Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, Conductor
Miriam Fried, Violin
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Nutcracker Suite No. 1
“1812” Festival Overture, Op. 49 (with live cannons)
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-83)
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
“I neither know, nor can I understand why, despite such favorable circumstances, I am not disposed to work. Am I played out? I have to squeeze out of myself weak and worthless ideas, and ponder every bar. But I shall achieve my goal, and I hope inspiration will dawn upon me.” At his retreat in Clarens, Switzerland, Tchaikovsky initiated a new composition project in 1878 that, he hoped, would revive his beleaguered spirits. The disillusionment caused by his short-lived, disastrous marriage to Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova still clouded his thoughts and dulled his imagination.
Josef Kotek, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, arrived in Clarens, bringing a welcome breath of fresh air. This young violinist was resident musician to the wealthy and eccentric Nadezhda von Meck. Two years earlier, Kotek had convinced her to commission several short works for violin and orchestra from Tchaikovsky. Thrilled by the results, she offered Tchaikovsky a substantial annual salary, freeing him from teaching responsibilities at the Conservatory. As Tchaikovsky’s patron and friend, the influential Meck helped expedite his divorce proceedings. Plans for a violin concerto quickly came into focus. By March 28, 1878, Tchaikovsky had completed three movements. Dissatisfied with the slow movement, he excised it and wrote another. (The original movement later became the Méditation in his Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42.) Orchestration was completed on April 11.
Tchaikovsky praised Kotek for his devotion to the new work: “How lovingly he busies himself with my concerto! It goes without saying that I would have been able to do nothing without him. He plays it marvelously!” In the end, however, Tchaikovsky dedicated the concerto to Leopold Auer, though he refused to perform it claiming that it was “unviolinistic”—a situation far too reminiscent of the Piano Concerto No. 1 debacle with Nikolai Rubinstein. Another violinist, Adolf Brodsky, played the premiere.
The Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, displays an uncommon Classic balance in its first few measures. Orchestral tension builds, the violin enters and, after a pause, the full-blooded Romantic first theme is proclaimed. The violin solo introduces a deeply felt second theme. Following the development, there is a sparkling cadenza and a restatement of the main themes. Inspiration for the Canzonetta probably came from Tchaikovsky’s recent trip to Italy. The woodwind opening is succeeded by an embellished Italianate violin melody. A second idea weaves a continuous line. The initial violin and wind themes return in reverse order. Without pause, the wildly exuberant finale follows. An infectious folk-like spontaneity characterizes the violin refrain. Rustic drones accompany a sensuous second theme. The refrain, never far in the background, finally catapults the movement to its conclusion.
Suite from The Nutcracker, Op. 71a
One year before his death, Tchaikovsky began The Nutcracker, his third ballet. From the beginning, he considered this two-act production half of an evening’s entertainment preceded by his new one-act opera Iolanthe. Both works received their premieres at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892. (Tchaikovsky introduced his Suite from The Nutcracker nine months before the first production.) Though this ballet remains perhaps the composer’s most familiar—especially during this frosty time of the year—Tchaikovsky judged it inferior to Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty in terms of dramatic and musical content.
Act One of The Nutcracker opens in the household of president Silberhaus, whose children Clara (sometimes called Marie) and Fritz excitedly survey the gifts beneath the brightly adorned Christmas tree. The children’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, arrives and gives a nutcracker to Clara and Fritz, who accidentally breaks its jaw. Clara cares for the broken toy, wrapping it in cloth and placing it in a doll’s cradle. The children are sent to bed as the party guests bid farewell. When the house falls silent and midnight strikes, Clara returns to check on the nutcracker, only to find the toys have come to life. An army of mice battles a battalion of toy soldiers, commanded by the brave Nutcracker. After the he defeats the Mouse King, he takes Clara on an journey to an enchanted land as snowflakes descend in a wintry waltz.
In Act Two Clara and the Nutcracker Prince are met by the Sugarplum Fairy and her court of attendants representing various confections. They entertain their guests with a divertissement of characteristic dances, several of which form the familiar suite. Among them are the Russian Dance (or “Trepak”), the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy (with Tchaikovsky’s inspired use of the bell-like celeste, one of the very first times it was used in orchestral music) and the famous Waltz of the Flowers.
1812, Festival Overture, Op. 49
“The overture will be very loud, noisy, but I wrote it without any warm feelings of love so it will probably be of no artistic worth.” Unquestionably, Tchaikovsky produced an overture with “very loud, noisy” portions, but the rest of his assessment missed wide of the mark. The 1812, Festival Overture ranks as perhaps Tchaikovsky’s most popular composition for its sentimental, as well as artistic, worth.
Nikolai Rubinstein requested a new work from Tchaikovsky for an upcoming Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in Moscow. This 1882 exhibition coincided with the scheduled dedication of the new Cathedral of the Redeemer and a 70th-anniversary commemoration of the Russian resistance to Napoleon’s assault. Tchaikovsky’s “festival overture” was given a grand, open-air first performance (such as this evening’s). A massive assemblage of instruments filled the Cathedral square with sound—a military band, an enormous orchestra, a company of artillery and pealing bells from the church towers.
Tchaikovsky composed his 1812, Festival Overture between October 12 and November 19, 1880, with the Napoleonic defeat in mind. An old Russian anthem—a patriotic prayer—serves as the slow introductory theme: “Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine heritage; grant victory to our land, our sovereign and his warriors over the invaders, and by the power of Thy cross preserve Thy commonwealth.” The tempo increases as the conflict builds. Among the main themes is a Russian children’s folksong. French troops advance to the strains of the Marseillaise, but the Russian anthem spurs the people to victory.
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009
Sunday, July 12, 1 p.m. – Bennett • Gordon Hall
Artists from Ravinia’s Steans Institute
Sunday, July 12 – Bennett • Gordon Hall
Artists from Ravinia’s Steans Institute
Sunday, July 12, post-concert seminar – Martin Theatre
“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony”
Robert Greenberg, Speaker
Click here to listen to a lecture about Beethoven from Dr. Greenberg. (37mb)
Family Space, 3-4:30 p.m. – North Lawn
(music-related crafts, storytelling, and “instrument petting zoo")
Chicago’s North Shore is showing support for the 2016 Olympic Games with pre-concert activities for the whole family. Activities, games and prizes provided by Ravinia, Chicago Botanic Garden, Kohl Children’s Museum and Writers’ Theatre begin at 3 p.m. and end promptly at 4:45 p.m. This event is free but you must have a ticket to enter the park.