I feel like I should have something profound to say before next Wednesday – after all, I have buried myself in Tchaikovsky this week, preparing the Sixth Symphony and the First Piano Concerto. But, like the title of the Sixth Symphony, Pathétique, I feel like I am wading knee deep in a swamp of emotional turmoil every time I try to describe it.
If you want the nuts and bolts on the Sixth Symphony, I refer you to Classical Notes where you can get a brief overview of the work and its history on recordings.
As far as my own history with the work, it did not start off promising. The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies had always been favorites of mine. But I remember in one of my first conducting classes, one of the students had chosen to work on the Sixth Symphony… after thirty minutes of rehearsal, we had completed barely the first thirty seconds of the work. It’s no surprise actually – the opening moments of the symphony contain an insane number of dynamic and expressive markings. When you consider that only the single bassoon, violas, and basses play the opening, it’s even more ridiculous. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I promptly shut my score and decided that I would look at it again when I was more “mature”. A few years ago, while at the Curtis Institute of Music and even with the help of my great teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, I still feared the prospect of conducting it from cover to cover. Finally this past summer I decided that I had a conducting “blind spot” when it came to Russian repertoire – so I jumped at the opportunity to work solely on the Pathétique for an entire week this summer at a masterclass. What that really meant is that for two months prior to the masterclass, I forced myself everyday to chip away at this work and one piece at a time it began to fall into place. The way in which I struggled with this work is perhaps why it now has an important place in my repertoire. When discussing with the MSO which of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies to pair with the piano concerto, I immediately knew this would be my choice.
Studying the Sixth Symphony has its own set of challenges – simply reviewing a section of the score seems to take an emotional toll on my day. Every moment of the work is part of a mysterious, thrilling, and ultimately tragic journey. If you know Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, it has the same downward trajectory of unfulfilled love – except without all the glamour of the opera (which you will hear in the “Polonaise” that opens the program Wednesday night). And one gets the sense that whatever vision Tchaikovsky had for the work (we’ll never quite know), it was more than heartbreak. We’re talking total devastation and alienation. Often the beautiful moments seem more like hallucinations than anything real. Take, for instance, the second movement – it is calm and lyrical yet its desperate desire to break into a waltz is held back by the odd groups of five beats. This restlessness seems to lead straight into a maniacal scherzo-march as the third movement. The violent climax of the march leaves behind pain and loneliness as the last movement. Contrary to the “dying away” ending that one might expect from this symphony – instead, we hear in terrifying detail as the heartbeat of the work that has endured so much begins to sputter… and then stops.
It’s a wild journey and it is the kind of work that you don’t have to worry about “feeling the right thing” because, like the old Greek tragedies, it will grip you from beginning to end, from the opening bassoon solo to the final brass chorale. It’s a work that means a great deal to me and I am thrilled to have a chance to join with the MSO to share it with you.
P.S. And one can’t forget the amazing Joyce Yang with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto… It will be a memorable experience for all of us, I’m sure!