vista of Rome

vista of Rome
A funny thing (or two) happened on my way to the Forum - photo taken in Rome, 2003 by yours truly

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bloggo Tchaikovsko-go: Tchaikovsky and Taneyev at the GSO

Dottore Gianni, that indefatigable concert-goer, is pleased to report on another Greenville Symphony (GSO) matinee, sad to say one of the last in the season. It will be a long, hot summer without them! This one featured the entire GSO, in fact for the first part the stage was nearly bursting with musicians.

The program was entitled “The Russian Sorcerer and his Apprentice.” I’m still not sure why the GSO feels compelled to come up with such “clever” titles, but compared to earlier inanely titled concerts this season, this one is, if hardly brilliant, at least appropriate. The sorcerer is a fellow we’ve met a few times before in Dottore Gianni’s posts – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The apprentice was one of Tchaikovsky’s students, Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915). The two became great friends, and Taneyev, in addition to composing many musical works, also taught. His most famous pupil was Rachmaninoff. So Tchaikovsky’s apprentice turned master and acquired apprentices himself…but did he become a SORCERER?

A photo of old Verona (Verona? But we're talking about on, says Dottore Gianni, taken in 1999 from the remains of the ancient Roman theatre

The first half of the program, which was devoted to Taneyev’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 12, left Dottore Gianni with questions. This symphony, along with most of Taneyev’s works, seems not to travel well. Taneyev is apparently revered in his homeland (where he is known as the “Russian Bach”), but is very seldom performed in the U.S. Whether it was the fault of the composition itself or the GSO’s rendering of it, the good doctor can understand why. The symphony, which is marked thus:

I.               Allegro Molto
II.             Adagio
III.           Scherzo vivace
IV.           Allegro energico – Molto maestoso

features strains of Tchaikovsky, particularly in the second movement, the only one Dottore Gianni can say he enjoyed. A satisfying melodic line, with a series of lovely variations, and interesting shifts from one section of the orchestra to another propelling the same melody forward was pleasureful. The rest was a mish-mash, played loud and lasting looooong. Suffice to say Maestro Tchivzhel's introduction of Taneyev to Greenville audiences is hardly likely to introduce the rest of the U.S. to a "surge" in the music of "Serge" (French for Sergei) Taneyev.

And now, a bit more on Taneyev. Like his music, his life was a good bit less interesting than Tchaikovsky's, though it did 
a middle-aged Taneyev 
have its moments. Like Tchaikovsky he was an excellent pianist, performing the great First Piano Concerto at its successful Moscow premiere (coming after a disastrous world premiere played by another pianist in St Petersburg), as well as the world premiere of Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto. When Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory Taneyev took over his teaching position, and when he traveled through Europe Taneyev became acquainted with some of the most famous personages of the era including Zola, Flaubert, and Saint-Saens.

Perhaps the most exciting, potentially even scandalous episodes in his life came during the two summers the composer spent with Tolstoy and his family. Apparently the great novelist's wife became enamored of Taneyev, much to the embarrassment of her children and the irritation of Tolstoy himself. The irony, in Dottore Gianni's opinion (and he IS as we've come to learn a very opinionated fellow) is that Taneyev himself was completely unaware of her affection!

Another piece that Taneyev wrote, and called his best work, is The Oresteia - this topic is of intrinsic interest to Dottore Gianni as it is the only surviving trilogy of Greek tragedy, written by, as any schoolboy knows, Aeschylus - like most of his other music it is little performed in the U.S., though Bard College produced it in 2013 - a photo from that production.

The Wikipedia (that faultless - ahem! - font of information) article notes that Taneyev was "a fastidious and diligent craftsman" - the kiss of death, thinks Dottore Gianni. A further comparison of the two composers in that article, from the point of view of the good doctor, damns him with faint praise: "Tchaikovsky prized spontaneity in musical creativity. Taneyev, in contrast, thought musical creativity should be both deliberate and intellectual, with preliminary theoretical analysis and preparation of thematic details.

The passage above describes efficiently the effect Taneyev's Fourth Symphony had an Dottore Gianni: more a "deliberate and intellectual" (read dull) academic experiment than the work of a master - much less a sorcerer. 

Fortunately there was a good bit more pleasure to be had in part two of the concert. This consisted of two favorite and frequently performed works by the "Sorcerer" Tchaikovsky, 
Tchaikovsky at about the age when he
wrote Romeo & Juliet
the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Capriccio Italien. The former has been called the composer's first masterpiece, written when he was a mere 29 years old. It is also one of Dottore Gianni's most beloved works by his pal Pyotr. Why? It seems to the good doctor that this twenty-minute composition captures sublimely the spirit of Shakespeare's great tragedy, which of course takes at least two hours to perform. One of my favorite productions of the play makes the two powerful families more the center of focus than the star-crossed lovers, but however it is performed, the clash between a naive and beautiful love story and warring 
The so-called House of Juliet
in Verona, with verse in Englaish
clans is central to any good production of the play. And this is what Tchaikovsky captures so brilliantly in his music - the lyrical and very well known main theme of the lovers, introduced quietly building to soaring strength then recapitulated at the end of the piece as a sad but lovely dirge, is almost literally slain by the other memorable theme in the fantasy-overture, that of violent inter-familial conflict in which one can almost hear the swordplay. This second theme collides with the first and, if well played, can be very moving.

Maestro Tchivzhel handled the collision between love and war sensitively. The orchestra seemed at its best (at least in the two seasons of Dottore Gianni's observations) in this 
The so-called Tomb of Juliet in Verona
work. Tchivzhel is a showman, in some ways a show-off, but while he took the war-like portions very swiftly and strongly, in this case it seemed the perfect intrusion on young, blind love, which theme was subtle in its sublimity. And "subtle" is a word that Dottore Gianni uses less and less with Tchivzhel and the GSO, so he he is very happy to report its presence here. Romeo and Juliet is a play that the good doctor knows very well, and at many moments in hearing this particular rendition of the fantasy-overture, scenes, even exact lines from the play floated through his head. He was, as he noted above, moved and touched by a familiar piece of music, and in this particular piece one can ask no more. As close to perfection as the GSO comes.

Roman Carnival in 1839, painted by the Russian Myasoyedov
In Capriccio Italien, written during Tchaikovsky's 1880 sojourn in Italy, Tchivzhel is freed of the need to be subtle and for this piece of music, why not be brazen? In this instance, Dottore Gianni gives permission! In this piece Tchaikovsky mixes sounds and an evocation of sights he saw while the Roman Carnival caroused around him. He was an observer, but judging from the exuberance of his music also if not a participant, one who took joy in it. The sounds he incorporates include, in addition to Italian folk tunes sung and danced at this wild celebration of the last day before Lent, a bugle call from the army barracks next to his lodgings that woke him every morning! And the conclusion of the piece is a crazy tarantella (a dance that brings to mind the tarantula - witness, in a much more serious work of dramatic art, Nora's desperate dance in Ibsen's Doll House - and that some say is a cure for the bite of that fearsome spider). 

Just in case you don't believe that Russians went to the
Carnival in Rome, here's another Russian painting of
it, this time by Orlov in 1859
I have complained recently of the excesses, the melodrama that Tchivzhel and the GSO bring to many of their performances. They do so here as well, but in this case it works! Dottore Gianni will confess that the signature melodies of the Capriccio Italien have bored him in the past, but he, like the rest of the audience at the concert he attended, became caught up in the excitement, and the concert crashed delightfully (unusual mix of words, but that's what the good doctor feels) to a close.

Coda: What the heck is a capriccio anyway? Dictionary meanings usually include three primary meanings: 

1, whim, fancy
2. prank, caper
3. unpredictable
4. an instrumental piece in free form, usually lively in tempo and brilliant in style; a musical marking that indicates such a form, tempo and style

It's an Italian word, first noted in the seventeenth century. The English language equivalent is caprice, in adjectival form capricious.

Capriccio of Rome, by Pannini

(coda to the coda): While not included in some dictionary entries, certainly not the ones Dottore Gianni found on line, there is in the visual arts, specific to Italy in the eighteenth century (though it spread beyond Italy's borders) a kind of painting called capriccio. This form is usually "an architectural fantasy, placing together buildings, archaeological remains and other architectural elements in fictional and often fantastical combinations..." (from Wikipedia's entry on the artistic sense of the word). The good doctor has seen several of these in his travels and offers an example of one just above, by the artist Pannini. He (as do I) wants to be sure that the reader is aware of that usage as well, but he also offers a much darker kind of painted, in this case drawn capriccio, or capricho in Spanish.  At the end of the eighteenth century the brilliant Spanish artist Francisco de Goya painted 80 of what he called caprichos (many of which hang in the Prado, which Dottore Gianni had the opportunity to visit several months ago), bitter, frightening, often surreal satires on social and politico themes he found within the world he lived. One of the most horrific examples is just below.

"The Sleep of Reason produces monsters," capricho #43 by Goya

As an obnoxious little girl who advertises her daddy's window firm on local South Carolina TV says, in a major Southern twang, "So now you know!" (p.s. Dottore Gianni positively LOATHES this commercial) all about the word capriccio!

And enough about Taneyev as well as a bit more about Tchaikovsky, I hope. Another concert looms this coming weekend, the penultimate of the season. So, stay tuned!