Don’t be misled by the words “Romantic Tchaikovsky” in connection with the Ann Arbor Symphony’s concert at the Michigan Theater on October 24. Even with two dazzling works by Russia’s best-known composer slated for the middle of the evening’s entertainment, what’s actually in store is a colorful, exciting program of orchestral Hungarian, Russian, and Czech music featuring two visiting virtuosi. It will be more like a double-decker Tchaikovsky sandwich.
The concert will open with a staple of Hungarian classical music, the Hary Janos Suite by Zoltan Kodaly, drawn from his comedic opera based upon the tipsy quixotic fantasies of a Napoleonic war veteran. The sources for this music run deep. Along with his friend and colleague Bela Bartok, Kodaly hiked through the Carpathian Mountains, collecting folksongs by inducing swineherds, peasant women, and barefoot children to sing for posterity. The first of these ethnomusicological expeditions took place in 1905.
Hundreds of Magyar melodies were recorded on wax phonograph cylinders, carefully transcribed, analyzed, and ultimately used as the basis for Bartok and Kodaly’s contributions to modern Hungarian music. Several of these songs found their way into the fabric of Kodaly’s opera, and one in particular, the haunting “This Side of the Tisza, Beyond the Danube,” is immortalized as the suite’s wistful third movement. The AASO’s presentation will feature Alex Udvary at the metal-stringed Hungarian cimbalom, an enormous hammer dulcimer equipped with a foot pedal.
Tchaikovsky once said that whenever he listened to Mozart, he felt like he was doing a good deed. He composed Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1877 as a tribute to his lifelong idol. Cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen commissioned the work, but then vivisected and rearranged the movements without consulting the composer, who was understandably miffed when the drastically altered variations were published without his consent. Fitzenhagen’s version became the standard, however, and propelled the work into lasting popularity.
Tchaikovsky wrote his Pezzo Capriccioso for cello and orchestra during one gloomy week in August 1887 after visiting a friend who was suffering the agonies of tertiary syphilis. The emotional strain of that ordeal left its mark upon the pezzo’s theme and is detectable in the ensuing high-speed chase, during which soloist and instrument are driven to extremes. Both Tchaikovsky works will feature internationally celebrated cello virtuoso Julie Albers.
The evening will conclude with Antonin Dvorak’s majestic Sixth Symphony. Composed in 1880, it has an opening allegro that resembles the wheeling scherzo of Bruckner’s Eighth; the spirit of Beethoven is invoked during the adagio, after which a Bohemian dance erupts like a bonfire in the fields at night. Dvorak’s Sixth is often overshadowed by his later symphonies, but as Dvorak scholar David Hurwitz writes, “If your local orchestra happens to program it, I strongly recommend that you grab a ticket and go.”