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The daily newspaper of classical music



30 May 2003


Grace Notes

By Joe McLellan, classical music critic emeritus of The Washington Post




The slow second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, according to conductor Paavo Jarvi, has "one of the most beautiful melodies... ever written, where you feel that he is talking to you personally." Jarvi finds in this music "the influence of the [Russian] language, the actual soft syllables." A conductor who is aware of this linguistic dimension, or is trying to "get closer to that human vocal approach, which I think is very important in Tchaikovsky," he says, can make the music "extremely expressive and very touching."


Whether he knows it or not, Jarvi is describing his own approach to Tchaikovsky, as demonstrated in a superbly conducted and edited program scheduled for telecast June 4 on PBS. This was Jarvi's first concert as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, given in September, 2001, a few days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The program was chosen long before that event, but two of the works performed made it, accidentally, an appropriate reaction to the horror experienced in New York. Those works are featured in the telecast; two others, Barber's Adagio for Strings and Debussy's La Mer, are left out, giving the program a tight focus.

Tchaikovsky's symphony, Jarvi says in a pre-concert commentary, is about a triumph over fate, over insecurities and depression; its wide range of emotions, ending in a sense of victory.  Its theme of "a triumph over difficult struggles," makes it "a tribute to what music can do in a time of great tragedy."

The symphony's emotions are simply and precisely described in Jarvi's commentary, which is inserted in the telecast before the first, second and third movements (the third flows into the fourth without interruption). These emotions are explored with equal precision in the performance. Paavo Jarvi does not succumb, as many conductors do, to the temptation of overstating the emotions in Tchaikovsky's music, particularly the negative emotions. In some, perhaps most performances of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, sadness becomes hysteria. In Jarvi's, it remains sadness. The experience is almost like reading the score, which can be an illuminating experience. (An excellent, inexpensive edition of the score is published by Dover Books.)

Tchaikovsky's orchestral scores do not read like the work of a hysteric out of control, heedlessly pouring out his unbridled feelings. They are clearly the work of a meticulous craftsman, using the resources of the orchestra to describe a series of emotional states and never losing a sense of direction. There is not a single note on paper that does not have a clearly established function in the orchestral sound mix, not a nuance of tempo or dynamics or orchestral texture that is not carefully calculated and set down with precision. I have heard more emotionally charged performances of this symphony. I have never hear one that was more precise, more like reading the score.


In his introduction to the second movement, Jarvi says that "People who speak Russian can hear the influence of the language, the actual soft syllables. . . If it is played by somebody who can actually speak the Russian language a little bit or is trying to get closer to that human vocal approach, which I think is very important in Tchaikovsky, it's extremely expressive and very touching." Jarvi conducts it like someone who knows the Russian language.

Jarvi also describes his work as a music director: choosing repertoire, soloists and guest conductors, giving programs the right balances and "a little bit of spice," and finding new dimensions in familiar music.

The other piece on the program is Streetscape by a young American composer, Charles Coleman, who gives an introductory commentary. Coleman recalls that Jarvi ran into him at a party in
New York, said that he was becoming the music director in Cincinnati and commissioned a piece for his inaugural concert on the spot: "I want a 20-minute piece, and I want it to be good." In performance, Streetscape runs closer to 21 minutes, but on the second requirement ("I want it good") it is right on target. As Jarvi notes, it "communicates . . . intellectually and . . . to the soul." Based on the composer's experiences on long walks in New York, it is full of vitality and variety, energized by artful use of percussion and flavored with funk and salsa. Coleman describes its gangbusters opening as what you might get if Ottorino Respighi were "on acid."

The production shows a montage of
New York street scenes while Coleman describes the music. From his studio in Manhattan, he could see the towers of the World Trade Center while he was composing Streetscape, and the disappearance of those towers adds a poignant new dimension to the music.