In this musical melting pot we call NSO @ Wolf Trap, we celebrate a composer who has become as American to us as the Fourth of July. So embraced has he been in our country that we have actually Americanized his name. Johann, Wolfgang, and Ludwig got to keep their names, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is affectionately known as "Peter" to his friends.
Two works on tonight's concert have taken root in the United States deeper than anywhere else. (Ironically, they were two of Tchaikovsky's least favorite pieces.) From Halloween to New Year's Eve, every elevator and mall in America blares the melodious marzipan of the Nutcracker Suite. From sea to shining sea, on July 4th, every orchestra dusts off its canons for the 1812 Overture.
We also share another fond, if not so familiar work from Tchaikovsky's canon: the final act of his 1879 opera Eugene Onegin, based on the acclaimed novel by Alexander Pushkin. The opera's glittering "Ballroom Scene" was an instant hit throughout Russia and eventually the rest of Europe. With Onegin, Tchaikovsky made his mark, overcoming the many flops of his previous attempts at opera, ballet and symphonies.
The Violin Concerto in D Major had a more difficult genesis. Written during a time when the emotionally unstable composer was overcoming a failed marriage, part of a disastrous attempt to repress his sexual identity, he had retreated to a Swiss resort where he spent time in the company of a young violinist Iosif Kotek. Though Tchaikovsky wrote other works for the violin, including the lovely Serenade, this would be his only major concerto. After finishing the work, he dedicated it to Kotek, who rejected the offering, fearing his presumed romantic relationship with the composer might damage his reputation. Later Kotek would decline to perform it, which ended his friendship with the composer. Ironically, all Iosif Kotek is remembered for is spurning an honor that would have given him immortality.
Tchaikovsky then attempted to dedicate the work to the great violinist and teacher Leopold Auer, who also took a pass, finding its technical aspects unsuitable to the instrument and unlikely to succeed. It was not Auer's finest hour, and though the composer ultimately forgave him, he deeply regretted his decision. Finally, Tchaikovsky's overture was accepted by the violinist Adolph Brodsky, who premiered it in 1881, in a notoriously unwelcoming environment ruled by the notoriously anti-Russian music critic Eduard Hanslick. "Tchaikovsky is obsessed with posturing as a genius, but lacks discrimination and taste," he wrote. "In the finale we see a host of savage, vulgar faces, hear crude curses and smell the booze." Nowadays an artist might take that as a compliment!
Tchaikovsky made an indelible mark on the orchestral, concerto and opera repertoire, but his imprint on ballet was formidable. Following the success of The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky was asked to write a ballet based on ETA Hoffmann's The Mouse King and the Nutcracker. On a voyage to America to conduct at the opening of the new Music Hall in New York, built by a certain Mr. Carnegie, he began writing the third of his three masterful ballet scores. Tchaikovsky wasn't particularly inspired by the story and the writing was drudgery until upon returning to Europe he discovered the tinkling sound of August Mustel's celesta. Tchaikovsky would turn tinkle into twinkle for the Sugar Plum Fairy, a sound that puts every little girl and every Billy Elliott instantly on pointe.
Like the Violin Concerto, the Nutcracker ballet flopped at its first performance, but the suite of themes Tchaikovsky fashioned from the ruins became one of his biggest hits, a holiday perennial as American as Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," Johnny Mathis's rendition of "Winter Wonderland," Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," and Mariah Carey belting "All I Want for Christmas is You." The ballet itself went on to become the cash cow of ballet companies everywhere, without which many would not exist. It's no exaggeration to say that with one work Tchaikovsky shaped the American cultural landscape permanently. Every dance alive owes him a reverent bow.
Finally, the work you are all Ilyichin' to hear, the clumsily named "The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, opus 49." One of the composer's least favorite works, it was commissioned to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon. It is hard to imagine our national holiday without those patriotic strains of "God Save the Czar" and "Le Marseillaise."
Wait a second... did we mention three ballets? Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, and what's the other, you know, the one from the movie? You know, the one with what's-her-name from Star Wars? The pretty one. Oh, that's right, Swan Lake. Alas, you won't be hearing it tonight, but at least it's comforting to know we are not alone is dissing our beloved Tchaikovsky, who wasn't even nominated for an Oscar for his work on the 2010 film Black Swan starring Natalie Portman.
And the Oscar went to? Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network. Hard-working, talented composers, no doubt. And you can be sure that in a hundred year's time they will be beloved household names.
Just like Iosif Kotek.
NSO @ Wolf Trap: Tcheers for Tchaikovsky! with conductor Pietari Inkinen and violinist Caroline Goulding is tonight at 8:15 pm.