“Melodious Tchaikovsky” Concert Preview

Before each concert, we share Manny’s Musings, thoughts from our Music Director and Conductor, Manny Laureano. Please enjoy this concert preview!

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Three Works

(1840-1893)

“Who was the greatest melodist of all time?” This is an occasional discussion that is had by music lovers and musicians alike. To be sure, it is a fanciful argument to have, as all the great classical composers of the past have melodies which are part of our memories, ensuring immortality for they that penned them. However, if one were to indulge in such a chat, it would be almost impossible to omit Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as a contender for that honor, at the very least.

Tchaikovsky, born in 1840 in the Vyatka province of Russia, was born to a family which had no particular background in music. His father, a mining engineer, married again after being widowed and it was his second wife who gave birth to Pyotr. As the boy grew older he was sent to a school with no less an imposing name than the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. But talent always finds a way and he was able to nurture a growing passion for music both as a listener and composer.

One of characteristics of writing a memorable melody has to do with structure. The arc of the melody has to be satisfying to listen to because it is the right length. It also has to have a rhythm that allows it to flow. It must also be supported by a set of harmonies that you can hear in your head as you sing, hum, whistle, or find some other way to annoy the person sitting next to you.

Over and over, Tchaikovsky manages to hit the mark with his tunes. In his Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy Overture (1870-revised 1880), he focuses on the acrimony between two feuding families and uses dissonance to deliver his message of tragedy and sharp, violent rhythms for swordplay before presenting us with the immortal love theme played by the English horn and violas. It is around these three themes that he centers his portrayal of the discord and eventual reconciliation between the houses of Capulet and Montague.

Surely, a prerequisite for a theme and variations must be a recognizable theme that stays with you long after the performance is done! Tchaikovsky does not disappoint in his elegant masterwork, Variations on a Rococo Theme, for Cello and Orchestra (1876). This charming and compelling work is an ironic one, as it was written during a time of depression in Tchaikovsky’s life. Even more ironic is that part of the reason for his sadness was the lack of success his Romeo and Juliet were experiencing! His recent opera Vakula, the Smith was regarded by Tchaikovsky as a “brilliant failure.” He was learning, however, to drown his sorrows and difficulties through his work. As you listen to the theme and variations, you can hear Tchaikovsky use every musical trick in the book to display his soloist’s talents. Jaunty triplets, the tossing of rhythms back and forth from soloist to orchestra, ravishing themes, and a race to the finish abound this romp.

The challenge of a four-movement symphony is rather obvious. Tchaikovsky was compelled to write an introduction, two themes with development, recapitulation, and conclusion… and that’s just the first movement! Many more themes of great passion and triumph will be found throughout this symphony but let’s discuss some rather salient features of his Symphony No. 5 in e minor (1888).

The aforementioned introduction contains a rather critical part of the structure of the entire work. The initial theme played by the clarinets is known as an idée fixe. This is a thematic idea that returns in every movement and is a binding element for the entire piece. You will hear that theme played by a variety of instruments as the symphony unfolds. The second movement contains a horn solo that became so well-loved, it was turned into a popular melody in 1939 called “June Love” by David, Davis, and Kostelanetz. The brasses proclaim the idée fixe with ferocity. This is Tchaikovsky at his romantic best. A flowing waltz and internal scherzo with a wink at the clarinet opening from the first movement round out the penultimate movement. The fourth movement finale is a proclamation of triumph as the idée fixe begins it, but in the optimistic tonality of E major. He quickly returns to e minor and settles into a lively and virtuosic battle between the dark seriousness of e minor and brilliant flashes of E major.

Every theme in this symphony is a winner and completely memorable. For this performance we’ll ask that you make every attempt to not hum along as you listen… but we’ll understand if you just can’t help it.

Join Music Director & Conductor Manny Laureano, for the concert, “Melodious Tchaikovsky” featuring Minnesota Orchestra cellist Arek Tesarczyk as soloist. The concert takes place on Sunday, February 15 at 3 p.m. at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Bloomington. To learn more about the concert, click here, or to order tickets online through the Bloomington Box Office or by calling 952-563-8575.

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