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Charlotte Symphony shows the warmer side of Tchaikovsky

Sep 30, 2016

Peter Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, perhaps more than any other work in the classical repertoire, is a warning to critics and musicians to watch what they say. Iosif Kotek, the violinist who helped the composer prepare it, refused to play it in public, thinking a poor reception would hamper his career. Leopold Auer, to whom it was dedicated, declined to premiere it, saying, "I regretted that the great composer had not shown it to me before committing it to print. Much unpleasantness might then have been spared us both...."

And Eduard Hanslick, perhaps the most influential music critic in Vienna when it premiered there in 1881, suffered "the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear." He called the last movement "odorously Russian," reported that "the violin was not played but beaten black and blue," and years later lamented the concerto's "lamentably trivial Cossack cheer."

Yet it endures, now almost universally beloved. Music director Christopher Warren-Green imported soloist Esther Yoo to play it Friday in the all-Tchaikovsky concert that opened the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series. From the first notes, she made it her own.

Yoo joins the long line of first-rate young soloists Behzod Abduraimov, Natasha Paremski, Louis Schwizgebel and others Warren-Green has unearthed. She played the concerto not as an extroverted showpiece but as a tender contemplation of life, written by a man who was old before his time at 38.

Soulfulness, not showy virtuosity, ran through the long first movement. She became even more delicate in the lovely canzonetta, making you lean forward to hear her thread of sound. If the finale didn't whirl with wild joy, she played with good-natured warmth that built to a fire by the end a unique and deep performance seldom to be looked for in a musician of 22.

The orchestra opened with the "Hamlet" overture, a piece Tchaikovsky tried to get out of writing after promising a French actor incidental music for the play. Novelty justified programming it, but it consists of climax upon climax, with bland, slow intervals in between. (Mostly, it makes you appreciate his extraordinary "Romeo and Juliet" overture.)

Warren-Green accompanied Yoo sensitively, then stayed in the reflective mood she had set to lead the Fourth Symphony. Daringly slow tempos for the first two movements let us hear all of Tchaikovsky's wistful woodwind solos, especially in the oboe (Erica Cice) and bassoon (Joshua Hood); they also threatened at moments to stop the music's pulse altogether.

A sprightly scherzo with fizzing pizzicato strings raised the energy level, and Warren-Green whipped the orchestra forward in the final movement. New symphony president Mary Deissler had introduced herself at intermission and said, "Now I think we're going to hear them blow the roof off." That finale fulfilled her prediction.

By Lawrence Toppman, Charlotte Observer

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