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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Concert Review: Some Sentimental Hygiene

Semyon Bychkov opens the New York Philharmonic's Tchaikovsky Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pianist Yefim Bronfman, concertmaster Frank Huang (with violin) conductor Semyon Bychkov (standing) and cellist Carter Brey work through Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2. Photo by Chris Lee © 2017 The New York Philharmonic.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is arguably the most popular composer to come out of Russia in the 19th century. His blend of traditional folk-like themes with Western classical structures remains appealing to the ear, and the unfettered Romantic sensitivity of his music makes him a box office draw. The New York Philharmonic chose him for the focus of this year's series of festival concerts, but in doing so may not have gotten what New Yorkers expect.

This two week festival, Beloved Friend (named after Tchaikovsky's correspondence of his patron Nadezhda von Mieck) features the orchestra led by Semyon Bychkov. Born in Soviet Russia but educated at the Mannes College of Music, Mr. Bychkov is a committed Tchaikovskyan, a restless intellect and a brilliant, if underrated conductor. His current international Tchaikovsky Project breathes new life into these familiar war-horse pieces. The first concert in the series was Thursday night and the results were both unconventional and excellent.

He opened the first concert with the Valse fantasie by Mikhail Glinka. Remembered mostly for two operas that are still in the repertory in Russia today, Glinka was the first composer from that great nation to be of any historical importance. He brought a sweet Italianate sensibility (learned from exposure to the operas of Donizetti during a visit to Italy) and that sense of galant classicism pervaded the performance of this work.

Mr. Bychkov was joined by former New York Philharmonic artist in residence Yefim Bronfman for the evening's first Tchaikovsky work: the Piano Concerto No. 2. This piece is heard far less frequently than its older brother and with good reason: it is a flawed, meandering work shot through with good melodic ideas but hampered by an experimental structure that veers on the listener in unexpected ways.

The first movement showed Mr. Bronfman's signature keyboard attack, great power employed with the delicacy of a tapped ball-peen hammer. The central slow movement seems to be from another work altogether, as Mr. Bronfman was joined by solo violin Frank Huang and solo cello Carter Brey for a kind of triple concerto in the middle of the movement. The finale was taken at pell-mell speed, with Mr. Bychkov and Mr. Bronfman racing each other to the finish line as the orchestra labored to catch up.

New Yorkers get to hear the Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5 a lot. (Too much._) In this performance, Mr. Bychkov made an excellent case for this overplayed symphony by removing the silken mannerisms and sentimental clichés that too many conductors (and audience members) confuse with intelligent interpretation. By playing not to the expectations of the audience but to the very letter of the written score, he engineered a triumph and a convincing argument for his approach to this composer's music.

The first movement charged ahead in its argument between the surging principal subject and the relentless "Fate" theme that recurs throughout the work. The Adagio was taken gently at first, with a dynamic control from the conductor that belied the lurking "Fate" theme that was hiding in the brass. The waltz followed, with limpid strings. The finale pitted the halting theme from the first movement against the charging brass section. Mr. Bychkov conducted the whole with a sense of light and shade, but again refrained from letting sentiment rule and ruin the day.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.