Tchaikovsky festival celebrates Russian composer's best works

Published April 11, 2013 2:36 pm

Festival • Two of the Russian composer's symphonies and all three concertos will fill Abravanel Hall.
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Tchaikovsky is regarded as one of the most creative composers of the 19th century, and so many of his works — from ballets to symphonies — are part of the necessary repertoire of any respectable orchestra.

Audiences also happen to be attracted to the composer's emotional music whether it's the suite from the "Nutcracker" ballet or the rousing 4th of July favorite the 1812 overture.

Those are two reasons the Utah Symphony will celebrate the music of the Russian composer — whose full name is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — with a mini festival. The performances will showcase two of Tchaikovsky's most famous symphonies and will include a performance of all three concertos by guest pianist Louis Lortie. It's a feat rarely attempted.

After completing season-long cycles of Beethoven and Mendelssohn symphonies, the orchestra — and its Utah audience — is ready to experience the wide-ranging works of Tchaikovsky, music director and conductor Thierry Fisher said in a telephone call from his home of Geneva.

One of the reasons people are drawn to Tchaikovsky's music is his authenticity, Fisher said. "We all love what is authentic. He is the ideal person, with all of the drama in his life, to express dramatically his life through his music."

The Tchaikovsky concerts take place over the next two weekends. On Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, the symphony will perform Tchaikovsky's fifth and sixth symphonies. The fifth symphony is pre-occupied with looming fate, though scholars argue whether the composer was using his own cursed life as inspiration. The work has been compared to Beethoven's fifth symphony for its subject matter and its construction. Adn while Tchaikovsky once concluded that the work was "a failure," it has become one of his most popular pieces for modern-day symphony orchestras.

Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony, better known as "Pathétique," was his last and was meant to convey an emotional — at times rousing — theme. The fourth movement is famously thought to be the composer's mediation on death. It was first performed nine days before his death, and it was played at his memorial service.

Those two symphonies will be accompanied by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg's choral works "Friede auf Erden" and "My Horses Ain't Hungry." The music seems to be an odd choice, but Fischer said the contrast will allow audiences to deepen their appreciation for Tchaikovksy's craftsmanship.

"Contrasts help the audience listen better," he said, comparing Schoenberg's pieces to an appetizer or dessert that compliments the main course.

"Arnold Schoenberg's world adds a different 'musical spice' and Thierry feels strongly that programming contrasting works is important artistically," added Toby Tolokan, the symphony's vice president of artistic planning.

Piano marathon • The Tchaikovsky festival continues on Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20 with the debut of the orchestra's new, $150,000 Steinway Concert Grand Piano. It will be showcased during Lortie's ambitious undertaking of all three concertos.

"It's kind of a marathon for a concert pianist," said Melia Tourangeau, Utah Symphony | Utah Opera president and chief executive.

Added symphony keyboardist Jason Hardink: "I've done some ridiculous projects, but nothing this wild."

The three concertos are very different from one another, amounting to a roller-coaster of emotions.

Tolokan said the his first concerto was strongly criticized by Moscow Conservatory Director Nikolai Rubinstein, but Tchaikovsky refused to change a single note. The second concerto features the unusual, but imaginative solos for violin and cello in the second movement. And the single-movement third concerto illustrates Tchaikovsky's genius in adapting music from his abandoned E-flat symphony.

Lortie is a French-Canadian pianist known for his interpretation of Ravel, Chopin and Beethoven. Several years ago he was asked by a Polish conductor what he would like perform at an upcoming concert in Warsaw.

"I had played all of those [concerti] separately," said Lortie in a recent telephone interview. So to challenge himself, the 53-year-old said he would perform all three Tchaikovsky pieces in one night. The Polish conductor was shocked, but Lortie did it successfully.

Performing solo for nearly two hours takes incredible concentration and "sheer physical power," Lortie said, because of the music is "passionate, almost aggressive" and "not very subtle."

He hopes the audience will be enthralled by the intensity.

To Fischer, the three concerti are, simply, "fantastic music" and he half-joked that his long-time friend is "absolutely mad" for trying it again.

dburger@sltrib.com

From Tchaikovsky to Schoenberg

Weekend 1 • The Utah Symphony kicks off the festival with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 (Pathétique). Schoenberg's choral works "Friede auf Erden" and "My Horses Ain't Hungry," also on the program.

When • Friday and Saturday, April 12-13, at 8 p.m.; pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m. features conductor Thierry Fischer and vice president of artistic planning Toby Tolokan.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

Tickets • $18 to $53 in advance; price increase $5 day of performance; 801-355-2787, utahsymphony.org or at the box office.

Weekend 2 • The series continues with Tchaikovsky's three Piano Concertos featuring guest pianist Louis Lortie. Schoenberg's imaginary film score "Begleitungsmusic zu einer Lichtspielscene" also is on the program.

When • Friday and Saturday, April 19-20, at 8 p.m.; pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m. features conductor Thierry Fischer and vice president of artistic planning Toby Tolokan.

When • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

Tickets • $18 to $53 in advance; price increase $5 day of performance; 801-355-2787, utahsymphony.org or at the box office.