Live music doesn't get much better than Tchaikovsky and the Grand Rapids Symphony

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

As a composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was, and is, without equal.

He was a Russian nationalist as well as an internationalist. His music sets scenes that are descriptive and evocative. His melodies are lush, sweeping and memorable. Musicians admire his music. Audiences love it.

The genius that was Tchaikovsky was on full display at the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, October 4, in DeVos Performance Hall. In part because the entire program was devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky.  But especially because pianist Olga Kern was at the piano and Music Director Marcelo Lehninger was on the podium.  The Russian-born pianist poured her heart and soul into Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Lehninger conducted one of his favorite works, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6.

Live music doesn’t get much better than this.

Olga Kern, GR Symphony, and Tchakovsky's 'Romeo & Juliet'

Nearly 25 years of Tchaikovsky’s work was on display beginning with his first success, the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy, and his final work, the “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6. The second concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 children, remain available.

Olga Kern, the Gold Medal winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is one of today’s top piano soloists. It’s a wonder that she’s never previously appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto, especially compared to his First, is less known and less played, probably because it’s a one-movement work that lasts a mere 19-20 minutes.  Some have said the concerto lacks virtuosity for the soloist, but no one who heard Kern play it would ever say that again.

A commanding performer who often plays hunched over the keyboard, Kern doesn’t dominate a performance, but she makes her presence known. Her notes are clear and carefully etched despite the challenges of the tricky runs and arpeggios. She anoints each phrase with authority.

The solo cadenza is an orchestral-sized tour de force, alternating bravura from one hand to the other, which she played with sparkling brilliance and dynamism.

The Russian pianist, descended from a long line of musicians, delighted the audience with not one but two encores. First an electrifying performance of Rachmaninov’s Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 4 in E minor followed by a fiery performance of Prokofiev’s Etude in C minor Op. 2 No. 4.

The applause for Kern’s performance was long lasting and heart-felt.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6 may have been his greatest accomplishment. Certainly it was his last. Nine days after its premiere, he died tragically after drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. One can’t help but wonder what he would have composed had he lived another 10 or 20 years.

Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a well-balanced performance, fully in command of the music and of his orchestra.

Burnished woodwind ensemble playing, carefully controlled brass at the climaxes, and well-balanced strings were hallmarks of the performance.

Lehninger’s opening was subdued and sepulchral. Sweeping strings and explosive brass were soon to follow. The second movement was voluptuous bordering on the exotic.

The scherzo was propulsive, determined yet nimble. It sparkled so much that the audience broke into spontaneous and sustained applause afterward, never mind that there was one more movement to go.

Lehninger led a finale that was thoughtful and introspective. It needs to be. The final movement turns the whole symphony upside down. The conclusion, full of private suffering, was deeply felt.   

The evening opened with the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. Lehninger led a performance of meticulous music making a dramatic battle sequence that had the audience on the edge of its seats. Precise accents and energetic phrases portrayed the clash between the Montagues and Capulets. The breathtaking final chords led to sustained applause.

Lehninger led the well-known love theme with great clarity with little schmaltz. Passion without pathos. It’s an old familiar favorite, but in the right hands, it becomes brand new and wonderful to hear again.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 11:00 AM
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