The headline number from last night's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert, conducted by Arild Remmereit, was the 45-minute performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in b-minor, Op. 74 (the "Pathétique"). Unfortunately, instead of being a headline in all caps, it came in lower case as a missed opportunity.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1940-1893) is one of the most celebrated Russian composers. His orchestrations are so brilliant that the music can take performances featuring a lower level of execution and still elevate them to higher place. He is the master of gorgeous melodies, themes, and fragments of notes spread throughout each section of an orchestra, and ensuring that those notes sound clearly above the orchestral accompaniment. Tchaikovsky died a mere nine days after he conducted the premiere of his symphony in St. Petersburg. What more reason do you need to tap into the depths of your emotions when listening to or performing that work?
I mention all of this about Tchaikovsky and this piece for two reasons. The first and most important being that if -- as I felt happened last night -- the conductor and the musicians do not pour their hearts and souls into the performance, a great work can sound surprisingly flat. Breaks in French horn lines.Warbling in sustained trombone tones.Charging through a tempo marking of "Allegro con grazia" (fast, but with grace). A Finale marked "Adagio lamentoso" (stately, lamenting) that grew too big too quickly and lost its poignancy. Every element available through Tchaikovsky's pen seemed like an unfulfilled opportunity.
I secondly raise the mastery of the Tchaikovsky score because it followed a performance of the Piano Concerto in c-sharp minor, Op. 45 by American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) that simply couldn't measure up in that setting. The Beach composition repeatedly put the piano front and center, into repetitions of single octaves split as one note in each hand, simultaneous octaves in each hand, two-note trills one octave apart, and literal scales. While the pianist, Saet Byeol Kim, appeared to do what she could with the score, it became difficult to assess whether it was the repetitive notes of the score or the execution that created walls of sound.
Also, in comparison to the Tchaikovsky, one could ask whether all of the business (for example, in the second Scherzo movement) developed the work. With the Tchaikovsky "Pathétique," you can scarcely imagine leaving out a note, even though it is a more complex work than the Beach. The challenge the Beach seems to present for an orchestra, and especially for a pianist, is how to express subtle gradations of sound, so that if you have 10 or 20 octaves in a row you have sound that rises and falls or flutters or cycles, or in some way contributes to the musicality of the performance.
One final note: I was far from the only person in the audience who was curious and pleased to hear the "Introduction to Khovanshchina" by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov). A mere five minutes, this enchanting piece left the people chattering in the balcony, wanting to hear more.
The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, November 17, at 8 p.m. in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$92. For more information call 454-2100 or visit RPO.org.