HSO's 'Tchaikovsky’s Firsts': a night of dynamic, outstanding moments

Special to The Courant

The Hartford Symphony’s latest installment of the Masterworks Series presents a portrait of Russian Romantic composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Titled “Tchaikovsky’s Firsts,” the concert features his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, TH 55 (1874-75) alongside his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, TH 24 (1866, revised 1874).

Though both are early pieces, they display Tchaikovsky’s distinctive style. The music is dramatic and evocative, seeming to call to mind vivid images even when there is no particular extra-musical connection stated. The tunes are memorable, the harmonies imbue them with intense emotion, and inspired orchestral touches suggest the master Tchaikovsky will become. There are even moments within the two works that call to mind some of his popular compositions: The opening of Symphony no. 1, for example, is reminiscent of passages from “Swan Lake,” and some of the more playful spots in Piano Concerto No. 1 hint at the music of the “The Nutcracker.” Both works will thus be of interest to those seeking a deeper understanding of Tchaikovsky’s development.

The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24, TH 5 (1877-78) rounds out the program, though it is not clear how this piece relates to the concert’s theme. It seems to have been included to complete the tried and true — though in this case, not so effective — model of overture (or similar short work), concerto, and symphony. A polonaise is a majestic Polish dance in triple meter associated with the aristocracy, making it a fitting accompaniment for the royal ball in Eugene Onegin’s third act.

However, Onegin is not Tchaikovsky’s first opera, and the concert could have opened with something more memorable that fit the theme of firsts better — perhaps an excerpt from “Swan Lake,” the composer’s first ballet might have provided a better balance with the second piece. Indeed, the program felt decidedly lopsided given how much the Piano Concerto outshone the other two compositions.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 featured guest Szymon Nehring. Though still a student at nearby Yale University, Nehring boasts an impressive list of accolades and accomplishments, including winning the 2017 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 2017, an extremely prestigious competition for pianists aged 18 to 32 years old. He also has released multiple albums since 2015, including a recording of contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s piano concerto. (Personally, I would have loved to hear a program built around that work!)

Like the season’s opener, this concert took advantage of the Belding Theater’s projection capabilities. During the concerto, the pianist’s hands were projected from a camera placed above the keyboard. While such a perspective would be exciting with any skilled pianist, Nehring’s virtuosity made this a particular treat. A warning to any Saturday or Sunday attendees, though: it is easy to get so engrossed in the screen that you forget to look down at Nehring on stage. Don’t! He is a dynamic performer whose physical motions and facial expressions reflect the intensity of the music, something that gets lost in the close up.

To say that Nehring made Piano Concerto No. 1 look easy would be to do him a disservice. Nehring’s athleticism wowed the audience throughout the virtuosic passages of a concerto Nikolai Rubinstein — a renowned pianist who Tchaikovsky hoped would premiere the piece — once deemed too difficult to perform. When his fingers flew across the keyboard, the audience knew just how impressive a feat they were witnessing.

That said, the most magical moments of the performance were the lyrical solo sections. When joining Music Director Carolyn Kuan in the pre-concert talk, Nehring spoke of conveying the work’s deep emotions as the soloist’s greatest challenge. He met that challenge with spectacular maturity and sensitivity, bringing out delicate tensions in those moments of repose and pulling the listener in so intimately that one almost forgot the hundreds of other people in the hall.

However, the performance was not without flaw. One of the technical challenges Nehring mentioned in the talk was creating a symphonic sound using the piano or, in other words, a sound that could match up to the full orchestra. In this case, however, it was not the piano that failed to stand up to the power of the orchestra, but the orchestra that at times was covered up by the piano. Additionally, there were some noticeable spots where the soloist and ensemble got separated from one another. Kuan did an excellent job of bringing the players back together quickly, and neither those brief instances of rhythmic instability nor the balance issues detracted from the total effect of the performance. The concerto was outstanding, and the event is well worth attending for that piece alone.

After intermission, Kuan and the orchestra paid tribute to cellist Eric Dahlin, a longtime HSO performer and valued member of the local community who passed away unexpectedly this fall. Kuan’s remarks and the orchestra’s performance were a poignant memorial to their colleague.

Tchaikovsky’s first symphony completed the evening. Though not without merit, the symphony felt longer than its already expansive duration. The piece is almost 45 minutes long, and carrying a listener’s attention throughout such a duration may have been too great a challenge for the composer so early in his career. The programming model mentioned earlier usually moves in a compelling arc from a lighter opening work to a flashy concerto followed by a weighty, dramatic symphony. This early work, however, could not match the flair and depth of emotion found in Piano Concerto No. 1, so its effect was more subdued in comparison.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky’s Firsts program continues Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 2 at 3 p.m. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave. in Hartford. Tickets start at $38; $1 students with valid ID. hartfordsymphony.org

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