Classically Trained: So-called 'worthless' concerto lives on with symphony

"Vulgar." "Clumsy." "Worthless and unplayable."

These were some of the words used initially to describe Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 some 135 years ago. Indeed, they did harm to the Russian composer universally revered today but who, in his lifetime, lived and composed with great insecurity and bouts of depression.

But they're hardly the words used now for the virtuosic piece with which the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony will open its 2010-11 season Sept. 23 to Sept. 25.

The concerto begins with calls from the French horns before parading into one of the most interesting juxtapositions of opposite musical forces in Western music. The pianist pounds away to produce strong, forceful chords that resonate in seemingly complete disregard of the lush and romantic — dare I say, Disney-esque — string section melody happening simultaneously. It's almost like having an opera singer and punk rocker sing a duet in their respective styles.

But therein is the genius of Tchaikovsky to make the concerto's introductory melody — inspired by the music of blind beggar-musicians in a Ukrainian marketplace — work so well and evoke such passion from the soloist and listener.

The Pacific Symphony, conducted by Carl St. Clair, has recruited Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker to bring the soul of Tchaikovsky's best piano work alive.

Parker, born and raised in Vancouver, is a versatile pianist who's played with Doc Severinsen and Bobby McFerrin, and collaborated with Audra McDonald and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He's performed for Queen Elizabeth II and the U.S. Supreme Court and is the 1999 recipient of the Order of Canada, his country's highest civilian honor.

Also on the program for the three nights: Carl von Maria Weber's "Overture to 'Euryanthe'" and Brahms' Symphony No. 2.

St. Clair said the Brahms and Tchaikovsky will set the tone of what's to come this season in Costa Mesa's concert hall.

Symphony organizers remarked that this year, more than any other season, the piano is the star. Works will go from Tchaikovsky onto George Gershwin, with 11 total, including the five of Beethoven's piano concertos.

"This season has as its centerpieces — Beethoven, a newly commissioned work by William Bolcom, the American Composers Festival featuring Philip Glass, and a long list of beloved classics," said St. Clair, according to a news release. "It has just the right balance of old and new ... we will strive to again offer our audiences and friends a diet of great music that will enrich their lives and continually reaffirm their relationship with the symphony and music as an art form."

In a last bit of symphony news, plaudits go to the Pacific Symphony's new principal flutist, Mercedes Smith. She comes to Orange County from the Lone Star State's Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet Orchestra.

In a feat of musicianship this past August — not to mention great timing — the Texas native won, within a week of each other, her symphony audition and first place at the National Flute Assn.'s Young Artist Competition in Anaheim. Smith begins her new position this December.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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