This season, the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) Masterworks series has provided a global tour of beloved classical works. The series concludes by recognizing the outstanding contributions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Russian music. On April 7 and 8, music lovers in the Quad-Cities area will enjoy three Tchaikovsky selections when the QCSO presents Masterworks VI: Postcards from Russia.
Masterworks VI will be held 8 p.m., April 7, at the Adler Theatre, 136 E. 3rd St., Davenport, IA, and 2 p.m., April 8, at Centennial Hall, Augustana College, 3703 7th Ave., Rock Island, IL.
“Tchaikovsky is synonymous with great Russian music,” said Mark Russell Smith, QCSO Music Director and Conductor. “He is arguably the most well-known of Russian composers.”
Postcards from Russia will feature three selections composed by Tchaikovsky. The program opens gently with the beauty and elegance of the Waltz from Swan Lake. Next, Daniel Hsu, a 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Medalist, takes the stage to present Tchaikovsky’s powerful Piano Concerto No. 1. The season draws to a strong finale with the bold, breathtaking Symphony No. 5.
“Tchaikovsky was one of the greatest composers from the Romantic period,” said Brian Baxter, Executive Director of the QCSO. “These selections are considered his blockbuster hits.”
The Life of Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was a composer of the Romantic period whose works included operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and more. He was one of the first Russian composers to make a lasting impression with his music on an international level, augmented by guest conductor appearances in Europe and the United States.
At age five, Tchaikovsky began piano lessons, and within three years was skilled at reading sheet music. Even so, Russia offered little opportunity for a musical career at that time, and his family wanted him to be financially self-sufficient. His parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg to prepare him for a career as a civil servant. At age 19, he graduated as a low-ranking official.
Fortunately, an opportunity arose to aid Tchaikovsky’s musical pursuits. He entered the newly founded Saint Petersburg Conservatory, and the education he received there greatly expanded his musical horizons. His training set him on a path to combining the Russian music he knew so well with Western European music. It was not as easy process, but in time, he created a style that was unique, personal and yet still, very Russian.
“Like pretty much every composer of that time, Tchaikovsky was greatly influenced by (or maybe more accurately, intimidated by) Beethoven,” Smith said. “His inspiration was to try and write a cogent, meaningful symphony like Beethoven did. He, of course, has a very different voice and aesthetic than Beethoven, so the combination of his meticulousness and his great gift for melody and color make for a unique symphonic statement.”
Tchaikovsky enjoyed many popular successes, traveled extensively, and in 1884, was honored by Russia’s Emperor Alexander III and awarded a lifetime pension. Sadly, his personal life over the years was not an easy one. He was haunted by personal setbacks, such as the early death of his mother, the death of a close friend, a failed short-term marriage, and the collapse of a long, supportive friendship with a patron whose generosity was a godsend to him. His death at age 53 is attributed to cholera during an epidemic.
Tchaikovsky will always be remembered for his incredible musical abilities. “In his time, Tchaikovsky considered himself an opera composer, not an orchestra composer,” Baxter said. “It was his love of, and interest in opera that made him a compelling orchestral composer. His melodies were profound and catchy – never frivolous, always substantial and meaningful.”
Waltz from Swan Lake
Tchaikovsky’s efforts elevated ballet to the heightened level of symphony music. Through his guidance, ballets became more full-bodied productions, changing the very form of the art.
“Tchaikovsky’s ballet music is groundbreaking and stunning in scope,” Baxter said. “The Waltz is a great entry point to our program.”
In 1871, Tchaikovsky spent the summer in the Ukraine with his sister, Alexandra Davydova. During his stay, he wrote a short ballet for her children about swans, based on a German fairy tale, “The Lake of Swans.”
Four years later, an official in charge of the repertory of the Imperial Theatres asked Tchaikovsky to compose a ballet about swans. Tchaikovsky accepted his invitation, and used a musical theme from his children’s ballet in this new project. The first performance of Swan Lake experienced technical problems and was deemed a disaster. Later revised productions, however, went on to great and lasting success.
“Tchaikovsky is indeed one of the greatest composers of ballet music,” Smith said. “His ballet music is colorful and has the dramatic sweep that is so important in music of the theater.”
Piano Concerto No. 1
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of his most popular works and among the best known of all piano concertos. QCSO welcomes Daniel Hsu, a 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Medalist, to perform Tchaikovsky’s heroic tour de force, the Piano Concerto No. 1, as guest soloist.
“The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is one of the most important competitions, named after one of the great concert pianists,” said Hsu, who was awarded the bronze medal at this quadrennial competition this past June. Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. was an American pianist who achieved recognition in 1958 when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow during the Cold War.
“Daniel Hsu is an incredibly skilled pianist and I am excited to hear what he does with this piece,” Baxter said.
A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Daniel Hsu began his studies at age 6. He made his concerto debut with the Fremont Symphony Orchestra at age 8, and his recital debut at the Steinway Society of the Bay Area at age 9. At age 10, he was accepted, along with two older siblings, into the Curtis Institute of Music, a conservatory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Curtis Institute is renowned for being among the most selective institutes of higher education in the world, with an admissions rate of less than 5 percent. Hsu is currently the Richard A. Doran Fellow at the Institute.
“I’ve performed all over the United States, as well as different countries, including Japan and China,” said Hsu. “I practice every day. A good day of practice is 6 to 8 hours on the piano. People should make time for the things they care about.”
Hsu made his solo debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2016, and his Carnegie Hall debut in 2017. He is an avid film buff, and also enjoys long walks and programming. He has contributed to the creation of Workflow, a productivity app that allows users to automate tasks on iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
“Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto is one of the great concertos and a staple of piano literature,” Hsu said. “I value music that leaves an impression on me, that makes me feel something I haven’t before – music that takes you on a ride. I’m excited to perform Tchaikovsky’s Concerto. I’m also looking forward to working with Mark Russell Smith and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra.”
Symphony No. 5
Tchaikovsky was a shy, sensitive person who suffered from self-doubt. After the second performance of Symphony No. 5, one of his most passionate pieces, he wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure.”
“Like every great artist, Tchaikovsky was self-critical and doubted himself and his abilities,” Smith said. “Sometimes this was debilitation, sometimes it helped him achieve great things.”
Happily, this powerful symphony was received with enthusiasm by audiences. Tchaikovsky, heartened by the response, persisted, conducting it in Europe and Russia.
Symphony No. 5 has enjoyed great popularity over the years. With its bold energy, it was particularly popular during World War II, with many new recordings and performances.
“Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is very fun to perform from the musician’s perspective,” Baxter said. “A lot of orchestral musicians love to play it because they can really dig into it.”
Throughout his career, Tchaikovsky’s works covered a wide stylistic and emotional spectrum. His natural gift for music, combined with his willingness to learn and adapt, allowed him to absorb the music of the world around him – from Russian folk songs to Western European music and more – and create timeless masterworks that will be enjoyed forever.
Concert tickets are available at the QCSO box office at 327 Brady St., Davenport. You can also call the QCSO at (563) 322-7276 or visit www.qcso.org.