The moment I walked into the Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night, a pervasive air of festivity was palpable – the players in the orchestra wore white jackets, lighting was colourful and the audience was chatty. Conductor Bramwell Tovey, in his ninth year hosting the New York Philharmonic’s “Summertime Classics” concert series, did his part to make the evening entertaining, with humorous commentary about the works in this all-Tchaikovsky programme that also shed light on signposts for better enjoyment.

Bramwell Tovey © IMG Artists
Bramwell Tovey
© IMG Artists

While he was busy working on the opera Mazepa in Paris, Tchaikovsky received a commission from the City of Moscow for a work to celebrate the coronation of Czar Alexander III. Annoyed that he had to interrupt work on the opera to fulfil the commission, he was unhappy with the hurriedly completed Festival Coronation March, describing it as “noisy but bad” to Sergei Taneyev, who conducted the première in Sokol’nikii Park in May 1883. The mainstay of the march consists of a fanfare and soaring theme repeated many times, with an uplifting lyrical interlude inserted halfway. Bramwell Tovey’s spirited pace set the tone for the evening – upbeat and relaxed.

The lesser-known and quirky Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major was a special treat. It was clear from the beginning that Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski was an equal partner to the the orchestra, confidently tackling the fiendishly difficult solo parts without being overwhelmed. He kept us on the edge of our seats with nerve-wracking intensity which was also highly sensitive in the right places.

For the slow movement (based on the edited version by Alexander Siloti) Associate Principal Cello Eileen Moon moved across to an empty seat left of stage in front of the conductor for the extended piano trio. The lulling tone brought out the best of the dreamy melody, suggesting parallels with Brahms’ double concerto. As the last notes in the vivacious final movement died down, a lady in the front row offered the soloist a red rose, in return for which we all benefited from an encore of Tchaikovsky’s Old French Song.

The orchestra returned after the intermission with selections from Act IV of Swan Lake. By this time in the story of the ballet, Prince Siegfried is devastated by the revelation that he has mistaken the daughter of the evil sorcerer von Rothbart for the princess Odette. Reuniting with Odette at the lake, he reiterates his passionate love for her. After a struggle with von Rothbart, Siegfried manages to break the spell and free the swans. The colourful music of this act scales a full range of emotions and conflict with the oboe theme providing much needed relief. The orchestra conveyed a carefully managed sense of tension, maintaining sharp contrasts in tone and colour from one scene to another.

It is unusual to end a concert with an overture, but as for going out in a familiar bang, the 1812 is hard to beat. Bramwell Tovey ventured to guess that most in the audience would have heard it before. If not, he said, it should be on their bucket list to hear before 21. “And some of you are a little behind the 8-ball,” he added.

Written to commemorate the defence of Moscow against Napoleon’s onslaught in the Battle of Borodino, the overture borrows profusely from folk and nationalistic sources to concoct a programmatic melee of sadness, belligerence and triumph. Fragments of “God Save The Czar”, “La Marseillaise” and a battle hymn alternate with two bouts of romantic outpouring, and it lead to an explosion replete with simulated cannon shots. As church bells announce the retreat of French troops, there is a noisy display of fireworks.

The New York Philharmonic, overly eager to get to the juicy bits, was much too loud in the melancholy and impassioned opening on four cellos and two violas based on “God Save The Czar”. Apart from that, the performance was just what the doctor ordered – in turn dramatic, vigorous, sorrowful and proud.

Although the works in the programme for the evening were not all light-hearted, Mr Tovey kept up a spirited pace the moment he entered the stage in quick steps, sometimes sacrificing subtlety for lightness, which is forgivable in a summer “pops” concert.

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