Classical Concerts


I always have music running around my brain. Lately it’s been Tchaikovsky. That’s probably because I took my wife to a symphony concert about a month ago, the first one I’d been to for more than twenty years. The program was a prelude from Lohengrin (I think I’d heard that one before), a Violin concerto by Samuel Barber (which I hadn’t), and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphony, the only piece I was really familiar with.
I remember seeing a program on PBS in which an orchestra was getting ready to perform the symphony, though they hadn’t gotten as far as rehearsing yet, only thinking about how they were going to play. One woman said she had about 23 very nice notes to play on piccolo in the fourth movement, but she had to play them very fast.
That movement IS a very fast movement. I’ve likened it sometimes to a series of car crashes, but the sound isn’t quite that percussive. Drums are present, but I was surprised to notice that the kettle drummer had to be extremely precise about where she played, and then immediately silence the drum so it didn’t reverberate. As one seduced by the grandeur of classic rock, Tchaikovsky sounded a little too smooth.
His music was some of the first classical music I ever paid attention to, and I loved his last three symphonies. The Fourth is the first of those, and starts off portentiously with braying horns, then enters a quieter theme with an oboe (?) followed by sweet strings. The 78 rpm album we had at home of that symphony featured a drawing of someone doing the gopak on it, the dance (Cossack?) in which the person squats, and kicks out one leg than the other. The drawing and that second theme always intrigued me.
I’ve listened to a lot of classical recordings over the years, but haven’t attended that many concerts. The Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz I saw the Cleveland Orchestra do almost 50 years ago (I think George Szell was still actively conducting) left me pretty cold, but a couple of concerts almost 10 years later were different.
One outside at the Blossom Music Center featured Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to which I can never be indifferent. Possibly my favorite symphony, and also probably my favorite Beethoven composition.
Another was a performance by the Cleveland Symphony in Akron, where I was living at the time. I went there for the program of two favorite pieces: Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsodyt on a Theme of Paganini. The final piece performed that night was Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony. I had some idea who Shostakovitch was, but had never heard any of his music at that time. I had already decided to go home, as I had to work the next morning, but found the opening movement of the symphony fascinating. The sound seemed immense and powerful, as if it were producing something enigmatically twisted. I haven’t been able to hear that on recordings since, which makes me believe the symphony is best heard in performance, possibly in a particularly good acoustic space.
That performance was memorable, and I kind of wish I had stayed for the whole piece. Other classical concerts were somewhat less so. A performance of Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto at Dartmouth College was memorable mainly because the student trumpeter was clearly unable to play his solo parts. I communicated my amusement in a low voice to someone I was sitting with, drawing the ire of someone sitting in front of me.
The other piece was De Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, also a longtime favorite. The performance wasn’t bad, but what I was most impressed with was the pomposity of the pianist. It wasn’t that he played poorly, just that he seemed arrogant, for what reason I have no idea.
The Tchaikovsky symphony was the first classical concert I’ve attended since then, as far as I can remember. I hope to attend more while I still can.


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