The NY Philharmonic’s Little Tchaikovsky Festival

The New York Philharmonic titled the second program in their short Summertime Classics series "Tchaikovsky Festival."  One program hardly constitutes a "festival," in my view, but the program turned out to be much more varied and exciting than one might have anticipated from a monolithic focus on one late-19th century Russian romantic composer, because it mixed seldom-played with more popular fare in excellent performances led by Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony who has been conducting the Summertime Classics series since it was started in 2004.

The orchestra on stage was only partially the New York Philharmonic, since section leaders are generally given a pass on participating in Summertime Classics and lots of substitutes are employed to fill out the orchestra in place of vacationing members.  There were plenty of unfamiliar faces on stage, but the excellence of the performances suggests that the available pool of substitute talent in New York is up to the challenge of performing to the level of excellence that the NYP represents.  I heard no lessening of technical and artistic standards from last night's group of players.  From the youth of many of the substitutes, I would speculate that we were hearing some of the students of NYP members, many of whom teach at the city's many conservatories.

They began with a real rarity, the Festival Coronation March (1883) that Tchaikovsky wrote on commission from the City of Moscow government to mark the coronation of Czar Alexander III.  This is pretty much noise and bluster with a Russian accent, but it was good fun, and has a special significance because it received its U.S. premiere with Tchaikovsky on the podium at Carnegie Hall for an 1891 concert by the New York Symphony, one of the two orchestraa that merged in the 1920s to become the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, the corporate ancestor of today's orchestra.  The brass had a real field day with this unrelentingly loud piece (and some of the musicians seated in front of them were wearing earplugs in anticipation of the racket).

Next came a curious hybrid, the Piano Concerto #2, in an odd edition consisting of the original published version of the outer movements (with some emendations) and the abbreviated version of the second movement that was produced by Alexander Siloti for a posthumous publication of the piece in 1897.  (From my perch in the second tier, box 5, overlooking the stage, I noted that the violinists were actually using a different print, rather old and yellowed, for the second movement, and what looked like a newer, fresher edition for the first and third movements, reflecting that the Siloti edition has been largely displaced these days by Tchaikovsky's original version.)  The main justification for playing the Siloti version is the general consensus that the original published version of the second movement goes on too long, and doesn't give the piano soloist enough to do by contrast with the violin and cello soloists.

In last night's performance, pianist Simon Trpceski collaborated with Tovey on a very energetic reading of the outer movements and a raptly beautiful exploration of the foreshortened Andante non troppo.  (I'm not quite sure what "andante non troppo" means as a tempo indication; I hope Tchaikovsky left metronome indications.  This is about as puzzling as Schubert's indication of "Molto Moderato" on his B Minor Piano Sonata, an indication that has always struck me as so uninformative as to allow pianists to treat the movement in vastly different ways.)  Trpceski seemed to have matters well in hand in this notorious knuckle-buster, but I found the performance of the first movement to be almost too clinically clean in its approach.  The finale, on the other hand, really won me over with its uninhibited exhibitionism.  I hope Trpceski gets to record this piece some day.

After intermission, Tovey led the orchestra in music from Act IV of Tchaikovsky's first major ballet, Swan Lake.  This counts as a relative rarity in the concert hall, last played by the Philharmonic during Summertime Classics in 2004. This really gave the orchestra a chance to show off, with extremes of dynamics, virtuosic fast passages, and heart-thrilling big tunes from the violins and solo winds.  However he might have fussed about writing music to be secondary to dance, Tchaikovsky provided some of his most memorable tunes and extraordinarily colorful orchestration for his big ballets, and Swan Lake can stand on its own as pure music without the dancers.  Symphony conductors should give it more prominence on concert programs.

Finally, how could a "Tchaikovsky Festival" be complete without the 1812 Overture?  It couldn't, and so we had it.  My favorite performance of this overture was one I attended in the yard of a Harvard undergraduate house in the spring of 1977, performed by a pickup student ensemble led through a sight-reading of the piece by a student conductor with rain threatening to cut things short.  Now, that was fun, even when they came close to breaking down a few times and didn't have any high tech recordings of cannon to play through monster speakers.  Yes, the Philharmonic last night had cannon recordings, which were almost lost in the din produced by the acoustic instruments.  Tovey led a dramatic rendition with generally brisk tempi, not getting bogged down as some conductors do in the more lyrical sections, and generating a marvelous din in the grand finale.  The two violists and four cellists who played the hymnlike opening section produced such a big sound that it felt like the entire sections were playing!  The orchestra was clearly having fun with this, and everyone's affection for this pops favorite was clearly projected. 

The audience's tumultuous reception deserved an encore, which they didn't get.  (They couldn't squeeze out another brief dance from Swan Lake???)  Perhaps this was because they let Trpceski play a brief encore, a piano arrangement of a little folk tune, and the concert was running past its advertised length rather substantially. 

Finally, as a longtime attender of these Summertime Classics programs, I want to register a brief protest.  The Philharmonic interrupted the regular season for some touring in the spring, as a result of which they extended the regular subscription season plus their little adventure at the Armory until the end of June, leaving only one and a half weeks available for Summertime Classics – only two programs, each played a few times.  Now they head out for the Parks concerts.  But this is slighting the enjoyable Summertime Classics, which has in the past presented three or four different programs.  I hope their future planning leaves room to restore Summertime Classics to its accustomed length, and I hope Tovey comes back to lead it, and I hope as well that he is encouraged to seek out more novelties for the programs and not just fall back on the core repertory.  He is an exciting conductor to watch, he connects with the musicians on the stage to bring out their best, and he is a witty commentator between numbers.  Give us more!!

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