Review: Heart-healthy Tchaikovsky from the Bay Area

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, that most romantic of 19th century Russian Romantic composers, has long had a place at the pop music table. The horn tune in his Fifth Symphony was turned into “Moon Love,” a crooner favorite in the ‘30s. Duke Ellington made “The Nutcracker” Suite swing. Thirty years ago, a British mod rocker changed his name and formed the short-lived band Bram Tchaikovsky.

Monday night, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony concluded the first of two programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall featuring Michael Tilson Thomas and his touring San Francisco Symphony. (They will perform Wednesday at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County.) Nothing was amiss. This was Tchaikovsky as written, lovingly and wonderfully played. But it was also a Tchaikovsky who had had a drink in a jazz club.

Indeed, the performance was so unusual and special that during the slow movement, I had a brief cinematic hallucination. When the horn began its big moment, I imagined a dissolve in which Disney Hall’s snazzy Scandinavian-designed music stands morphed into bandstands.

In his score, Tchaikovsky marks the movement with the Italian phrase con alcuna licenza, indicating it is to be played with freedom, and that has often been interpreted as a license for schmaltz. Instead, San Francisco’s principal horn applied cool jazz tricks. He was a nanosecond off the beat, urging a kind of American expressivity that made perfect sense for here and now, for a Fifth Symphony that has been around the block. A clarinet engaged the horn in dialogue, then an oboe joined in, and things continued in that same subtle and fresh jazz-inflected mode.


The program book condensed Michael Steinberg’s annotation on the symphony, leaving out the opening sentence, which can be found in his indispensable book, “The Symphony.” “Even the Tchaikovsky Fifth,” Steinberg begins, “was once new music, and controversial new music at that.”

Some, somewhere, might even have thought Tilson Thomas’ interpretation controversial. But there was no sign of that from the enthusiastic crowd at Disney. The San Francisco Symphony appears in Los Angeles infrequently. It is easy for anyone not up to dodging trucks on Highway 5 or crowds at LAX to still think of the orchestra as second tier, as it was before Tilson Thomas became music director in 1995.

And no one would mistake the orchestra for being equal to today’s high-octane New York Philharmonic. But the San Francisco musicians Monday were on the level of, say, the New York Philharmonic in 1974, when Leonard Bernstein led a televised Tchaikovsky’s Fifth that has just been released on DVD. And that means the San Franciscans offered playing of no small consequence.

Tilson Thomas, an Angeleno and once overexposed here, is also an infrequent guest. He did, though, appear with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in December with an affectionate tribute to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were stars of the New York Yiddish theater. And in a funny way, Tilson Thomas’ Tchaikovsky was a further tribute to a heritage that goes back to the old country yet absorbs all that a brash New World had to offer.

That was certainly evident in the way the score’s ingredients were put on proud display. Especially prominent were the percolating winds. Usually agents of darkness in Tchaikovsky, they instead flavored the symphony with a tangy sweetness that had the faintest hint of klezmer.

I also thought during the performance of a painting of Tchaikovsky in the nude that the late California composer and Tilson Thomas mentor Lou Harrison once had in his bedroom. It was a touching outsider artist’s look at the old Russian with all his artifice stripped away. Monday’s performance was not without the tragedy and triumph embedded in the Fifth Symphony. But whenever Tilson Thomas’ sleeve got too close to his heart, he pulled it way, letting song be song, no more and no less.

New Yorkers, at the moment, are trying to figure out who we in this state are during a weeklong festival of California music at the Juilliard School. Tilson Thomas’ Tchaikovsky is not where they chose to look, but it is part of the picture.

Tilson Thomas’ own music is another part of the picture Juilliard has left out. He began Monday’s concert with his “Street Song” for symphonic brass, which he originally wrote for brass quintet in 1988 and expanded in 1996. Tilson Thomas’ melodic manner is easy –- Gershwin, Bernstein and Harrison are all influences -- and the middle tune is one that sticks. Tilson Thomas has never settled down as a composer. Songs come readily to him, big pieces less so. But he has the gift.

Also on the program was Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. With no wasted movement, Garrick Ohlsson made the virtuoso solo part glitter, and Tilson Thomas found exquisite expression in the “Romeo and Juliet”-like slow movement. The 1932 concerto is beginning to come out of its long period of neglect. This performance helped a worthy cause.

San Francisco Symphony, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Jan. 28. $30-$260. (949) 553-2422 or

-- Mark Swed