The first weekend of the new year was an eventful one! In addition to celebrating in San Francisco, I had coffee with Natalie Raney, our cello soloist for the Tchaikovsky piece on our upcoming February concert. I felt so fortunate to spend a couple hours with Natalie, discussing details of this beloved Tchaikovsky work, a set of seven variations for cello and chamber orchestra. It’s a true concerto without the title, and puts the cellist front and center playing incredibly difficult virtuosic passages next to the beautiful, touching, often sentimental music we expect from Tchaikovsky.
This concert focuses mostly on well-known Twentieth-century composers writing music in the baroque style (think Bach, Vivaldi, Handel). The Tchaikovsky Rococo is the oldest piece on the program (c. 1877), and in many ways sounds the newest. The oldest-sounding piece on program was written almost 100 years later, in 1972 by another Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke.
Tchaikovsky’s Romantic style (harmonies, melodies, gestures, etc.) is placed within a form that references early classical, late baroque trends. Natalie and I delved into questions of how to approach performing such an important work in the cello repertoire: Do we perform this in the late Romantic-period style of Tchaikovsky, or do we acknowledge the composer’s intentions to fuse styles old and new, and bring performance practices of older music into the mix?
Our conversation on this alone lasted at least two cups of coffee (for me). We revisited our ideas on style as we went through the variations one by one. It struck me at some point mid-conversation that the busy brunch rush of a hip SF coffeeshop in Cole Valley was as far removed from my mind, and Natalie’s, I think, as some distant horizon. We were both involved in the music, thinking about it, discussing it, sharing ideas, debating tempos, agreeing on character, pointing to moments in the score we felt were worth talking about. It was a beautiful reminder of the privilege, excitement, and responsibility we experience as musicians when preparing for a performance. Funny how all the practicing, studying, schooling, blood, sweat, and tears can, in a moment, feel worth it when sharing such immense respect and love for a piece of music.
This season has been so exciting, getting to know the music, the soloists, and the orchestra through the process of music-making. It is an honor to invite such a brilliant and charismatic artist, both musically and personally, to perform this piece with the USO. You don’t want to miss this performance!
Phillip Semyon Lenberg is Music Director of the Ukiah Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the Mendocino College in Ukiah, CA