Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: All-Tchaikovsky Night at Lincoln Center with Gavrylyuk, Langrée

By Steve Nagel on Jan 09, 2016 06:33 PM EST

As part of Lincoln Center's 50th Great Performers season, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's "All-Tchaikovsky" visit to David Geffen Hall on January 6th brought with it a program showcasing two of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's most beloved works (three, in fact, if the encore is to be counted): his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, and, for the unexpected encore, the never-failing, “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker. Leading the CSO was renowned conductor Louis Langrée, who has been the orchestra's musical director since 2012 and, as of last March, has been contracted to remain with CSO until the 2019-2020 season. As for the centerpiece of the evening's first act (the First Piano Concerto), the cadenzas were performed by Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, the Russian Australian who was awarded the Gold Medal in 2005 for the Arthur Rubinstein Competition, along with with an award for “Best Performance of a Classical Concerto” -- a mark which, now, over ten years later, must have come as no surprise to Lincoln Center's Wednesday audience.

Simply put, an "All-Tchaikovsky" lineup always tugs at the heartstrings. Many of Tchaikovsky's melodies are among the most memorable, and the most singable, in all of classical canon. One might find it hard to believe, in that case, that with all the breadth and simplicity found within the introduction of the First Piano Concerto, that the concerto's innards would be so dreadfully complex. Nevertheless, when the time came, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra masked any and all challenges beneath the veil of Tchaikovsky's alluring melodies. (Even the earliest cadenza shows hints of maddening difficulty before lulling the audience back into the wondrous recesses of the romantic introduction.)

In any lineup, after all, the introduction of the First Piano Concerto remains the most breathtaking and the most oft-repeated segments --- the case of an introduction so expansive that it has actually drawn frequent confusion in citations and analysis, with some sources mistakenly referring to it as the "opening theme". Additionally, the segment demands a bolder-than normal approach for an intro, prompting conductor Louis Langrée to summon the near-full power of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in order to jumpstart the evening. (Even Gavrylyuk could be seen throwing himself onto the piano, at times overtaking the orchestra with each accent and its ensuing cadenza.)

Once the audience was sufficiently awed, the true opening theme, a jaunty little tune (played primarily on the piano), was actually a borrowed melody, one which Tchaikovsky overheard from a group of blind beggar musicians in a Kiev market. Remarkably, the fun-filled nature of this opening ear-worm is only subtly related to the rest of the piece. Making an appearance only twice throughout, the varied thematic material is bound together by the composer's brilliant command over transitions. Within minutes, the captivating flow of the opening two themes, as well as other transitions between the melodies of the first movement, had brought David Geffen Hall under the composer's spell -- something which the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had pulled off effortlessly for Lincoln Center.

As the concerto moved from one vigorous passage after another, surely taxing the hands of Gavrylyuk, the influence of Beethoven can be heard in Tchaikovsky's propensity for embellishment. Constantly seeking to infuse his music with a series of deeply moving and original melodies -- replete with vigor, drama, and a uniquely Russian sense of romance -- Tchaikovsky in many ways outshines Beethoven. After all, borrowing from both western and local tradition, the 19th Century Russian school of music, in which Tchaikovsky was reared, was a game-changer for many artists involved. Out from this tradition, here, in Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, the composer had begun to take Russia down a new path, in which others would follow, while still retaining the mark of a fiercely independent thinker all at once. Although he was panned by critics who had difficulty categorizing him, but eventually lauded for the undeniable beauty of his music, Tchaikovsky's narrative abilities were not only unique for their time, but intensely more visceral and fluid than his contemporaries'.

The second movement of the First Piano Concerto, by contrast, showed a far more delicate side of Tchaikovsky, exhibiting a talent for scenery-scaping and backdrops that would later serve to bind the narrative of his most-remembered ballet, The Nutcracker. Particularly evident in moments involving the bassoon, such as in m. 25, new characters seem instantly conjured up and appended to the concerto's arc before suddenly changing shape again. In this sense, there is a more 'human' quality to this concerto than to many of its kind. The bassoon undercurrent, which soon gives way to the cellos, resonated throughout the hall with superb fidelity... a trance-like state that seemed to beg more lingering than its eight measures allotted.

The 'B' section of the second movement was, by contrast, a dazzling spectacle, perhaps indicative of some of the passages which were infamously derided by some of Tchaikovsky's respected companions (Nikolai Rubinstein, Nikolai Hubert, and Nikolay Grigoryevich) as “unplayable.” [Brown, The Crisis Years]. Indeed, it was now that Alexander Gavrylyuk reached his most virtuosic, clocking in the dense and fanciful segment at under two minutes, which, if not a worldwide record, is certainly a feat for any musician.

The third movement arrived with yet more character to be had. Apart from simply devising new material for his 30-minute concerto, Tchaikovsky devised equally engaging melodies that pair well with one another and contribute to the whole -- such that by the time the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had surmounted the concerto's finale, the audience's sea of applause was not simply a show of relief or respect, but rather of an audience just getting warmed up. In fact, the applause was chiefly directed at the event's most tireless participant, Alexander Gavrylyuk, who received such adulation from the Lincoln Center audience that he returned to the stage to deliver the sole outlier of the “all-Tchaikovsky” evening: a soothing performance of Frédéric Chopin's “Nocturne No. 8 in Db Major”.

Following the intermission, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra rallied once again to prepare for another symbolic successor to Beethoven: this time, for Tchaikovsky's own Symphony No. 5, which similarly crowns his own set of symphonic works (as it bears a famous "fifth” to its moniker). Even forgetting Tchaikovsky's sombre tone and keen attention to drama -- really more befitting a ballet than of a symphony -- Tchaikovsky's lifelike musical impressions, and even his soul, once again outpace Beethoven (the forefather of Romantic orchestration).

With most of the technical demands now mellowing, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 is a unique kind of 'Russian Romantic' journey, once again attaching vivid imagery to its melodies. At times, the work seems to embody innocence (that is, for having been written so late in Tchaikovsky's life). The symphony pivots between uncompromising sadness and unwavering joy, a contrast made extremely palatable through the composer's same talent for 'section blending', which made the piano concerto succeed. In one instance, the symphony wallows in a funeral dirge, and in another, it enjoys the splendor of a grand ballroom (a la the elaborate waltz in the 3rd Mvt.).

In marching on through this second and most fluid work, shaping and re-shaping the phrases of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, Louis Langrée and the CSO had soon grown into a vessel for the notes on the paper -- which is to say that, unlike the micromanaging requirements of the first concerto (to remove all traces of muddiness), the requirements of the fifth symphony seemed to diminish other areas of importance where the writing was concerned. Phrasing, balance, and dynamics all become secondary, and seem to pale in comparison to the weight of the notes themselves... (not to mention Tchaikovsky's masterful transitions). The compositional safety-net found deep within the score, and its inherent adaptability, seem to explain how Tchaikovsky's repertoire -- one that has extended to any number of “must have” classical compilations -- has enjoyed such a enduring legacy.

Finally, to compliment that legacy, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra closed the evening with a belated encore (privy only to the dawdlers): The Nutcracker's “Waltz of the Flowers”. To this final treat, the audience let out a pleasant sigh, which rang along the lines of expectation combined with eager satisfaction.

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TagsLincoln Center, Tchaikovsky, Louis Langree, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, REVIEW

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