Review: GR Symphony’s ‘All Tchaikovsky’ offers moments of arresting beauty

“Everyone loves Tchaikovsky,” declared a man in the DeVos Performance Hall mezzanine on Friday evening. Whether this statement is true or not, Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) Music Director Marcelo Lehninger knows his audience. Better yet, their tastes align with his own.

While introducing Friday’s all-Tchaikovsky program, Lehninger named the Russian composer among his favorites. He explained that his interpretative approach was one of respect toward the composer’s original intent, even with the music’s ample opportunities for artistic liberty.

As a Tchaikovsky fan, I was glad to hear this. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a sensitive, fatalistic man who grappled with his hidden homosexuality for most of his adult life. As a true Romantic composer, and in an environment hostile toward his nature, he used his music to express the inexpressible. His brilliant and recognizable melodies stand on their own, and are saturated with strong emotion and his inner turmoil.

The GRS concert featured three works from Tchaikovsky’s prime, beginning with the “polonaise” from Eugene Onegin, his most successful opera. Tchaikovsky based his work on the bleak but well-loved novel written in poetic verse by Alexander Pushkin, founder of modern Russian literature. The polonaise (an old Polish dance among the gentry) is the centerpiece of a Moscow ball scene at the top of Act III. Nodding to this aristocratic imagery, the GRS orchestra brass proudly articulated the march-like rhythm characterizing the dance, while the violins soared above with the stately melody.

A performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” followed, with Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero joining the orchestra for her first Grand Rapids appearance. Known for her real-time improvisations on melodies suggested by her audiences, Montero has traversed the world’s finest music halls (and former President Obama’s inauguration) with her visionary interpretations of standard repertoire.

In Montero’s large, graceful hands, the concerto unfolded into moments of agonizing beauty. Her cadenzas effortlessly glided from balletic plinking to plaintive storminess. She and the orchestra did a marvelous job of building tension throughout the first movement, indulging in the drama of its mercurial themes and moods with a handful of sticky transitions. Their efforts were rewarded with the audience leaping to their feet at the movement’s glorious conclusion, with two more to go.

After soulful interplay between the orchestra and Montero in the second movement, they together embraced the vivacity of the third movement’s Ukrainian folk theme and the tranquility of its string melody for an electrifying thrill, complete with astonishing fingerwork by Montero. Treating the audience with her improvisational prowess for an encore, she riffed on “Happy Birthday” per an audience member’s request, metamorphosing the tune from a Bach-esque composition into a jaunty piano rag. Here’s hoping Saturday’s audience offers a more original suggestion worthy of her creativity (heads up: she won’t start playing until you sing the melody).

Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5” is a warhorse of a piece. In his compositional sketches, Tchaikovsky labeled the symphony’s main theme as “complete resignation before Fate.” The GRS orchestra quickly embodied this dark mood in the first movement, with Lehninger allowing his interpretive ideas to flow freely as he molded musical phrases. A ruminative second movement featured a somber French horn solo from Principal Richard Britsch, and culminated in arresting lyricism. A buoyant third movement was equally as lovely, with the sinister fate theme re-emerging from the clarinets and bassoons to anticipatory effect. For the finale, Lehninger and the orchestra smartly played down the bombast, which made its famous fake-out ending (think The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) gratifying, rather than clownish.

For Tchaikovsky devotees and newcomers alike, this concert is an inspirational presentation of some of his greatest works. With more all-Tchaikovsky concerts to come in future GRS seasons, audiences will have more opportunities to experience his genius.

All Tchaikovsky
Grand Rapids Symphony