Drunk one night, I made a startling admission, to myself and those around me: I prefer Tchaikovsky to Beethoven. It was like, I dunno, telling your friends you’ll take the Stones over the Beatles. The emotion in Tchaikovsky might be simpler, almost childish (though still musically complex) in its forthrightness, but I think it’s richer for it; like a terrific detergent, it makes the darks darker, the brights brighter. This was no clearer than in the Festival Coronation March, which opened the NY Philharmonic’s all-Tchaikovsky Summertime Classics program, divided between obscure and renowned pieces. It’s a march to put all other marches to shame: epic, hard-hitting, balls to the wall from its first beat. It wouldn’t even be fit for the greatest men and women of history—it’s fit for no mere mortal, steeped instead in the impossible majesty of deities.
The concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which conductor Bramwell Tovey noted is much harder to play than No. 1, and thus it’s not often heard in the concert hall. The piano parts, Tovey said, are “fast, furious and frenetic” (excepting a soft and sweet second movement), evident from soloist Simon Trpceski’s playing, a flurry of hands playing wild, often playful cadenzas from end to end of the keyboard. For an encore, dedicated to his sister, Trpceski played “an old French song”—arranged for piano by Tchaikovsky, to fit in with the evening’s theme!
Tovey is a pleasure on the podium. For years, I’ve seen him lead these Summertime Classics concerts, which are meant to be lighter than subscription concerts (the orchestra wears white tops, for example!). His shtick is the same: he riffs on tardy arrivers, drily self-deprecates, but also offers real insight into the music. His lighthearted manner obscures his serious musicianship, the big and bright, clean and cohesive sound he elicits from the orchestra. He’s a stellar Romantic, especially when leading stellarly Romantic work like Act IV of Swan Lake. (After intermission, the program turned to better known pieces.) It was a hugely dramatic, howlingly emotional performance, with an orchestra at maximum volume, building to the Scene Finale that was just… whoa. “I don’t think I’ve heard the Philharmonic play so strong,” the lady behind me said. She meant loud.
That loudness carried into the 1812 Overture, which ends with “the brass playing as loudly as it can, the strings trying to start a fire, and the bells rung rampantly,” Tovey said. The music is written with “four fortes,” he added, “which is as loud as it gets before the health and safety people kick in.”
The New York Philharmonic will repeat this program tonight. More info here. It also plays Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on Wednesday at a free concert in Prospect Park. You are strongly advised to attend.
Listen to Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the finale of Swan Lake: