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Shortcuts to Dramatic Rapture

February 27, 2010

We sometimes become victims of our own success, and no one more so than Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The wildly romantic 19th century Russian composer wrote some of the most memorable and accessible music in the classical canon, much of which predictably surfaces whenever dramatic need dictates. Such rampant overuse often leads to parody, which can threaten the compositions’ original esthetic.

Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 is one such piece. Its lushly romantic opening allegro non troppo has become the Harlequin-romance-novel-equivalent of musical movements, a shortcut to dramatic rapture for those incapable of creating their own. In the hands of a virtuoso like Stephen Hough, however, even the most road-weary melody can return to its original luster, providing an experience for contemporary listeners equivalent to what audiences must first have heard when the work premiered in 1875.

Hough provided that experience for Madison Symphony Orchestra audiences this weekend. His masterful performance enlivened the well-known strains, bringing renewed life to the overly familiar melodies. The pianist played with notable clarity, each movement distinct without interrupting the overall melodic flow. Despite its familiarity, the Tchaikovsky concerto is a technical challenge for even the most accomplished pianist. Those challenges proved moot during Hough’s impressive rendition.

The pianist returned for a very brief solo encore of Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Hearts.” The arrangement carried forward many of the same romantic themes, almost acting as a miniature of the 32-minute concert that preceded it.

The evening focused on central European music that seemed in some way touched by Russian oppression. The opening number, composer Heino Eller’s Dawn, is a tone poem whose title refers not to sunrise but the emergence of Estonia’s freedom from Russian rule. (Both Eller and conductor Tali are Estonian.) Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 49, a large orchestral work that filled the evening’s second half, was written at the end of the 19th century, a time when the composer’s native Finland found itself under the thumb of Imperial Russian rule much like Estonia. (Obviously, there was a post-oppression political theme at work throughout the program.)

Both works faired well under the baton of diminutive guest conductor Anu Tali, whose broad gestures coaxed strong performances from MSO’s cadre of fine performers, including oboist Marc Fink’s emotive solo during the Eller work. I can’t claim to be an ardent fan of Sibelius, but the grand nature of the symphony allowed for moments of beauty and strength during which one could almost hear the composer’s strident opposition to Russian rule.

It was an odd thread with which to tie together a collection of excellent performances, but there have been lesser rationales. This one seemed to work well enough to make for an evening of memorable musical moments.

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