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Music review: Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' Symphony 'unwound' by Pacific Symphony

January 8, 2010 | 12:52 pm

Tchaikovsky has been saved by his sad story. At times when absolute music has been in fashion, the morbid Russian Romantic with a flair for melody and melancholy has been out of it. These days, narrative in music – possibly thanks to the ascendancy of pop culture – is prized. And, yes, we love a mystery. Did a tormented Tchaikovsky commit suicide? Was his last symphony testament of forbidden love?  

The Pacific Symphony performed Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Thursday night. Carl St.Clair conducted a tense, taut, lean, mean, original, compelling elongated 53-minute performance. It was preceded by two and half hours of preparation and followed by audience members sharing their feelings in a post-concert discussion.

The evening -- written and produced by the orchestra’s artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz -- was part of the Pacific Symphony’s Music Unwound series and called “A Tchaikovsky Portrait: Child of Glass.”  With the help of a host (Alan Chapman), an actor portraying the composer (Nick Ullett) and a video artist (Peter Bogdanoff), the “Pathétique” was put in perspective.

Multimedia events in the concert hall are still a work in progress. Orchestras experiment but often become disillusioned when media don’t always mix. But Horowitz, who has a knack for proposing provocative points of view, remains a strong proponent.

The formal program (following a pre-concert talk by Chapman that I didn’t attend) began with two excerpts from “Swan Lake.” A portrait of the composer was projected over the orchestra. Washed out in the lighted hall and bloated to fit a rectangular screen, Tchaikovsky’s stern visage appeared slightly altered, his pursed lips almost extended into a smile, his frown Botoxed smooth.

Even so, torment was the theme. St.Clair asked whether the “Pathétique” (the Sixth Symphony) might be the composer’s own requiem. Ullett, who wasn’t typecast, recited from Tchaikovsky anguished letters. A clip from Ken Russell’s bio-pic, “The Music Lovers,” (presented in crummy video) showed a young Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) trying to end it all by wading into cold water in hopes of catching his death, to the accompaniment of an excerpt from the Andante Funebre movement of the Third Quartet.

Chapman served as host. I’m not sure why, but soprano Emily Pulley and tenor Scott Ramsay forthrightly sang a “Romeo and Juliet” duet that Tchaikovsky sketched and the composer Sergei Taneyev completed (utilizing parts of Tchaikovsky's early “Romeo and Juliet” fantasy-overture).

The fact is, old media worked best. The presentation was not polished, but Horowitz’s excellent text inserted in the printed program was. There he specifically dealt with Tchaikovksy’s homosexuality and the unanswered questions of his death.

Tchaikovsky theories have varied over the years. Proposals have included Tchaikovsky intentionally drinking unboiled water, which caused him to contract cholera, because of his anguish over his sexuality, or because he was ordered to do so. Maybe his incestuous relationship with his nephew had something to do with it, maybe not. Malpractice might have been involved. 

Tchaikovsky claimed he had a secret program to the “Pathétique.”  And the search for it has long been on. A Texas musicologist, Timothy L. Jackson, has proposed that the score is a homoerotic narrative about Bob, the nephew, and the third movement, which is a march, is related to Tchaikovsky’s pan-Slavic anti-Semitism.

For Horowitz, the “Pathétique” was a look back at life at its end. For St.Clair, who gave his own analysis about the score before conducting it, the work is a death-haunted “symphony of sighs.” Seeming to come down on the side of the suicide, the conductor called even the upbeat march movement the music of resolve, a march “right up to death’s door.”

And so St.Clair emphasized the sighs. He let falling motives fall in slow motion, not wanting to let anything go. The development section of the first movement was announced with an arresting crack of thunder. Some conductors smooth out the 5/4 waltz movement; St.Clair did not disguise its deformities. The last movement, played as a farewell to life, was intense and moving.

The big news of this concert wasn’t, I think, Tchaikovsky but St.Clair. He is now in his 20th season, and he has grown. This “Pathétique” sounded like no other. There was modernism in it, phrasing of Stravinskyan angularity. There was also the other extreme of hyper-emotionality. The contrasts were vivid but not incompatible.

The playing by the Pacific Symphony, despite a few uncertain moments, was sharp, colorful and far more spectacular than pictures of sleigh rides on the big screen.

-- Mark Swed

"A Tchaikovsky Portrait," Pacific Symphony,  8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday (the “Pathétique” Symphony only); $25 - $105. Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Towne Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 755-5799 or   

Photo: Carl St.Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony Thursday evening. Credit: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times