It should be no surprise that the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra's all-Tchaikovsky program for Duke Performances, given in Page Auditorium on Wednesday, January 19, was a sell out. Long the Rodney Dangerfield of classical music, Tchaikovsky has gotten little respect from esoteric musicians. His music is "too emotional, too obvious, and too superficial...." It was not too long ago that a professional musician friend of mine derided my enthusiasm for Sibelius by saying, "He's just a Finnish Tchaikovsky!" Even though he gets little respect in the upper echelons of the musical world, he has been wildly popular in concert halls and — for nearly a hundred years — among recorded music buffs. The list of Tchaikovsky favorites would easily fill a page — maybe more. And not just in one form is he popular — his symphonies, concerti, ballet music, operas, chamber music, symphonic poems, solo piano works, choral and sacred works, all are numbered among the most popular in the concert and recording repertoire.
So a fine orchestra like the Moscow Philharmonic, under the capable and knowing hand of Yuri Simonov, can bring the house down and did. The program included some unique surprises and some delightful encores. To begin with, the weather delayed the start several minutes because the orchestra's travel buses had been tied up for three hours on I-40 due to the flurry of snow that fell on the already-frozen highways. The touring group had come from Tennessee, one of the musicians told me (if our halting effort at communication was accurate). The soloist, Cho-Liang Lin, was another story. He had gone to New York to visit his family on a day off from the rigors of touring, and his flight to RDU was cancelled, forcing him to take a later flight. Then he was stuck at the airport due to the local traffic snarls. At concert time, there was still some uncertainty as to whether he would be able to make it to Page Auditorium in time to perform. Simonov and the orchestra agreed to reverse the order of the program so they began with the Fifth Symphony. There were significant vacant seats, no doubt due to ticket holders unwilling to risk the still rather treacherous roads on this wintry evening.
The Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64, begins with a somber theme in the clarinet over soft minor chords in the strings. This theme reappears in various guises – sometimes wistful, sometimes imposing — in each succeeding movement as an effort to unify the massive (for its time) work. Finally, in the coda, it blooms into the triumphant and heroic grand march in E Major. Tchaikovsky longed for life to be like that — life struggles yielding at last to a happy ending — but, alas, it was not to be. He never came to grips with his sexuality or his melancholy or his insecurity, and in the end, according to unproven rumors, he died, certainly unhappy and possibly at his own hand.
Simonov's performance seemed dull and without conviction, as though the orchestra was tired, was giving yet another performance of a symphony they have played a hundred times in a hundred different towns, and was more concerned with other things. The tempi were right, the dynamics moved, and the phrasing was sensitive, yet it mostly seemed dry and by rote. All the parts were there and accurately played, but what was missing was the glue to hold it together. Still, there were moments of brilliance, and the triumphal finale was glorious: conviction finally emerged with force, and the audience response was sincerely enthusiastic. Simonov's conducting style — a rather strange mixture of rigidity and stylized gestures — is unique. Some of his gestures reminded me of the late Carlos Kleiber, but Simonov was more melodramatic and almost cute, in a flamboyant manner, at times. During most of the Fifth Symphony, Simonov stood as though his feet were glued to the podium in a straightforward stance, conducting in a conventional manner, using only his baton and free hand and, occasionally, his upper body. The life of touring musicians must be very trying.
After the intermission (vodka break?), the orchestra returned to the stage, and after some awkward minutes, Cho-Liang Lin appeared to warm and sustained applause. After talking with the audience about the difficulties of the journey and expressing his appreciation of the orchestra's willingness to reverse the program (and giving thanks to others), the warm and practical humanity of this remarkable musician captivated the audience. The D Major Violin Concerto, Op. 35, was done with all the warmth, pathos, and excitement that makes Tchaikovsky's music so memorable. The main theme of the first movement soared with lyricism of heart-melting grace, and each time it reappeared, it seemed to soar even higher. The first movement cadenza was spellbinding, with the soloist's technical and expressive skills enthralling the audience. The orchestra and conductor seemed more alive and "present" as well throughout this audience-pleasing gem. The applause and several cheers were immediate, and almost everyone stood in appreciation of a superb performance. After returning to the stage the third time, Lin acceded to the audience's enthusiasm with an encore. If the concerto were a gold crown, studded with rubies, sapphires and pearls, the encore was one pure diamond of unparalleled clarity and cut. Bach's Partita No. 3 brought tears to my eyes.
The concert ended with the intended opener, the Capriccio Italien, Op. 45, composed during a vacation in Rome in 1880. The "noise" of the Carnival at first irritated Tchaikovsky and later fascinated him, resulting in this dazzling composition premiered in Moscow in December of that same year. From the opening brass fanfare through florid passages — including a tarantella with swirling dance-like themes, the bella ragazza theme, and even a Spanish-like melody — the orchestra played with relish and verve. They were into it, and so was Simonov. Again the audience rose to its feet with cheers and passionate applause. After a nod to the conductor from the first violinist, the orchestra launched into a charming waltz, unfamiliar to me but undoubtedly Tchaikovsky, possibly from one of his operas or ballets. Simonov was by now loose and comfortable performing a veritable ballet himself on the podium. Though a bit overdone, it was none-the-less winsome. And then, another encore — the gorgeous finale from Swan Lake. The Muscovites just seemed to get better and better, but it was late, so the concert ended with blown kisses and a wave good-by from the now exuberant Simonov. Wonderful magic happened between audience and musicians! The slow and cautious drive home was filled with a lyrical sense of satisfaction and joy.