The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert on WRTI: Tugan Sokhiev leads an all-Russian program with a debut by pianist Lukas Geniusas
Join us on Sunday, Feb 12 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, Feb 11 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert brings you an all-Russian program of Borodin, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky from the 2022/2023 season.
Guest conductor Tugan Sokhiev leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program that encompasses three important currents in the history of Russian music. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky represents the European-inspired, conservatory-based stream. There was also a competing stream, represented by proud, self-taught nationalists like Alexander Borodin, who sought inspiration in folk traditions. A couple of generations later, the firebrand Sergei Prokofiev enjoyed shattering the fondest traditions of both older camps. Prokofiev’s impulsive First Piano Concerto features soloist Lukas Geniušas making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in f minor, with its emphasis on inexorable Fate, provides the program’s climatic finish. And the concert opens with the overture to Alexander Borodin’s unfinished opera, Prince Igor.
Along with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Musorgsky and others, Borodin was a member of the Kuchka or “Mighty Five” — so dubbed by a music critic of the time who admired their desire to bring Russian folk and cultural traditions forth in new music. Most of the Mighty Five were part-time composers. Borodin was a distinguished scientist holding a prominent position as a professor of chemistry at a leading institute in St. Petersburg. So it’s understandable that he didn’t manage to finish many major musical works. Among those he left unfinished was an opera, Prince Igor, the story of a medieval Russian prince unsuccessfully battling ethnic Polovtsian tribes. Audiences today know Prince Igor primarily from the lush and exciting “Polovtsian Dances,” which were unveiled as a concert piece while their composer was hard at work on the opera. Rimsky Korsakov was captivated by this music, and when Borodin died suddenly in 1887, Rimsky immediately determined that his friend’s opera could and must be completed. He enlisted the young Alexander Glazunov to complete the opera’s Overture. Glazunov reconstructed the music from Borodin’s sketches and notes, but the orchestration is completely Glazunov’s own.
Tchaikovsky was a contemporary of the Kuchka, but represented a different school of composing that looked primarily to European models. In marked contrast to the Mighty Five, who revered Russian folk culture and were largely self-taught, Tchaikovsky received a rigorous musical education, devoted himself exclusively to music, and was Russia’s first composer to achieve broad acclaim in the West. In 1877 he was having a superb year, professionally. He completed his masterful opera Eugene Onegin, and wrote most of his Symphony No. 4 in F minor. And he began a correspondence with a wealthy businesswoman who would become his generous and supportive patron. But his private life was in shambles. This was the year of Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage — a fiasco, from which the composer promptly fled.
Fortunately, his platonic relationship with his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, provided much solace, and he dedicated his Fourth Symphony to her. It’s an intensely personal work, the positive fruit of a chaotic period during which his patron provided crucial emotional and financial support. The form of the symphony grows from the opening fanfare, which the composer admitted was an evocation of inexorable Fate. He called it “the kernel of the whole symphony.” It dominates the first movement, and recurs ominously near the end before meeting utter defeat in a spirited coda. The composer would later remark that “there is not a single measure in this Fourth Symphony that I have not truly felt and which is not an echo of my most intimate spiritual life.”
Between the Tchaikovsky and Borodin works is music by a composer of a later generation. The brash young Sergei Prokofiev was still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he completed his First Piano Concerto in 1912. His studies at the conservatory encompassed not only composition, but also conducting and piano. Indeed, he was a formidable pianist, and confidently set himself remarkable difficulties to overcome in this concerto. Preparing to play its premiere, he wrote in a letter that the piano part was “not at all easy, and I have to play it well. They say the hall in Moscow is bursting with people — up to 6,000 listeners! — and since it will be my first appearance with orchestra, I will have to know it cold.”
Apparently he did. The audience received Prokofiev and his music warmly. A couple of years later, he made it the vehicle to try to capture the Conservatory’s top prize in piano. All of the other young virtuosos, unlike Prokofiev, had long been focused only on the piano. In the competition they would be playing well-known concertos by Beethoven, Liszt and the like. Prokofiev was coolly objective about his chances, writing later that “while I might not be able to compete successfully in performance of a classical concerto, there was a chance that my own might impress the examiners by its novelty of technique. They simply would not be able to judge whether I was playing it well or not!” Once again, Prokofiev triumphed. The jury awarded him the top prize. He would later refer to this episode as “the striking out of a new path, my own path, which I had established in defiance of routine and the examination traditions of the Conservatory.”
Borodin, orch. Glazunov: Prince Igor Overture
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major Op. 10
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Op. 36
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev, conductor
Lukas Geniušas, piano
Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts, every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay.