Have you ever played the game with your friends where you can pick one person, living or dead, to have dinner with and discuss anything you want? Some people may pick a celebrity – maybe Marilyn Monroe to find out if all the rumors were true, or Justin Bieber to see if his hair moves at all (am I the only person fascinated by this kid’s hair?) Some people may pick a president or other world leader to discuss deep, significant topics. But I don’t really fit into either category, because I would pick a dead composer to stare at and then giggle like a school girl.
I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky. I remember watching the TV version of The Nutcracker as a kid, more enthralled with the music than the dancing. At one point, my sister and I made up a whole dance routine around the music for Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (yes, we still remember how to do it, and no, I won’t perform it in public for anyone). My high school private lesson teacher, Mrs. Hackney, was the piccolo player for the Houston Ballet, and I remember being so envious that she got to play the amazing piccolo part for the Nutcracker every year.
Once I got to college, I developed a serious crush on this composer. I was introduced to his concertos and symphonies. I wrote several papers on his life and musical style. It is hard for me to explain, but I connect with his work in ways that just do not compare to other composers. My personal favorite is Symphony No. 4 in F minor. I can pretty much sing the entire symphony to you, and I’m always trying to find a way to tell someone about this piece. Before I worked for the Houston Symphony, I was the Education Director for the Akron Symphony Orchestra in Akron, Ohio. I did a few elementary school presentations and used this piece to demonstrate how you can be inspired by music to create your own story with your imagination. We listened to the first few minutes of each movement, and then developed our own story based on what we heard. My favorite was a story that involved a princess who was lost in the woods and had to battle Were-Mice. In case you do not know what a Were-Mouse is, it is basically a werewolf, but a mouse instead of a wolf. The teacher loved the whole presentation, and she told me it was a great way to make the students think creatively. I loved that I had exposed my favorite composer to a group of students in a new way.
I once had a friend who scoffed at my admiration for Tchaikovsky, declaring that most of his work was “fluff at best.” I could not believe it. I was in too much shock to argue in the heat of the moment, though this particular friend would probably not be swayed as Mahler and Wagner are his go-to ‘easy listening’ composers. I thought about his comment for awhile, and I came to this conclusion: some people may find Tchaikovsky’s music fluff because it is, above all, else accessible and popular. Tchaikovsky (in my humble opinion) is a master when it comes to grabbing your ear. Almost any individual can hum one of The Nutcracker themes, or instantly recognize the love theme from Romeo & Juliet. The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor is classic and instantly commands the audience’s attention. What little girl didn’t dance in a ballet class to the music of Swan Lake (or later, as a teenager, drool over Saved By The Bell’s Zach Morris dancing in the Bayside High production of Swan Lake)? No July 4 picnic is complete without a performance of the 1812 Overture, cannons and all. Accessibility is the name of the game, and it is a great tool for orchestras to utilize when trying to draw in more patrons. Like Tchaikovsky? Here, you might like Mendelssohn or Beethoven or Shostakovich or any number of composers. To say he is merely fluff is truly short sighted (and given my crush, kinda mean).
This weekend’s concert opens with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. I, of course, know the piece inside and out, and I am very excited to hear our orchestra play it live. However, I’m also equally excited for the Barber Violin Concerto and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. If you don’t know the works, you should definitely try to come out to Jones Hall for a listen. Don’t be intimidated – allow Tchaikovsky to hook you and then just sit back, relax and enjoy!