This month concludes The Tchaikovsky Experience: A Philharmonic Festival, a survey of the music of one of America's most frequently performed Romantic-era symphonists, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In last month's Conversation, the musicians who are performing with the Orchestra discussed the divide between this composer's popular appeal and his critical reception. This month Kenneth LaFave talks to the performers about their interpretations of this master's works.
Tchaikovsky was tortured by the fact of his homosexuality; some say he deliberately contracted cholera in order to die and so escape exposure of his orientation. In a score such as his final composition, the Symphony No. 6, the "Pathétique," his life and music seem to merge. Is this important to you as performers?
Ludovic Morlot: With certain composers, you are aware of the biography. This is true with Schumann, for example, and Mahler. Tchaikovsky is on that list also. It is important to me to be aware of his life as you play his music.
Lorin Maazel: For me, it's totally irrelevant.
Nationalism is an important aspect of 19th-century music. How pertinent is the fact that Tchaikovsky draws on the Russian folk tradition?
Maazel: Well, my teacher was Russian and was very, very fond of Tchaikovsky's music and obviously grew up in that tradition — the tradition of Russian music. And so Tchaikovsky's music was like mother's milk to me.
Simon Trpceski (who performed last month): Maybe because I am a Slavic person, Tchaikovsky is very close to my heart. I was always taught to keep the real taste of his music in my performances. As much as you put your own interpretation on his pieces, it's important to remember that the basis of his music is the Russian soul, the Russian folk tradition.
Johannes Moser: Nationalism is not a factor for me. One of my teachers said, "Notes don't know where they come from." I look at what the notes want, and of course I put them into a context. But I don't stop to think, "It's Romantic music, I must put a lot of rubato in it." If you bring context in too early, that can overshadow a few things you might otherwise see. What Tchaikovsky listened to, what he liked or disliked, these are secondary things.
Morlot: Tchaikovsky actually combines the Russian folk elements with the great German tradition. The first movement of the "Pathétique" is very German in sound and form, nothing less than extended sonata form. By the way, I think the word "Pathétique" here indicates "passionate," not "pity." I don't think Tchaikovsky was mad about the name, but it remains. His original plan was to call it "Programmatic Symphony." But then he thought, "People will want to know the program," and he didn't want them to know.
Tchaikovsky's music is filled with contrast; more so than Classical-era pieces, of course, but also more than the work of his contemporaries, such as Brahms.
Janine Jansen: The first movement of the Violin Concerto goes straight to the heart. It grabs you and takes you on this journey, and a very meaningful journey, I would say. And then the second movement is a moment of complete relaxation, just heaven. Even though it's incredibly short, it's one of the most beautiful melodies ever written.
We've come full circle in our discussion, which focused last month on why this composer is loved by some and hated by others for the same reason: the ease and directness of his tunesmithing.
Maazel: Viewing a composer negatively because of his ability to write a tune that is accessible is born of envy. A genius can't help but write a great melody. It just pours forth.
Composer Kenneth LaFave writes about music for a variety of publications.