When major baton-wielding musicians are invited to guest conduct in New York, they usually select either seldom played repertory or big statement Mahler or Bruckner symphonies to showcase their interpretive technique and acumen. It’s to Maestro Semyon Bychkov's merit to have decided instead to shed fresh light upon the works of Tchaikovsky. Conducting the New York Philharmonic, he is devoting a three-week festival to a composer whose output has been an opening gate into the classical music world for many neophytes and, at the same time, is considered by “connoisseurs” to be just floating between “high” and “low” culture.

The first program actually started not with Tchaikovsky but with a Mikhail Glinka opus, the polite Valse-Fantaisie, initially written for piano before Tchaikovsky was even born. At least in its orchestral incarnation, as polished decades later by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, the music does sound Tchaikovskian, treading a middle ground between sounds that resonate with a “Russian soul” paradigm and Western European aesthetic ideals.

A quote from Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, associated with the words “turn not into sorrow”, is the famous “fate” motto initially announced by the clarinets in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. It later reappears in different disguises throughout the entire opus before finally evolving into a triumphant march. The E minor symphony is a testimony to Tchaikovsky’s prodigious gift for melodic invention and, at the same time, his difficulties to “seam” different themes and to ensure that each paragraph grows from the preceding one in a natural manner. Often, instead of developing a certain motif, he just throws in a new, brilliant other one, increasing the basis on which he could build his scaffolding, but not necessarily succeeding to achieve the architectural structure he was striving for. Bychkov kept the music flowing, avoiding all hints of grandiloquence, overbearing climaxes and strident brass, and emphasizing, whenever possible, cross-currents. Principal horn Philip Myers’ legato was outstanding in the poignant theme of the Andante cantabile. Bassoon Judith LeClair rendered with precision and delicacy the uneasiness perceivable in the minor-key Valse.

In between Glinka’s work and the Fifth Symphony, Bychkov placed the most problematic opus of the evening: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in E minor. Premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1881, the composer’s second attempt in the genre lies in the shadow of the First and rightly so. There is little collaboration between piano and orchestra. The music sounds mostly as formulaic as a recipe for a “good” B series American movie: so many uplifting scales vs empty sentimentality, so many chords vs woodwinds, and so on... One interesting exception is the odd trio in the Andante non troppo, with concertmaster Frank Huang and principal cello Carter Brey joining Yefim Bronfman, the evening's soloist. Both string players displayed a beautiful, heartfelt tone and intonation but the music’s struggle to initiate a dialogue lacked intensity.

When Bronfman emerged on the international musical scene, he was a real firebrand virtuoso shaped by the Soviet school of pianism. Many years and many chamber music events later, his technique is intact but has also acquired a wonderful warmth and a delicate graciousness. His ability to listen to others in unsurpassed. Bronfman was the ideal protagonist in this concerto, attacking the cascading octaves with gusto and clarity but also looking to find something meaningful besides sheer technique and force. Bychkov tried his best to support his soloist’s attempts to bring out the few qualities of this music.

Entitled “Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky and his world”, the New York Philharmonic’s festival is referring to the words the composer repeatedly used in his letters addressed to Nadezhda von Meck, his patroness. Tchaikovsky has been for decades a “beloved friend” for Bychkov, one he admires, values, but is still able to approach with an open mind and critical eye.