Equally fine was the Violin Concerto (which I did not think I knew until the
Rachel Lee, who as well as
being talented, is a beauty
 first familiar…well guess what? MELODY was introduced – “OH! Right! That one!” thought I. Tchaikovsky is a master of melody!), primarily because of soloist Rachel Lee’s spirited and supremely confident playing. Born in 1988, this talented woman is at most 25 years old, but she wowed the audience, so much so that after the first movement there was prolonged applause, bravas, and even a standing ovation by some. Improper as that was technically (a woman sitting behind me remarked, “But it isn’t over yet!”), Tchivzhel took it in stride, turning in her direction and smiling broadly, while some in the orchestra applauded her as well. 

Side-bar - in his as usual exhaustive research, Dottore Gianni found out that, in addition to being a prodigy with the violin, Rachel finds time to be an editorial intern with Charlie Rose!!!

Before I go on I should say that the piece is marked

I.              Allegro moderato
II.           Canzonetta (Andante)
III.         Finale: Allegro Vivacissimo

I love “vivacissimo,” which indicates a spirit and speed beyond “molto vivace.” Vivace is lively, so molto vivace is VERY lively. Vivacissimo? As lively as you have in you, and then some! Miss Lee satisfied. Interestingly, after the first movement, the second very short movement segues into the final movement without a pause. Probably just as well, as the audience would very likely have interrupted again, before the she whizzed through the finale and got a much-deserved standing ovation.

The powers-that-be at the GSO cleverly titled the concert: Tcheers for Tchaikovsky. (I would add Tcheers for Tchivel, and Raves for Rachel.) There was even a money-raising event called Tchinos for Tchaikovsky, at which for a hefty fee you could dress down, dine and enjoy a rehearsal of the concert. Apparently last year there was a similar event called Blue Jeans for Beethoven, so…of course I foresee other such money makers: Pants for Puccini, Shirts for Shostakovich, maybe if we’re really lucky Bras for Brahms!

All right, the review proper is over, but I warned you this would probably not be short. This business of tcheers and tchinos etc prompted Dottore Gianni to ruminate on the variant spellings of Russian names in particular and of transliteration in general.

In Russian many sounds which in the English language are represented by two letters are depicted as a single letter – the sound denoted by the two letters “ch” as in choo-choo-train is by the single letter “ч” – same pronunciation, but the Russians have a longer, and I would say more specific, alphabet than ours. In fact ч is one of several single letters that stand for two or more of ours. “sh” for example is written “ш” in Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet), the very cool looking “ж" is pronounced by us “zh” and my very favorite is “щ” (very like “ш” but note the little crook in the lower right corner of the character “щ”). To pronounce this in English requires not two or even three but FOUR letters – “shch” ! Now, how often do we use such a formation? Never! Except as George Bernard Shaw makes us aware in his play Misalliance, when we say “fish church” – but how many of us say that? In this very improbable comedy one man does, when a zaftig Russian aviatrix crash lands in the woods next to a manor house, outside of which a number of Britishers are chatting about very little, but doing so very wittily. She appears, disheveled, but fetching, before them.
Her name is Lina Shchepanova – and no one can pronounce it except for her! When questioned about the pronunciation, she replies, “Is simple! Say fish.” And the inquirer responds “fish.”
Lina continues, “Now say church.” So he does. Lina again: “Now say fish-church.” And the perplexed questioner does so. Lina then, proudly, “NOW say Shchepanova!” And by George, he finds he can do it!

The play gets sillier as it goes. Another person dashes onto the scene late in the action, raises a gun in the air and shouts out: “I am the son of Lucinda Titmus!” Of course no one has any idea who Lucinda Titmus might be…but Titmus is a very funny name (if you can’t get a laugh on that line you’ll NEVER get a laugh so give up show biz) and all is revealed. Love that play, love Russian transliterations!

Care for a few more? How about “x” po-Russky? Stands for “kh” – another sound we don’t use all that often, but which for a Russian is standard. Or “ц”? Stands for “ts” – as an example, the Russian for circus is цирк – pronounced “tsirk” – not particularly easy for us, nothing at all for a Russian.
The circus in St Petersburg
These and other photos of St Petersburg
taken on my trip there in November 2000
What in the name of God has that to do with Tchaikovsky? Glad you asked. Two things, one of which leads to another.  Have a look at the composer’s name, then transliterated:

Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky

The name that we generally see spelled as Tchaikovsky has also been transliterated as Tschaikowski", "Tschaikowsky", "Chajkovskij" and "Chaikovsky”. It really should be standardized, and that’s just what the Library of Congress did, deciding upon Tchaikovsky.

BUT! Oh wise ones in a former place of my own employment. If Tchaikovsky, why not Tchekhov, which the Library of Congress spells Chekhov?

So really, in an ideal world, the concert should have been titled
“Cheers for Chaikovsky.” Right?

One more note on names – Tchaikovsky’s first name is Пётр (pronounced pyotr, which translates to Peter) followed by Ильи́ч (pronounced Ilich), or the patronymic. Russians follow the first name of a person with the first name of that person’s FATHER. Пётр Ильи́ч signifies Peter, son of Ilya. Had I been born Russian my name would be written as Иван Иванович or John, son of John. My brothers' first names would all be variations on that theme, with Tom as Томас Иванович, Phil as Филлип Иванович and Rob as Роберт Иванович. However my sister Judy's name would be written Джудит Ивановна (transliterated as -ovna for daughter of John, versus -ovich for son of John). By the way IVAN, the transliteration for Иван, is pronounced ee-VAHN, not EYE-vun.

By now you may want to say сукин сын (son of a bitch) or call ME one!

Even Dottore Gianni must blush when he realizes he has devoted two and a half pages to this non-subject, or non-sense, so with that he leaves you, he hopes, for more next season! 

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