Columbus Symphony March 28-29: Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Arvo Pärt

Tchaikovsky and Antonia Milyukova during their 10 week marriage in 1877(Photo: wikipedia)
Tchaikovsky and Antonia Milyukova during their 10 week marriage in 1877(Photo: wikipedia)

The Columbus Symphony performs Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Sibelius Symphony no. 2 and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Friday and Saturday night at 8 in the Ohio Theater. My pre-concert talks are one hour before the performance.

Guest conductor is Anu Tali, with Guy Brauenstein, violin. Mr. Brauenstein comes to us from the Berlin Philharmonic. Maestra Tali founded the Nordic Symphony in 199. She is the e newly appointed music director of the Sarasota Symphony.

Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky married Antonia Milyukova in 1877. Ten weeks later he was suicidal. Antonia was a somewhat deranged music student. Tchaikovsky was homosexual. His own brother was among the many urging him to abandon Antonia. She had been stalking the composer for some time and it seems he felt marrying her would at least let him know her whereabouts. It did, and the marriage nearly killed him.

The composer was packed off to Italy for a summer of work, and R&R. Antonia was given a nice pension and lived on until 1913. The couple never divorced and also never saw one another again.

Tchaikovsky’s only violin concerto was completed during his Italian “convalescence”. The composer had long admired Leopold Auer, a sensational artist who set the standard for the violin. But Auer declared the concerto unplayable. Critic Eduard Hanslick loathed Tchaikovsky and his music and the violin concerto was no exception: “The violin is no longer played. It is pulled, torn and drubbed.”

What was the big deal? Today we know a dramatic three movement work with virtuosic writing for the violin. The solo instrument is never swamped by the orchestra. Tchaikovsky was writing neither pure entertainment or a violin bonanza. As always in his music, the composer struggled to keep an emotional equilibrium.

The premiere eventually went to Adolf Brodsky on December 4 1881. Hans Richter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic.

If Tchaikovsky was needy, emotional and unstable, Jean Sibelius was quiet, stoical and emotionally removed. What I always get from his music is the feeling of space. I’ve never been to Finland, but 100 years ago it was known to be frozen, silent and struggling with Sweden and later Russia for self-rule. The darkness could be 20 hours long. I can’t say Sibelius wrote loving or deeply romantic (in the heart and flowers way) music. He aches with loneliness and his chiaroscuro (there’s a word to tip your hat for) his play of light against dark makes music the biography of a place-of Finland.

The second symphony opens with a little riff that never develops. We never hear it again. Instead we have a muscular and addictive score, complete with fantastic brass chorus and rustic sounding melodies traced back to the Kalevala and Icelandic runes.

Sibelius died at the age of 92 in 1957. He had not published any music in 35 years. There’s a long rumored 8th symphony. In fact, it reached the contract stage for a Boston premiere conducted by Koussevitzky. It never happened. Some say the 8th symphony was never written. Others have a “wait and see” attitude. It would be worth waiting for.

Maestra Tali begins her Columbus program with music of her compatriot, Arvo Pärt. The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten mourned that composer’s death in 1976. Pärt achieves great expressiveness with a minimum of fuss. The Cantus builds to a crescendo, over the cantus firmus of by one small bell.

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