Tchaikovsky’s Last Word

Forget everything you think you know about Tchaikovsky’s demise. Let’s look at his final work: Symphony #6 “Pathetique.”
The first movement begins much like the 5th, with a slow and contemplative low woodwind and bass theme. As it evolves through many wonderful melodies, it becomes sad and foreboding. He tries to put a happy face on it, but fails.
The second movement is prescribed and almost mechanical, by Tchaikovsky’s standards, as it puts the waltz in the #2 position, instead of #3. Juxtaposing movement traditions is a Tchaikovsky trademark (Manfred Symphony). This movement is curiously unremarkable, and seems to be almost rudimentary.
The third movement is a testament to Tchaikovsky’s long and nationalistic career, as a source of Russian music. He was clearly proud of what he had accomplished, and had good right to be. The long, and extended ending bears tribute to his accolades within his time.
The fourth, and final movement however, is a study in deterioration and decay. Instead of leading to a triumphant finish, with pomp and circumstance, Tchaikovsky leads us on a more realistic journey to disenchantment and debilitation. The latter years of life are rarely invigorating, but often weakening. It clearly ends with the final gasps of life, and a fade to silence.
You can draw your own conclusions as to whether he knew the end was near. But, whether he was preparing for retirement or death, the Pathetique is unlike any other symphony in structure and mood. Tchaikovsky was known for standing traditions on their heads, and the ending of Symphony #6 was no exception.Image

Why Money Can’t Buy the Best Seats in the House

Obviously, the conductor has the the best acoustic position, at an orchestra concert. But, since maestros usually stand, let’s forget about that spot, for now. Anyone who’s played in an ensemble of any size, knows that the best seats are right there– inside the group.

The very first time I played in a band as a child, I was right in front of the brass. When they blared at fortissimo, I could feel my rib cage rattle. I could literally feel a bass drum resonate through the wooden floor. The stereo effect of clarinets to your right, and horns to your left, can’t be equalled by any recording.

Within the ensemble, you can feel the crescendos, and appreciate the nuance between pianissimo and piano. You can see the eyebrows raise and the shoulders dip with expression, in a way that is far more dramatic than from a distance.

So, why aren’t the top dollar audience seats next to the musicians… side by side? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony sitting next to the 1st chair clarinet? Well, for one, it can be highly distracting for musicians with intense concentration. But, let’s face it, there are some pieces of standard repertoire that professionals could play flawlessly in their sleep. A larger audience would just be impractical. Musicians need to be near each other to hear and take cues. But, a few strategically placed extra chairs wouldn’t really get in the way.

Granted, there are some venues with seats in the wings, or even behind the musicians (in the round, as they say). But, there is a traditionally formal separation between audience and performers. One is often delivering a paid product for the other, so coziness can be awkward for both.

So, why not use the experience as an educational or promotional tool? Why not invite potential patrons, donors and young musicians to share the joy on occasion? Imagine a local festival, where an ensemble offers the opportunity to sit next to an orchestra musician for 5-mins, during the 1812 Overture? Or, bring the audience on stage, and right up to music stands for an afternoon concert or dress rehearsal? After the work is done, maybe some one-on-ones or Q&A about each instrument, or life as a musician.

In baseball, they sometimes call them the “10th player.” Nine are on the field, the 10th is in stands. When a team has a roaring, involved crowd cheering them on, they often play better. At a concert, the fans can do much more than just sit silently, as if at a lecture. They can react with smiles, nodding heads, and gasps, when they are closer to the action. If there’s no room for the fans on the field with the team during the game, perhaps they could at least be invited, once in awhile, close enough to experience a practice, or hear a locker room pep talk. If you can find them, usually the best seats at a baseball game are at ground level with the players, behind home plate.

Quartets and smaller ensembles can draw people even closer, and engage in ways that would endear and personalize the performance. There’s a curious little kid inside each of us, who thinks the front row just isn’t close enough. Maybe, if a few 5th graders pull their headphones out of their ears, and realize the fidelity is better in real life, youth orchestras will have more applicants. Perhaps, peering over the shoulder of a soloist playing Saint-SaĆ«ns “Egyptian” Piano Concerto #5 could sell a few season subscriptions.

As we debate declining attendances, shrinking endowments, and a general lack of new interest in classical music, maybe it’s time to huddle closer to the campfire, from which hundreds of years of beautiful music once grew.

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