Above: NY Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Joshua Gersen, photo by Chris Lee
Thursday February 8th, 2017 - For this third of three Tchaikovsky-oriented programs in a series entitled 'Beloved Friend - Tchaikovsky and His World' at The New York Philharmonic, a blustery snowstorm had caused some concern that the performance might be canceled. But by 1:00 PM the snowfall had ceased and, despite slippery streets and a cold wind, fans of the Philharmonic flocked to Geffen Hall to hear the ever-popular Pathétique symphony.
But then there was another wrinkle in the orchestra's best-laid plans: Maestro Semyon Bychkov, who was presiding over the Beloved Friend cycle, had taken ill with stomach flu during the afternoon. The house lights dimmed, the voice of Alec Baldwin (receiving applause!) was heard asking that we turn off our cellphones, and then an announcement was made from the stage that Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Joshua Gersen would be replacing Maestro Bychkov.
The change of conductors necessitated a change in the program: Sergei Taneyev's Oresteia Overture would not be performed. This was a letdown for me, and for the woman seated in front of me; she let out a loud sigh: like me, she must have really been anticipating the chance to hear this rarity.
The players of the Philharmonic gave great support to Joshua Gersen all evening, both by applauding and tapping their bows for him, and by playing their hearts out. This was Gersen's subscription concert debut; next season he is listed for a Barber~Bernstein~Copland program.
Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini was composed in the Autumn of 1876. During August of that year, Tchaikovsky had been at Bayreuth to cover the premiere of Wagner's RING Cycle for the Russian press. Although his reports were not in Wagner's favor, the music of the RING may have affected the Russian composer sub-consciously. From its rumbling start, much of Francesca is very noisy, as befits its Hellish setting; was Wagner's Nibelheim on Tchaikovsky's mind?
The calm, melancholy central section of Francesca is ultra-Tchaikovsky. Led by remarkable playing from principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, the Philharmonic's wind soloists are here given passage after passage where their artistry is brought to the fore; I could not always see who was playing, but Liang Wang's oboe and Kim Laskowski's bassoon piped up attractively; the flute and English horn players were hidden from my view, but how beautifully they sang forth...to say nothing of the redolent soundings of the horns. In this andante cantabile, Francesca da Rimini's signature phrase - "There is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times when one is miserable..." - finds Tchaikovsky's writing at its most achingly descriptive. Then, back to the tempestuous as the tone poem's ending looms before us.
Maestro Gersen had passed his first test: the musicians joined the audience in warmly applauding him. A solo bow for Anthony McGill after Francesca rightly drew bravos; we were in for still more of McGill's magic (though he was invisible to me) during the Pathétique, for which principal bassoonist Judith LeClair was also in place, with her lovely, rich tone to open the evening's second half.
The Pathétique was Tchaikovsky's final completed symphony; it was composed between February and the end of August 1893, and the composer led the premiere on October 28th of the same year. Ten days later, he was dead. Tchaikovsky had referred to the work with the Russian word Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), meaning "impassioned" or "emotional". Somehow this seemed to become pathétique ("evoking pity"), in French; the name stuck, at least outside Russia.
The premiere apparently caused mixed reactions, but the sixth symphony was fully embraced at its second performance: at a memorial concert for Tchaikovsky conducted by Eduard Nápravník. Gustav Mahler, in particular, wrote disparagingly of Tchaikovsky's last work.
Tonight, hearing the Pathétique played live for only the second time, l had mixed feelings about it. The big themes were very well-played, especially the first movement’s intense, romantic pulling of the heartstrings. The unbalanced waltz, 'in 5/4 time', has its own ironic appeal, and the march-like third movement carries us along like victorious foot-soldiers. The moving passages of the final Adagio lamentoso seem to evoke the secret Tchaikovsky was hiding from the world, and the symphony ends on a note of mystery: a faltering heart-beat.
While often described as the composer's farewell to a life lived in the shadow of guilt over his homosexual nature - a theory that can certainly be supported by the final movement - to me, especially after tonight's performance, the Pathétique seemed simply another chapter in the composer's ongoing saga, and that there were many more chapters still to come - until he drank that tainted glass of water.
My friend Dmitry, far more immersed in the symphonic repertoire than myself (I've come to it rather late in my musical life, as a refugee from the opera) thought tonight's performance of the Pathétique had its moments but also some wayward tempi. Overall, buoyed by the supportive atmosphere established by the players, Maestro Gersen made a positive impression and saved the evening; we can look forward with enthusiasm to his "own" program next season.
The guys from the Escher String Quartet were in the audience this evening at Geffen Hall; they are in town for concerts at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center - catch them if you can!