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Happy 165th Birthday, Pyotr

(This review is contributed by Ionarts guest reviewer Lindsay Heller)

Last night began the first of a three-concert series given by the National Symphony Orchestra with Mstislav Rostropovich on the podium, with young violinist Mayu Kishima. The choice of an all-Tchaikovsky program proved to be a wise and commemorative decision: May 7 marks the composer's 165th birthday. Before anything else is said, what a difference a real conductor makes. Rostropovich—who is no youngster these days—was both energetic and charismatic and got the greatest sound out of the NSO I have heard in the five years I have lived in Washington, D.C. Having worked under Maestro Slatkin, I can attest to his lack of personality and humor, and I think his character translates into the sounds he sometimes gets out of the orchestra: dry. Rostropovich, on the other hand, created some of the most rich, beautiful, and lush sounds I have ever heard from a live symphony, and I can safely say that last night was the best Tchaikovsky I probably have heard outside of some noted recordings.

Although I heard he has lightened up in his older years, I know of many NSO violinists who played under Rostropovich when he first came to D.C. in 1975, and they all tell me the same horror story: the first rehearsal they had with him culminated in 97% of the first violin section being fired because they could not execute a specific passage perfectly upon the Maestro's random command. What the Maestro said to the orchestra rings through my mind everyday: "An orchestra is only as good as its first violin section." As a violinist myself, I get scared when I hear stories like that because those goings-on still occur today, but I can understand Rostropovich's methods from the viewpoint of a Type A personality: perfection can be achieved, and last night was a prime example.

Opening with the Nutcracker Suite, op. 71a, Rostropovich actually received a two-minute standing ovation once he reached the podium. Everything was delivered in typical Nutcracker fashion, with the exception of the "March" and the one movement everyone knows, the "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies": the orchestra was just a bit too slow and it made both of these sections seem a bit labored. Otherwise, the orchestra sounded glorious and seemed to have a lot of fun performing this old favorite under a conductor who, as the evening progressed, showed that he clearly understands Tchaikovsky and his music.

Mayu KishimaA native of Kobe, Japan, featured soloist Mayu Kishima was nothing short of sensational. Born in 1986 and playing the violin since age three, her short career has had her performing with many notable world orchestras and winning some of the most heralded violin competitions. It is rare to see a violinist so young who has not only great poise, but also a wonderful sense of musicality.

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 35, was abandoned by the man whom the composer intended to premiere it—Leopold Auer—on the basis that it was "unplayable." Time and time again many violinists have performed and recorded this concerto, but Kishima was absolutely amazing. She is a young lady with a beautiful, even tone, fabulous intonation, and a technique to make any other violinist envious. Her performance of the concerto was highly impassioned and expressive and carries the hallmark of a great performer: it was quite obvious that Kishima loved every note and played each one as if it was the most important of the piece. I have not seen a young violinist like this in such a long time, and well into intermission I still felt chills down my spine from such a perfect delivery. Not since a young Maxim Vengerov made his U.S. debut some years ago have I been so excited about a violinist. There is no doubt in my mind that Mayu Kishima is going to enjoy a long and prosperous career, and I am sure that the rest of the musical world eagerly awaits her next engagement.

Having written his first four symphonies in less than twelve years, it was not until more than ten years later that Tchaikovsky got around to his Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, op. 64. The year 1888 saw the composition of the Fifth Symphony, which displayed the composer writing in a somewhat different idiom than the Fourth, as well as experiencing a much more pleasant time in his personal life after repairing the emotional damage incurred by an ill-considered marriage to a woman he hardly knew. The celebrated themes of this symphony are unmistakable in that Tchaikovsky's emotional burden is clearly expressed in these melodic lines.

Other Articles:

Grace Jean, NSO's Happy Birthday Wish to Tchaikovsky (Washington Post, May 6)
The NSO gave the most riveting performance of this symphony I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Rostropovich led the orchestra through each of the four movements and clearly had every member of the ensemble completely enveloped in this beautiful, haunting, and emotionally tragic piece of music. The Andante was intense, yet wonderfully balanced and expressive from the moment the solo clarinet delivered the motto theme that is to be heard throughout all four movements. During the Andante cantible there were veritable explosions of brass and strings, but each thematic transition was seamless and the utmost attention to detail was paid to dynamics, as in the bittersweet resignation of the movement's quiet ending.

The same bittersweet mood continued into the third movement, a waltz that is wholly characteristic of Tchaikovsky, who liked to replace scherzos with this dance in many of his other works. The mood here varied greatly, and it is often difficult to tell what the composer was thinking in each section, with the "Fate" motto making its appearance and being tossed around to each section of the orchestra. With it no longer sounding fierce, hungry, and forbidding, the motto is made to sound casual and almost playful, with a hint of self-mockery.

The Finale is also quite typical of Tchaikovsky in its tempo and technical difficulties, but it is in this final movement that multiple metamorphoses occur. An extended introduction becomes nothing short of a majestic processional with a big, bright sound that filled the Kennedy Center with the orchestra's exceptionally round tone. Numerous variants on the motto theme, interrupted by percussion, with new colors erupted constantly, ultimately allowing the motto to become jubilant and reeking of confidence. The end of this movement is of particular enjoyment due to the number of false endings, which the orchestra simply mastered. It takes a few false statements of what appears to be end of the symphony to usher in a long and triumphant coda that delivers the "Fate" motto as a march. The build-up to the true finale becomes more and more ceremonial as the slow-march theme from the Andante is transformed into a horn-heavy fanfare. Instead of tragedy, the end of this marvelous work shows an affirmation of Tchaikovsky's talent and power that can be described with no other word but exuberant.

Although it took a few years for Tchaikovsky to look at his Fifth Symphony as something of an achievement, if he were alive to hear this performance, his decision to favor this piece would have been instantaneous. A few months after the 7 November 1888 premiere in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky wrote his beloved patron Mme Nadezha von Meck:
After each performance I become more and more convinced that my new symphony is a failure, and the consciousness of all this—and also of what it may indicate regarding the weakening of my creative powers—depresses me greatly. It seems that the symphony is too garish, too massive, too patchy and insincere, too long and generally of very little appeal. / Is it possible that I have already written myself out?
To answer the question you posed for yourself, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, no: you had not written yourself out. The NSO's performance of your Fifth Symphony is proof positive that your music is never lacking in beauty, emotion, and great skill, and I think you would have been extremely proud to have witnessed such an amazing delivery. The twelve-minute standing ovation was not just for Rostropovich and the National Symphony, but for you, too, Mr. Tchaikovsky. For anyone who witnessed this event, it is not one that occurs regularly but rather could be appropriately labeled as the "Halley's Comet of Orchestral Performing," because nights like this are a rare experience. And with that, Pyotr, I hope you have a very happy birthday filled with the joy that your music brought to us here in Washington last night.

One performance of this program remains, tonight (Saturday, May 7, at 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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