Violin Concerto in D Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

With the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, NSO’s 2023-2024 “Transformation” Concert Series returns for its season finale to the Russian literature, highlighting one of the best-loved works of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Within moments after the first movement (Allegro moderato) opens with a lyrical theme, the rising phrases anticipate the entrance of the violin. In classic sonata form, the composer transports us from the exposition through an extended development section, to a recapitulation and finally, a virtuosic coda. The second movement (marked Andante) shifts the mood, creating contrast in the key of G minor. Listen in particular for the wistful duet between the violin and clarinet in the second half.

The final movement (Allegro vivacissimo) follows the second without interruption. Not to worry: you will recognize it as the violin introduces something entirely new – is this a Slavic folk tune? One can imagine a Romani fiddler by the campfire drawing his audience in with the first gritty notes, and then setting his instrument ablaze. (A rough translation of the tempo marking would be “play it as fast as you possibly can!”.) As the violin progresses to stratospheric heights, we are permitted only an occasional breather before the final climb, a virtuosic collaboration between soloist and orchestra, and a triumphant finish.

About the Composer:

Tchaikovsky composed ten operas, eight symphonies, four concertos (three for piano as well as the current work for violin), choral music, chamber and incidental music in a variety of forms, most famously, “Overture Solennelle, ‘1812.” But it was his ballets—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and of course The Nutcracker—that endeared him to a wide, general audience.

Musically, he inhabited two worlds, one of  which he shared with Modest Mussorgsky (“Pictures at an Exhibition”), Rimsky-Korsakov (“Scheherazade”), and their countrymen who attempted in the late 19th century to forge a uniquely Russian idiom; Hhowever, his training in “western” music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory set him on a different path. Ultimately, the union of these influences yielded a unique artistic voice, bringing Tchaikovsky great success in his own time, and an enduring place in the pantheon of musical giants.

— Michael B Grosso


Symphony No 1. (“Titan”) Gustav Mahler

A first symphony is a significant artistic struggle for all composers. They must decide which of the many musical ideas, memories and concepts accumulated in the imagination they will explore, the structure they envision, and what they mean to communicate to their audience. Mahler begins with an idea: the awakening of nature. How does one depict something coalescing from nothing? For Mahler, it begins with a single note – A natural (A♮)- played pianissimo. And then, a series of fourths, another note, out of which emerges a primordial melody. And then a bit of song, building little-by-little to symphonic scale. In the second movement, Mahler returns to the same introductory notes, but then takes them in a dramatically different direction—vitality, optimism and energy. The following trio signals a new shift – from the serious tone of the concert hall, to that which Mahler might have heard in a Viennese coffee house. One musical idea succeeds another.

Do you know the childhood song, ‘Frère Jacques’? It seems that Mahler did, or at least the Austrian equivalent. Here it is in the third movement, presented in a minor key…but whatever memory we are overhearing is overtaken by another, perhaps a klezmer melody from his childhood…and off we go, until finally that minor key ‘Frère Jacques’ returns. In the fourth and final movement, Mahler takes those quiet, introductory notes from the first movement and modifies them to create a heroic theme for which he marshals massive orchestral resources. It is reported that he even directed the horns to stand up and project above the rest of the orchestra. This is triumphal music indeed!

About the Composer

Born in 1860 into a Bohemian family of humble circumstances, Mahler suffered from a lifelong sense of being an outsider. His family was Jewish, and part of the German-speaking minority of a region that is now in the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austrian Empire. He was a musical wunderkind, discovering the piano at the age of four, and holding his first public performance at ten. His exceptional talent led him to succeed at his studies at the Vienna Conservatory. Thereafter, Mahler held a series of conducting posts and acquired a reputation as a preëminent interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Late in life, he led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

Nevertheless, Mahler was by all accounts an anxious and melancholic individual who struggled against a sense of inadequacy and rejection. He was treated unkindly by an antisemitic press, despite converting to Catholicism to be employable in the Vienna of his day. And despite his excellent conducting reputation, his own compositions received an uneven reception. Little wonder that Mahler sought out none other than Sigmund Freud for assistance. Freud psychoanalyzed Mahler during a single, four-hour session in 1910, which the composer described to his wife as “helpful.” For his part, Freud praised Mahler as a “genius” who immediately grasped the physician’s theory of the unconscious. Mahler died the following year and, according to historical accounts, Freud invoiced the estate 300 crowns for his psychoanalytic services. (What this might say about composers or Viennese psychiatrists, we leave to the reader to discern.)

 — Michael B Grosso