"Badly Written" Tchaikovsky: The First Piano Concerto

Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving. That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874. Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins …

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1965 Clip: Solti Conducts Wagner

The young Sir Georg Solti’s interpretive power is on display in this electrifying performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The excerpt was apparently taken from a 1965 recording session with the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a raw passion and edge-of-your-seat intensity in this playing that we rarely hear today. I grew up listening to many of Sir Georg Solti’s excellent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Solti’s performance of Beethoven’s …

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Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44

The year was 1842 and Robert Schumann was on a roll. In just over nine months the composer, who up until that point had written mostly piano music and songs, completed the three Op. 41 string quartets, a piano quintet (Op. 44), a piano quartet (Op. 47), and the Fantasiestücke piano trio (Op. 88). It’s no wonder that musicologists refer to 1842 as Schumann’s “chamber music year.” The monumental Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 brought …

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Highlights from La Traviata

This month, the Richmond Symphony has been spending a lot of time in the orchestra pit performing La Traviata with Virginia Opera. Beyond the obvious vocal acrobatics, Giuseppe Verdi’s score is full of musical drama and characterization. The introspective orchestral Prelude to Act 1 foreshadows the tragedy which follows. Soon after the curtain goes up, we hear one of opera’s most recognizable drinking songs, Libiam ne lieti calici.   The plot of La Traviata centers around the emotionally lost …

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Mahler for the First Day of Spring

Spring won’t let me stay in this house any longer! I must get out and breathe the air deeply again. -Gustav Mahler Spring seems to erupt with a raucous fervor from the first notes of Gustav Mahler’s Der Trunkene Im Früling (“The Drunken Man in Spring”). The song is part of Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), Mahler’s combination symphony and song cycle, completed in 1909. The text comes from Die chinesische …

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Holly Mulcahy: A Concertmaster for the 21st Century

(photo above: from HollyMulcahy.com, Photo by Bo Huang) This week a gloomy story came out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following a $100,000 audience development study conducted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Taken at face value, the study seems to have uncovered some troubling community perceptions. Despite having one of the world’s greatest orchestras in their backyard, the focus group of non-ticket buyers perceived PSO concerts as “boring” and “stuffy.” At least one commentator is pointing out the study’s …

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The Salley Gardens

Benjamin Britten’s 1943 setting of the Irish folk song, The Salley Gardens seems to float in midair with a surreal, hypnotic beauty. An undercurrent of continuous eighth notes runs throughout the song, suggesting a static, dreamlike atmosphere…a sense of motion within timelessness. In the opening, haunting three-note fragments seem to be searching for a way forward. Listen to the way this piano line returns with interjections throughout the song. Also listen for the sudden …

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