Growing Up with Tchaikovsky in Venezuela
For many of us, Tchaikovsky was the first musical love, triggered perhaps by a visit to The Nutcracker, where the music may have outweighed the charms of the dancing, a performance of the “1812” Overture complete with fireworks, cannon and military bands, or simply a recording of the ballet suites. In Venezuela this first musical encounter, like so many others, is likely to have been even more meaningful. Once the Sistema provides the instruments, you’re soon playing in a children’s orchestra where, thanks to the taste and passion of Maestro José Antonio Abreu, the guiding light of the world’s most significant musical education system, you will soon be embarking on the finale of the Fourth Symphony, the Marche Slave or the “1812” Overture.
So, as Gustavo Dudamel points out: “It’s part of our education. Just as when you learn the violin, you have to play Carl Flesch scales, so when we are growing up, Tchaikovsky is already part of our culture – even though Venezuela is far from Russia. I remember in concert recently I conducted the Simón Bolívar Orchestra including its founding musicians in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for the first half and Beethoven’s Fifth for the second, and when we finished a lot of young people came up shouting, ‘please, last movement of Tchaikovsky Four’, just like in a pop concert you have the audience asking for their favourites.”
I asked Dudamel whether there was something about Tchaikovsky that suited the Latin temperament; after all, Abbado and Muti are among his greatest interpreters. “It has something to do with the fact that when you play Tchaikovsky you can fall in love with it immediately”, he says. “Of course the melodies are so grateful, and he plays with the harmonies so perfectly. The phrases are often regular and easy to understand, and it’s important for our orchestra to be able to grasp the structure of a symphony immediately.”
Perhaps it helps, I suggest, that the Fifth is the purest and most classical of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies. The dedication, to Hamburg’s arch-conservative teacher Theodor Avé-Lallement, is significant. Tchaikovsky met him on his first tour as a conductor of his own and other works, at the beginning of 1888 when he had already become an international figure and Russia’s number one composer. He received Avé-Lallement’s advice – that he should settle in Germany “where classical tradition and conditions of the highest culture would quite certainly free me from my shortcomings” – with a good grace. He did not act on it, but as he worked on the Fifth Symphony that summer, he certainly set out to please Western expectations in a symphony that moves from darkness to light, much like Beethoven’s Fifth.
Here the Fate which had dogged the Fourth Symphony becomes Providence, capable of change. The theme, lugubrious on clarinets, builds miraculously in Dudamel’s opinion from “the little four or six bars he writes at the start to one of his finest marches in the finale, via a series of beautiful or dramatic variations. Though it starts in a sombre vein, I always think this is a bit like swimming in a honey pool, because it’s not so much dark as deep, and it’s wonderful how quickly this young orchestra picks up the right way to play with the chords and sounds.”
Both in the lyrical second theme of the Allegro con anima which follows and throughout the great Andante cantabile, Dudamel notes how often “Tchaikovsky has a different tempo indication in each bar, which is not so much about the tempi as about the feelings. One thing I had to think about carefully was the way the second movement starts, with a sequence of magical harmonies on the low strings. It gives the atmosphere for the rest of the performance. If you don’t focus attention on the right sound, it’s impossible to move on to the beautiful horn solo”. I ask Dudamel if his soloist in this live recording is the same horn player we heard executing the obbligato in the scherzo of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony so brilliantly. “No, it’s the other principal horn player. Of course we have quite a choice, because there are 16 horns in the orchestra!”
Even the third movement waltz, which Dudamel treats as a kind of interlude after running the first two movements as a single drama, has its problems, not least the fast notes for strings at the centre of the dance. “It’s so balletic, and it’s difficult, but it becomes less difficult when you treat it like chamber music and the strings are aware of what the timpani and the wind are playing. Here for the recording I almost stopped conducting, because it’s not necessary to mark everything.” As for the high drama of the finale, no need to explain the essence of that to anyone who has experienced the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in action: the focused passion of this team is like nothing else on earth; and though the final victory parade is often unconvincing, with the fiery pulse of youth it can carry the day.
Francesca da Rimini is an earlier work in which Tchaikovsky, as so often, mirrors the sufferings and longings of his own tormented soul. The subjects here, immortalized in Dante’s Divine Comedy, are the unhappily married Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, condemned to Hell for their forbidden love and doomed to recite that “there is no greater sorrow than to recall times of happiness in misery” (a motto that might have suited the painfully nostalgic Tchaikovsky). “Orchestrally it’s much more difficult and virtuosic”, says Dudamel (prefacing his remark with an “ay, ay, ay” and a “wow”), “especially in the whirlwind which surrounds the lovers.
“But I’ll tell you why I decided we had to do this piece. I was watching a video of Maestro Abreu when he started the orchestra in 1976, and when you see him conducting Francesca it’s out of this world. Immediately I fell in love with this music. Four years ago I showed the same film to the players, and they said, ‘My God, we have to play this’. We did, but it’s not been so much part of our repertoire since then. For the recording we had to begin afresh, but right from the start it was so passionate – already that wonderful clarinet solo which introduces the central love music was fantastic, and all these crazy tremolos in the strings.” It is hardly surprising, then, that this disc is dedicated to José Antonio Abreu. “He took a chance in giving this opportunity to young musicians, a way to change people’s lives in such a way that now this is recognized internationally as the future of the classical world”. It really is as true and as simple as that. Tchaikovsky, a sincere and humble supporter of opportunities for young musicians, would surely have been delighted.
1. Andante - Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza - Moderato con anima
3. Valse (Allegro moderato)
4. Finale (Andante maestoso - Allegro vivace)
5. Francesca Da Rimini - Orchestral Fantasy Opus 32 After Dante