Wednesday, May 18, 2011

getting ready for a World Premiere, and Tchaikovsky

This week will feature the Hartford Symphony's concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, in a new work by Stephen Michael Gryc, Harmonia Mundi, for violin and orchestra. It's a beautiful work, and I'm confident audiences will respond very positively to it.

Last week I was really nervous. It was before our first rehearsal on Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4, a work most of the players have done before, probably several times, and thus is one of those pieces (like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) where a conductor must necessarily come with a unified conception and interpretation, if only to counter the many habits, customs and traditions that accompany a well known work from the standard repertory.

Advancing one's strong ideas about Beethoven is one thing. But Tchaikovsky is a different animal -- the orchestra and I last did his Fourth Symphony in 2002, which is the equivalent of never, as most of these players were not playing in the orchestra 9 years ago (and it was a summer concert, making it even less memorable). On top of that, I haven't done much Tchaikovsky with the orchestra since, and thus we haven't developed a way of doing his music over the course of my tenure.

Add to this an added nervousness because of my big experiment, having created a new edition of sorts. Using my own orchestral materials (most conductors bring their own score but leave the individual orchestra parts, bowings and markings, to the host orchestra), I changed several of the meters in the first movement. You might ask, why? The piece has survived as a great classic since 1878 without anyone doing this before, so why now? Can't it stand on its own, as is?

The answer is yes, of course it can. And it has, for over 130 years. And will continue to do so, thank you very much.

Except for my teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, who first put the idea in my head, no one has ever done what I am about to describe. And in my previous outings, I did not have the time to go through with it. But I figured, as Doc Brown says in "Back to the Future:" what the hell? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, I'll explain.

The first movement is in 9/8 time, which is, for most composers who write in this meter, 123-456-789, and generally conducted in 3 beats to the bar, with a stress on beats 1, 4 and 7. 'Happy Birthday to You' and 'Star Spangled Banner' are also in 3 beats to the bar, but are in simple meter, or 12-34-56 (as opposed to the compound meter in 9/8).

Tchaikovsky divides those 9 small beats in many different ways: sometimes he will have one short beat followed by a 4 bigger beats, so that it comes out sounding like 1 23 45 67 89, and throughout much of the exposition he writes the music in 3 simple beats followed by 1 compound beat, or 12-34-56-789. (One of the most famous compound/simple meter combos is from Bernstein's West Side Story, "America," where it goes back and forth between
123 --- 456 and 12 -- 34 -- 56:

"I like to

live in A--


In the climax of the first movement in Tchaikovsky's Fourth, just before the return, he takes two measures and stretches them into one giant measure, looking (sounding) like this:

12 -- 34 -- 56 -- 78 -- 91 -- 23 -- 45 --67 --89

or, to one's ears, a big giant:

1 --- 2 --- 3 --- 4 --- 5 --- 6 --- 7 --- 8 --- 9

In these two measures, Tchaikovsky expects orchestra players to negotiate all of the cross rhythms, even though they go 'against the grain.' And for most of the music, the players do just that. They're professionals, you expect that of them. But in this place, even for world class orchestras, it can be a crap shoot. In the few times I've conducted Tchaikovsky's 4th, it hasn't always worked to my satisfaction.

And so, for this place, and a few others with complex rhythms, I rewrote the meters (I didn't change a single note) in a manner which projects the actual rhythm of the music. Some would surely object to this, arguing that Tchaikovsky wants the built-in tension left alone, as is. And I can see the merits of that argument. But I was undaunted.

Of course, in the first rehearsal, the players took some time getting used to the changes. But after a few times playing through these spots, these passages came off without a hitch. And the music (i.e., the rhythms) sounded just how I've always heard it in my head, and how I believe the composer wanted it to sound: jagged, off kilter, slightly off balance, creating enormous tension just before the reprise.

Tchaikovsky was highly disturbed when he wrote his Fourth Symphony. He was newly married (even though he was homosexual), attempted suicide, throwing himself into the Moscow River, and was generally resigned to never ever being a happy person (the 'fate' motive at the onset of the symphony reflects this). So it makes sense that, given what he was going through at the time, that Tchaikovsky would put himself out there on the edge of a creative cliff, given the enormous pain he endured while writing this symphony. It's all there in the music.

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