Friday, December 23, 2011

TSO Begins the Season of Tchaikovsky

With no real facts to back this up, I'll say that Tchaikovsky's music is performed most often in December.  Granted I expect most of those performances are of The Nutcracker.  The National Ballet of Canada alone is putting on 26 shows this year.  But the Toronto Symphony helped begin the season of Tchaikovsky on Dec. 8 (I saw the Dec. 10 performance) with nary a sugar plum fairy in sight, and a full evening of Tchaikovsky's music.  In place of a dancing Cavalier they had the dashing, almost 36 year old (his birthday is Jan. 27, the same day as Mozart), Canadian violinist James Ehnes.

Mr. and Mrs. Ehnes
Rick Philips hosted a pre-concert chat about the music of the evening and some background on Mr. Ehnes.  He started the violin at age 4; his father is a musician and his mother a dancer; his wife is also dancer (so any kids he has are genetically destined to go down an artistic path); he plays the piano, and is a car buff.  The owner of two 1979 cars, a Ferrari and Corvette, he decided to teach himself auto mechanics after car repairs became too expensive.  His technique to accomplish this was to take apart the Corvette bolt by bolt and put it back together again.  As Philips said "Don't you hate people like this?".  Perhaps yes, on paper anyway, but after seeing him perform he doesn't come across as having any sort of ego.  The music flows out of him and while some of his movements may be intense and not entirely effortless, they're totally invested for the purpose of the music, not added as an extra flamboyance.

The first piece on the program was the polonaise from the opera Eugene Onegin.  I was surprised I recognized it.  Polonaise is just a dance with a specific rhythm pattern (long, short, short, long, long, long, long) but it was lively and fun.  Click here for a link to the scene/dance from the opera.

James and Peter Oundjian backstage on
Jan 2011 Florida tour
Next was the Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 35), one of the famous ones in the violin repertoire.  It received scathing reviews when first debuted.  The worst from Hanslick who said the violin was "beaten black and blue", it "stunk", and the slow movement was lyrical before being interrupted by the "bombastic final movement" .  Apparently Tchaikovsky could recite the entire review for the rest of his life.  Thankfully saner heads have prevailed and it has became a beloved piece, understandably so.  It's exciting!  A virtuosic show piece that makes no apologies for it.

One of the highlights of the first movement is the cadenza in the middle (which Tchaikovsky actually wrote rather than leaving it up to the soloist), that has lots of double stops at an almost frantic pace.  At the end Ehnes looked at his bow and had to pull off broken bow hairs.  The piece has a fiddle like sound to it, particularly in the final movement which is reminiscent of a cossack Russian dance.  For an insightful discussion on the piece by none other than James Ehnes himself (complete with instrumental demonstrations) check out this link.  The audience was on their feet immediately and wouldn't settle without an encore which turned out to be Caprice 16 by Paganini.

Post intermission things moved onto Symphony #2 in C Minor.  Apparently there's a popular joke where a professor asks a class of music students how many symphonies Tchaikovsky wrote.  A student in the back row puts up his hand and answers "Three, sir.  Numbers 4, 5, and 6."  All this to indicate that his other symphonies are not often performed.  Number 2 is nicknamed "The Little Russian" since it has a basis in Ukrainian folk song.  This is no longer politically correct since the Ukraine is now it's own republic, but there's still historical significance.

The opening begins with a horn solo, excellently performed by TSO principal horn Neil Deland, and there were great clarinet solo/duets with various other wind instruments.  The lively fourth movement was my favourite and reminded me at the start of the "1812 Overture", which wouldn't be written for another eight years.  There are parts that remind me of his Nutcracker music as well, although that didn't debut for another 10 years after the "1812 Overture".  Great composers never throw any ideas away perhaps?  It was extremely enjoyable to hear this uncommon symphony performed with such devotion and skill.  Looking forward to hearing more of the Tchaikovsky symphonies and concertos featuring Mr. Ehnes.  Go Canada!

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