Tchaikovsky Fireworks from the
Canton Symphony Orchestra
By Tom Wachunas
edifying component of the MasterWorks Concerts from the Canton Symphony
Orchestra are the “Performance Preludes,” presented one hour before the
program. Traditionally, these 30 minute-long sessions are lectures by guest
speakers, often accompanied by pre-recorded segments of music used to elucidate
aspects of the upcoming program.
The prelude to the
all-Tchaikovsky concert on November 4, however, broke that mold. It featured
the Canton Symphony Chorus, directed by Dr. Britt Cooper, in a thoroughly
informative live performance. Singing in Russian, the chorus gave us five
excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s 1878 a
cappella choral settings of texts from the Divine Liturgy of St. John
Chrysostom, the most celebrated of the Eucharistic services in the Eastern
Orthodox Church. This stunning performance revealed an important aspect of
Tchaikovsky’s musical passions arguably unfamiliar to many, and one that went
far in deepening my appreciation of his eclectic spirituality.
It was certainly a
spiritual eclecticism that was brilliantly surveyed in the program that
followed, beginning with the Polonaise from Act III of Tchaikovsky’s 1878
opera, Eugene Onegin. The music
describes the moment when Onegin is smitten at the sight of the beautiful
Princess Tatianna entering the palace ballroom and the ensuing dance. From the
exhilarating trumpet fanfare at the beginning, through the delicate, spritely
central theme for winds and an airy cello melody, and an emphatic dash to the
thrilling final notes, the orchestra was simply dazzling in delivering some of
Tchaikovsky’s most charming and decorative music.
Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No.1 for Piano and
Orchestra is music of a much more compelling sort, likewise the artistry of
guest soloist Norman Krieger. The work opens with a dramatic, brassy fanfare,
which quickly blossoms into one of classical music’s most instantly
recognizable, iconic melodies. Interestingly enough, while it’s the full
orchestra that initially pours out that eternally inspiring theme, the strident
chords from the piano are initially only an accompaniment, albeit a lively one.
When the piano does play the melody, it’s less stentorian and more intricate in
character, setting up the call-and-response dynamic between orchestra and
pianist that is threaded through the entire concerto.
Both the orchestra
and the soloist were deeply sensitive to this dynamic - a chemistry of
dualities wherein moments of heroic grandiosity (though never issued in an
attitude of gratuitous bombast) alternate with gentler episodes of rapturous
poignancy. Krieger’s technical prowess was unassailable. While his pounding
cadenzas were surely a breathtaking melding of muscle and accuracy, he played
throughout the work with real reverence for the music’s poetic spirit. This was
especially evident in the delightful prestissimo
passages of fast, frolicking fingerwork during the achingly beautiful second
Then, con fuoco! Did someone yell fire? All of
Krieger’s remarkable gifts of power, precision, and graceful lyricism launched
together flawlessly during the third movement’s coda into a wondrously
ascending race to the exuberant final chord. And as if to gently set us down
from those blazing heights, he answered our boisterous call for an encore with
a gorgeous, heartfelt performance of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9, No.1.
More fire was to
come in the form of Symphony No. 4. A truculent brass fanfare opens this Romantic
epic, and the orchestra effectively embodied the seriousness of the moment. This
was, after all, as Tchaikovsky told in his original program notes, the arrival
of Fate itself, the “ineluctable power of destiny” poised above our heads and
poisoning our souls.
Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s seemingly
magical capacity for eliciting palpable emotion from his exciting orchestra has
never been more authoritative. With an economy of gestures, he deftly sustained
the ensemble’s aural depth, clarity, and radiant sonority - no simple task,
considering the structural and thematic complexities of the work. The intensity
of the first movement left us in an agitated, stormy atmosphere. An exquisite
oboe solo opened the second movement - a contemplative, wistful journey
punctuated with lush warmth from the strings and seductive solos from clarinet
and bassoon. The piquant third movement was an intoxicating, dreamlike
interlude – a mesmerizing episode entirely saturated with crisp, pizzicato strings.
An urgent sense of
impending victory pervaded the beginning of the turbulent final movement. Later
in the proceedings, the Fate theme made a rude re-appearance, bringing an abrupt halt to what had just been a mood of optimism. But then, from this
moment of gloomy, nearly total silence, a glorious crescendo commenced and
accelerated at breakneck speed to an explosive, celebratory conclusion.
the adrenaline levels in Umstattd Hall, a jubilant Gerhardt Zimmermann then led
the orchestra in an electrifying encore performance of Russian Dance from The Nutcracker ballet.
PHOTOS, from top:
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky / Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann / Pianist Norman Krieger